Off to College … Into? (RJS)

We are now into the second week of school around here. A new set of freshman (or “first years”) have arrived,  ready to begin a new phase of life. Away from home and exposed to new ideas.

It is rather popular among Christian bloggers and others to reflect on how students, away from the constraints and support of home and home church can hang onto faith. The University, after all, is a melting pot of ideas. Christian faith holds no special sway, and is considered fair game for criticism of all sorts. There is, as Jordan Monge reminded us on my post last week (Religious People Are Less Intelligent), a cultural narrative: “In the U.S., we assume that intelligent people grow up, then reject faith. Faithful teenagers go off to secular colleges, stop attending church, and become skeptics.” (I linked her CT piece in the post last week, she also has a blog post discussing the issues, Religion, Intelligence, and Socialization.) I don’t think this cultural narrative explains the weak correlation between religiosity and intelligence as measured by IQ, as I discussed in the post and comments last week, but I certainly agree that the narrative exists and that it is a powerful social influence.

I don’t want to be overly melodramatic here, because I think that the magnitude of the danger has been overblown by many. Christian Smith (Dept. of Sociology, Notre Dame) and colleagues have pointed out that college isn’t the pit of apostasy it is sometimes made out to be, that most who lose faith were but weakly connected to begin with, and that young people who don’t head off to college are more likely to walk away from the church than those who do head off to college. But I don’t want to minimize the challenges either. A realistic concern is certainly justified. Most of my colleagues (University Professors) had some kind of faith upbringing and most have no religious faith today. I don’t think most of them simply succumbed to a cultural narrative and abandoned faith. Toss it together … very real intellectual challenges, social pressure, a sense of power and optimism … all of these play a role.

An important question, then, is what advice to give those going off to a College or University?

What role can the church can play to help. What have you found helpful? What books or other resources would you recommend?

The intellectual challenges to Christian faith are not simply a cultural narrative. For many, coming from conservative (and even more liberal) environments, the questions are overwhelming … contortions to protect inerrancy, young earth creation, often a sound bite salvation rather than an appreciation of the depth of Christian history and thought, hell, original sin, pain and suffering … these can strain credulity.

Several years ago I reviewed a book entitled Doubting by Alister McGrath.  This is a book I recommend. It isn’t a book to hand to someone as a magic bullet to answer all questions and solve all problems. Nor is it a book that explains how to avoid doubt and questions. Rather, it is a book that describes how one can profitably face doubts and questions. The following is an edited and expanded version of my original post on the book.

The first nine chapters of the book present a rather conversational and light discussion of doubt and doubting as a normal part of the Christian experience. But then we hit chapters ten and eleven. Chapter 10 — DOUBT how to handle it, and Chapter 11 — DOUBT putting it in perspective. These chapters are worth the price of the book and should be required reading for every pastor or other Christian leader whose work includes ministering to those who experience doubt and conflict in our educated secular environment, especially those ministering to undergraduate and graduate students. McGrath’s advice in Chapter 10 is right on target -€- he gets it.

First the common situation, especially for students and scholars in the academy and those now out of school in educated professions or environments:

It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their faith marks them out as “€œabnormal”€ in the eyes of their colleagues. It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God. Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of every area of modern Western culture. Many Christians find the new aggressiveness of secular culture deeply disturbing. It seems to call their faith into question. At best the world seems indifferent to their faith; at worst, it treats it as absurd. (p. 118)

This is the cultural narrative and environment Jordan Monge highlighted, McGrath understands, and I have certainly experienced. In this environment doubt flourishes, grows, and brings down.

This leads to a question for Christians and churches today – How can we cope, grow, and witness in such current reality? What can the church do to help? What does your church do to help? I will be brutally honest — I have generally found the church to be inadequate to the task. There are exceptions. The Veritas Forum, for which Jordan Monge is the northeast regional director, is on the right track. But the power of this forum is less in the special event and more in the conversation and relationships it can ignite. Think about it as you read on and let’s start a conversation.

The Key Points – and Some Advice. McGrath has several powerful suggestions for Christians – especially, but not only, students. These are culled from various places in the book, with a little of editorializing thrown in for good measure.

