6 Ways to Help Your Student Stay Connected to Christ in College

[box_dark]It might seem a little out of place to publish an article like this in the middle of the school year, but now is the time that many families are starting to help their students choose a college to attend next year and, as this article will suggest, helping them stay connected to Christ during college begins long before they get to campus.[/box_dark]

Let’s be honest, the statistics are disturbing:  more than 66%[1] of Christian students stop actively pursuing their faith[2] once they get to college.  Some of these students return to the fold after college, but most do not.   Research from the Barna Group indicates that, on the whole, 59% of young adults with a church background “drop out” after graduating high school.[3] Of course, dropping out of church participation doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of faith, but the absence of regular Christian input into students’ lives has serious consequences.  Without such input during college, students are less likely to ever return to church and therefore less likely to share the Gospel with their own children. 

Without regular exposure to the Christian worldview, students are more likely to adopt a thoroughly secular worldview…and live accordingly.  Without the accountability of ongoing Christian relationships, students are more likely to make sinful and potentially life-altering decisions with respect to sex and drugs/alcohol.  There is certainly a difference between disconnecting from Christian community and disconnecting from Christ, but the two things are more closely linked than we sometimes recognize. The causes of the “drop out” phenomenon are varied and for this reason, there is no one solution.[4]  However, there are some things that parents can do to make a difference.  For many Christian college students, dropping out of Christian community and, consequently, the active pursuit of their faith isn’t an intentional decision but simply something that happens because it was never made a priority.  So help them make it a priority!

1.  Put faith-development opportunities on the college checklist

I’m continually amazed at how many Christian parents allow their children to choose a college without ever giving any consideration to God.  Scholarships and quality degree programs are important, but so are faith-development opportunities.  Why would we expect our students to make God a priority during college when He wasn’t a priority in choosing a college?  When exploring schools, find out what churches are accessible from campus and what kinds of ministries they have to college students.  Find out about the Christian groups on campus, when they meet and what kinds of things they do.  When such considerations are an important part of choosing a college, they are more likely to be an important part of your student’s life while at that college. I should say at this point that I’m assuming here a particular kind of student and a particular kind of parent/student relationship. 

Specifically, I’m assuming that your student has made a genuine profession of faith and has demonstrated a commitment to know Christ and grow in his/her relationship with God.  I’m also assuming that you’re the kind of parent who has taken an active role in discipling your child up to this point.  If this hasn’t been true in your relationship with your child before now, it’s pretty hard to suddenly make faith-issues a priority at this point.  It can be done, but it might require a slightly different approach.

2.  Visit churches when visiting campuses

It can be intimidating to try to find a new church.  That’s true for adults and it’s especially true for students, especially when they’ve just left the only church they’ve ever known.  So set up appointments to meet pastors (college pastors are ideal if they have one) at a few churches that seem like they might be a good fit for your student or, if possible, actually attend a service.  Once your student has physically been in a church and met someone there, the process of going again is dramatically less intimidating. To choose which churches to visit, look up the doctrinal statements of churches around the school (almost always available online) and review them with your student.  In many cases, this will lead to a great conversation about what’s important (and what’s negotiable) in terms of theology.  One thing to keep in mind:  you’re not trying to find a church for you…you’re trying to find a church for your student.  It may be that some of the things you look for in a church won’t be important to your student and vice versa, but the process of finding a few churches to visit will help them decide what they’re looking for in a church they can connect with. 

3.  Visit with Christian campus leaders when visiting the school

When you plan a campus visit, include time to meet with a leader and/or attend a meeting connected with CRU[5] or Intervarsity or the Navigators or another well-established Christian college ministry.  Like visiting churches, this will ease the nervousness that keeps many students from ever giving such groups a try.  As with the suggestion about visiting churches, though, remember that your goal isn’t to duplicate your own experience for your child.  You might have had a great experience with Campus Crusade at college but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a) your student will connect with the same group or even that b) the same organization on a different campus will be what you remember.  The goal is to help them connect to a healthy Christian community that will support and challenge them spiritually during their time at college.  On another important note, in my personal opinion, while campus groups provide fantastic opportunities for Christian growth and discipleship, they should be treated primarily as a supplement rather than an alternative to church involvement.  Students need to learn how to get involved in a church during college so that they can naturally transfer their involvement to a new church after they graduate, when campus groups are no longer an option.  I’ve seen firsthand that committed Christian students involved with campus ministries but not churches often drop out of Christian community and, ultimately the faith, after they graduate.  Certainly involvement in a campus student group is preferable to not having any connection to Christian community but you should encourage your student to find a church too.  Multi-generational worship, teaching and serving are important parts of the Christian life and such opportunities are almost non-existent in college Christian groups.

4.  Give your student a list of churches to visit once they move onto campus

Hopefully you’ll be able to visit some of these churches when you do a campus visit, but even if you weren’t able to, having a list of churches with a description of their service times, locations and college-age ministries will help motivate your student to give them a try.

5.  Follow up!

Once your son or daughter has gotten settled, don’t be afraid to ask how finding a church is going.  This will communicate the importance of finding a church as well as providing some motivation to actually do it.  As part of this follow-up, you might find it helpful to remind them that no church is perfect.  Many students find that their expectations of church have been formed by the church they attended while growing up.  Now that they’re trying new churches, they find that none of them feel entirely comfortable simply because they’re not quite what they’re used to.  But the tendency is to spiritualize that discomfort into criticism:  the worship isn’t authentic, the teaching isn’t as deep or as relevant, etc.  Remind them that the church they grew up in had its flaws too.  The goal isn’t to find a perfect church but a church where they can get involved and remain connected to a genuine Christian community.

6.  Consider making involvement in Christian community one of the conditions of your tuition support

I know this might sound extreme, but is it really unreasonable?  First, most parents already make tuition payments contingent on some reasonable expectations:  decent grades, useful classes/majors, etc.  Second, you still have an obligation as a parent to shepherd your child in his or her faith.  I realize that college students aren’t like elementary school children anymore and the way we shepherd them has to change, but this doesn’t mean that we stop leading them as God requires.  Many parents are reluctant to require their children to do anything once they’ve gone off to college because “they’re adults now,”  but if you’re paying for your child’s college education, then they’re not really “on their own”, are they? So long as they remain financially dependent on you, you’re their provider…and godly providers not only provide…they also guide.  They shepherd and protect and lead those under their care to understand and obey God.  One of God’s commandments says this:

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24-25)  

Ask yourself this:  would you pay for your child to major in atheism?  If not, then why would you pay for your child to attend college in such a way that they are putting God on the back burner…a practice that we know naturally leads many to “drop out” of Christianity in later years? I’m not suggesting that you should have you son or daughter filling out a timesheet to prove that they’ve met their “Christian quota” for the week.  And of course there can be some flexibility in terms of what their involvement in Christian community looks like.  As I mentioned earlier, church is important and campus groups should typically be treated as a supplement to church involvement, but maybe your student gets plugged into a great campus group yet just can’t seem to connect to a local church.  I wouldn’t stop paying their tuition!  All I’m saying is that leading your student to stay involved with a Christian community during college is not only your right as the check-writer, but far more importantly, your obligation as a Christian parent.

[2] Defined by participation in church, campus Christian groups, small groups, etc.
[3] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me (Baker Books, 2011), 23.
[4] For those wishing to understand the various reasons in more depth, however, I strongly recommend You Lost Me by David Kinnaman.
[5] The new name for Campus