Advice for Students Attending a Christian College

Advice for Students Attending a Christian College June 2, 2012

This post is by Syler Thomas.

Years ago, when I started meeting with my student leaders about how to make a good college choice, I did my best to not let my bias come across, but I don’t know how successful I was. Because I had had such a great experience being tested and shaped by my time at a secular university (yes, DePaul is Catholic…I am here contrasting overtly Christian universities whose education is centered around the assumption that its students are overtly Christian as well, which was not the case at DePaul), I would often encourage students in that direction. The older I have gotten, the more students I have seen whose faith has gotten chewed up at secular schools, and the closer my own children get towards heading off to college myself, I have come to appreciate all that a Christian university has to offer. I still believe with all of my heart that we should encourage our young people to pursue an education at secular institutions, but I also see what a great experience Christian schools offer.

In my chapter on “surviving a Christian school,” in my new book Game Plan, some Wheaton grads helped me out a great deal with some of their insights. I talk about some good and bad reasons to go to a Christian school. A good reason: your parents will only pay for you to go to one. A bad reason: you want to find a good spouse. My favorite story along those lines is a former student of mine who named that as Reason #1 he went to a Christian school. Naturally, he started dating a girl from our youth group just before he left for college, and married her six years later!

But I talk about some things to keep in mind at a Christian university, the most important of which is to not let the school replace the student’s relationship with God. This can be true in seminary as well. If you spend your day discussing and debating spiritual things, it’s easy for your relationship with God to become complacent, for God to become this thing you only talk about, but don’t stop to worship.

OK Christian college grads…what would you say? If you had one thing to tell a college freshman heading to a Christian university, what would it be?

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  • If you’re going to seek a fortress to protect your faith, you lose. If you’re going to seek a staging ground to activate your faith in the world, you win.

    Of course he’s not a tame lion. But he’s good.

  • My best advice from 10 years of doing college ministry would be to chose one local church, get involved, and invest your time there. Don’t let the university, no matter how great it is, be your church. And don’t get streched a mile wide and an inch deep with different churches and ministries. Serve, lead, and sacrifice well in a local body of Christ and see what God does in your life!

  • Chris

    I went to a christian college to prepare for ministry 20 years ago. I enjoyed my time there and grew greatly, but there are times I think that my faith might have been tested better and the ability to build relationships with people outside christian circles would have been enhanced by going to a secular school.

  • I want my kids to go where they will thrive. Living near a major public university has exposed me to both the underbelly and the hope a powerful campus ministry can bring. I regularly go to a coffee shop and see football & basketball players leading their friends in bible studies, utilizing their influence for good that they’d not have at a Christian college.

    I’m thankful for the ministry prep I got at a Christian college. And I know it was a great place to meet a spouse. In fact, I think those are te 2 best reasons for a Christian undergrad education!

  • Make use of its strengths! When I was at Wheaton, there were so many who complained about the rules, the required chapels, this thing or that thing. One of the most important parts of a Christian College experience, however, is deciding to go with thanksgiving. That doesn’t mean ignoring the weaknesses (such as getting trapped in a Christian bubble). But it does mean looking for the ways in which that experience can be especially valuable.

    Get involved in social groups–having a close community is vital.

    Don’t look for what you can get away with, but what you can invest in. So many try to spend all their time on the lines or in the gray areas. But that’s just a waste of time and will spoil what good a Christian College has–which is finding depth of spirituality in a mutually encouraging environment.

    Don’t be legalistic. Be open to others and their approaches to faith. See the rules as bounds for creative interactions, becoming playful in the midst of them, not seeing them as burdens but guides for learning. Like any art, the art of spirituality is boosted by first learning to understand seemingly constraining rules, then having mastered these, creatively expanding into more free directions.

    Get to know faculty. Faculty are a boon not only for learning but for faith. They can be real mentors and more often than not are really open to building such relationships with students.

    Get outside of the bubble. Don’t complain about the Christian bubble. Don’t give into cynicism or anything that causes you to disdain your seemingly all encompassing Christian community. Choose to get away from it for a while–not by seeking out sin or distraction–but by seeking out participation in your broader community. Volunteer for places that include nonChristians. Go to museums and concerts and other non-bubble places of creative exploration.