(1) Know your faith: Most of the people who ridicule the faith know little or nothing about it. Unfortunately, neither do most Christians. Many Christians have a superficial faith in the gospel; shallow roots, with external rather than internal strength. To one with an unsophisticated faith the ridicule of the world appears reasonable and deadly. The most powerful defense then is education. Read the scripture daily; read solid scholarly Christian literature (this blog is a good source of suggestions); read books that stimulate you to think about the content of the faith. A more reasoned faith with deep roots can be defended and shared. A ‘€œSunday School’ sophistication is not enough–neither is a catechistic memorized list of propositions and answers. Do not simply affirm belief in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus €- discover what these doctrines mean, how they developed, and why they are affirmed.

(2) Keep it in perspective: Nothing in the Christian story suggests that the Christian life is easy. There is no guarantee of health, respect, and prosperity. The early church was persecuted; the church around the world is persecuted today; the God who raised Jesus was on the side of the early church and is on our side today. We move forward in this power and hope. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow.

(3) Appreciate the importance of support: in isolation we waver and fall all too often. Go to church, worship and study in community. Search out community and be persistent. Don’t just interact with your peers. It is not always easy to find support or wisdom in our evangelical church, especially beyond the undergraduate years. Be a church that makes community a priority for all ages. The gathering of the people of God is essential. We need a strong ecclesiology.

(4) Develop spiritual discipline and make it a priority. Read books that stimulate thought about prayer, worship, devotion (Thomas a Kempis, Brother Lawrence, Dallas Willard, …). Pray and worship without fail, from the head and the heart — and from the head even when it is hard to make it from the heart.

(5) Face questions and concerns head on, with study and, if possible, in the support of community. Running from questions doesn’t make them go away.

(6) Don’t be afraid of change — your faith should change and grow as it matures in understanding and depth in the great traditions of orthodox Christianity. We must believe in age! Yes, the essence of Christian faith can be understood by a young child … but for most of us it shouldn’t stop there. Here I will once again provide a link to an essay by Keith Drury that should help give perspective My Faith Meltdown Story. What is written in blood won’t change – but the bits in pencil and even ink we need to hold a bit more loosely, with a willingness to grow.

Doubt is not a sin, shameful and disloyal — to be beaten down with a stick or a whip — but a sign of a faith that needs to grow.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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  • scotmcknight

    I found Alister McGrath’s book on the rise of atheism in Western culture to be helpful, but I had forgotten about this book. I push for the significance of #3 in the advice section: gathering with others, forming a fellowship, over time can provide the context of faith.

  • Ken White

    This is a really good article. There are a number of insightful comments in it.

    Let me add another perspective. Yesterday in our church staff meeting I read this poem by Yehuda Amichai in commemoration of 9/11

    The Diameter Of The Bomb

    The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
    and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
    with four dead and eleven wounded.
    And around these, in a larger circle
    of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
    and one graveyard. But the young woman
    who was buried in the city she came from,
    at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
    enlarges the circle considerably,
    and the solitary man mourning her death
    at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
    includes the entire world in the circle.
    And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
    that reaches up to the throne of God and
    beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

    This is a wonderful poem and an insightful one. It’s perceptive of what people think and feel. The feeling behind it powers what appears to be an exercise in logic, but is really an indictment. I think it is important to realize that the church and the world are both filled with people struggling at this base level.

  • AHH

    I haven’t read McGrath’s book (yet — his advice looks good), but a book with similar aims that I have found very helpful is The Myth of Certainty: the Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment by Daniel Taylor. It is for reflective and doubting people at all stages of life, but I think in college especially is when many who are of a more reflective bent get challenged by the disconnect between the shades of gray one sees if one really thinks about the world and the black/white certainty that is inculcated in many churches.

  • HgsDctr

    I agree–you cannot overstate the importance of deep involvement in the body of Christ. It is suicide to wander off into the darkness alone. There are 100 passages in the NT on “one another” and “body life”–which if ignored in favor of “I’m busy” spell disaster.

  • DMH

    What can the church do to help? Start paying attention and directing effort toward the earlier years.

    I think we would have less of a problem in the “college” years if we placed more value on the “Sunday school” years. Sadly, “Sunday school”, has become a derogatory term- characterized by an ignorant and naive understanding of Christianity. This is a “whole church” problem but a significant portion of the blame (IMO) rests with church leadership and educators. Somehow, the very good material/perspectives (like on this blog) of university professors never make it down to the Sunday school. It is the rare exception for an academic to try to make her/his material accessible to young people. Enns and Lamoureux come to mind as some who have thought it important. What if they were the rule instead of the exception? How different might the Christian landscape appear?

  • Carolyn Arends

    I was going to recommend THE MYTH OF CERTAINTY as well, and also Taylor’s excellent new book, THE SKEPTICAL BELIEVER: TELLING STORIES TO YOUR INNER ATHEIST. My first bout of serious doubt as a college kid blindsided me – if I had recognized honest doubt as a necessary agent in mature faith (rather than as faith’s enemy) I would have been in a much healthier, less panicky position.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “It is very common for Christians to find themselves isolated at work or
    ridiculed for their faith. They are conscious of the fact that their
    faith marks them out as “€œabnormal”€ in the eyes of their colleagues.
    It’s almost as though they have to apologize for believing in God.
    Christian values and presuppositions are gradually being squeezed out of
    every area of modern Western culture”

    Huh? If the author could cite specific examples instead of the usual pseudo-persecution mumbo jumbo many conservative Christians love to roll out, I’m all ears. When I hear “ridiculed for faith”, is that code for a creationist getting smacked down in science class? Or someone getting jeers when they explain that Andy is going to hell b/c he’s a practicing homosexual? Because I sincerely cannot see, and I’ve been on some VERY liberal campuses, seeing a cordial Christian wearing a crucifix getting ostracized by any notable group of people, on campus or at work, for believing in the precepts of your basic Creeds.

    In the most churched country on the planet to boot.

  • RJS4DQ


    First, Alister McGrath is in the UK – at Oxford when this book was written, and now at Kings College London. So his perspective is UK not US.

    Second, I picked up on the quote because it matches my experience in the US. Not universally from everyone – but certainly from some.

  • RJS4DQ

    Thanks Ken,

    A thought provoking poem. It seems to me that the need at this base level is similar to the need discussed specifically in the post. A need for God and for the community of God’s people.

  • Andrew Dowling


    I see you have alluded to this in several posts. Would you be comfortable sharing some of those experiences you’ve had?

  • Amanda B.

    A large part of it, for me, is that we need to emphasize and foster the importance of loving God, and knowing His love, as the ultimate end of our faith (followed closely by the second great commandment).

    This is not in any way to devalue intellectual pursuits of our faith, such as Bible study, apologetics, theological debates, etc. They are necessary. But they are still a means to an end. Being able to perfectly articulate the tenets of the faith is only worth anything if you actually love and follow the God to whom they pertain. If our theology doesn’t change the way we worship and pray, we’re missing the point somewhere along the line.

    I was already active in full-time ministry, and a Bible school graduate, when I was bilndsided with the most intense challenge to my faith that I had ever experienced. I’d rather not go into the exact details, but it rattled me. I felt sick as I began to wonder if everything I thought I knew, everything I had professed and lived for, would turn out to be a complete lie.

    The thing that pulled me back was not because I found a clear answer to the challenge. The thing that pulled me back was to remember who I knew God to be, and how I had experienced Him in my life. I had talked to Him. I had heard from Him. I had seen Him change my life. I had seen Him change the lives of those around me. I had seen a miracle or two that I could not explain by anything else than divine intervention. I had heard stories about Him from godly men and women who I trusted–stories of how He had made Himself known to them.

    I had encountered something real, something that I could not convince myself was simply a product of my own imagination. Just like no amount of “proof” could convince me that my parents never existed, I couldn’t be convinced that the God I had come to know and love wasn’t actually real.

    I can be talked out of an idea. I can’t be talked out of a Person.

    If we treat Christianity as if it were nothing more than a set of ideas and a code of ethics, then we’re already pretty disconnected from our Head, Christ. If we talk about and think about the triune God like nothing more than a philosophical concept, then we do not yet know God at all.

    I know this is pretty simplistic. But it seems to me that in order to stay grounded as we pursue higher learning, it’s pretty important to hang onto that simplicity of faith. Our faith will enrich our learning, and our learning can enrich our faith.

  • RJS4DQ


    I need to read Taylor’s book – I haven’t yet. This is a great suggestion to add.

  • Nancy Janisch

    I’m a couple of days late here, but… I do campus ministry for the PC(USA) at three public universities. Mainstream denominations and progressive evangelical churches need to get in the game. Campus ministry is dominated by very conservative groups who are quiet certain about having answers. There are few places where students with doubts are listened to and encouraged to engage their questions. There are few campus ministries where evolution is accepted and LGBT people are accepted as Christian. Part of the problem is that young adults come to college with a shallow understanding of their faith. But the other part of the problem is there is not a sufficient mainline and moderate to progressive evangelical presence.