  • Phillip

    Amen to #2.

    Realize, despite the brochures, that Christian colleges are not heaven on earth. They bear the marks of a fallen world too. So be gracious with their failings, and compassionately critical of what you see and hear in and out of class and chapel.

  • Tim Marsh

    I graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, which was a great institution academically as well as spiritually. However, I would caution students that not all Christian schools are equal academically as well as spiritually.

    First, make sure that the college or university is an accredited institution.
    Second, ask others about the academic reputation of the school.
    Third, does the university have an agenda to preserve fundamentalism?
    Fourth, do not expect Bible or Religion classes to confirm your particular Christian beliefs. They should challenge your beliefs, develop critical thinking skills about issues related to religion, and offer a wealth of knowledge on historical, cultural and literary backgrounds of the Bible and Christianity. If the class reminds you of Sunday School, then it is not worth paying for. If the professor has an agenda to destroy people’s faith, then it is not worth your time either.
    Finally, does the university, while committed to Christian values, offer both students and professors academic freedom in research and classroom instruction?

    Obviously, students are interested in things like Greek life, campus ministries, and finding groups of strong Christian friends on campus. That’s good, but understand what you are looking for academically as well and how your degree will be perceived in the job market.

  • Tim Marsh

    Syler, I would be interested as to why you would recommend secular institutions to college students, when, usually private institutions offer similar, if not better, quality education than a public institution.

    I would encourage all Christians to attend a private college or university because of the environment, academics, and because the opportunity to minor in Religion to accompany whatever their major would be. Studying in a religion department that offered critical, sometimes liberal instruction in religion actually strengthened my faith. Regardless of what field students are entering, I would encourage pursuit of that goal at a private university.

  • steve jung

    A Christian college is one of the hardest places to “be” a Christian. Too many of the students are “trying” to be Christian, but don’t have their own belief set (might have some of parents’ faith or what they think it is) or are mature enough to know how they really should be behaving. They are some of the most critical of others’ faith and actions. Living in a “fish bowl” is hard enough, but add to it that these young people are also going through so many developmental changes – learning responsibility, picking a major, picking another major, picking the major that will turn into their first career, and possibly finding a future spouse. They grow so much in this time period and to add the pressure of expectations is difficult.
    As an aside I often have students (mostly freshmen and sophomores) that come to me and say that they feel like they are losing their faith (at the Christian college I teach for). I assure them that they are not losing “their” faith, but most likely losing their parents’ faith. It is time for them to go and get their own. Most see that and appreciate it.

  • LFDS

    I graduated from Seattle Pacific University (a long time ago). It was a life changing experience for me. But I think I could have also had a life wonderful changing experience in a secular institution as well. God is THAT good. My son graduated from a state university here in CO my daughter is currently attending a state school. It as been a wonderful life changing experience for both of them because God is THAT good! It’s all in how you engage it.

    Now, here is one thing that should be considered. Private Christian schools cost TOO MUCH money. Don’t go to one if you have to go into a huge amount of debt. If you go to a state school (and could have afforded to pay for a Christian school without loans), consider using the money saved for other type of experiences (missions, inner city work, camp ministry, etc). Or, invest in a new start up business post graduation. You could employ others and help the economy. I work with graduate students. Many of them attended Christians colleges. They start their master programs already 50-60,000 in debt! Don’t do that. It’s stupid.

  • Joe Rutherford

    My college experience was at a secular college after leaving the military. I was shocked at how athiest some of the professors were in character and teaching. I left college soon and have not been back, except a time or two for a single course to upgrade skills.

    In a perfect Church community, a young person could learn all they need to know without having to leave the community. If universities teach well the students and those students become teachers in Churches, then why must those they have taught need to go to the universities?

  • Percival

    As a graduate of a Christian college I would say from experience that Christian colleges are full of some seriously messed up people. If you go, don’t go thinking you will be able to ride the tide of spirituality; instead go looking to be a support and an encouragement to some very needy people.

    On the other hand, chapel, Bible classes, and learning a Christian world view from good professors are things to appreciate and take advantage of. Professors usually are there for lower pay because they believe in investing in young Christians’ lives. Let the professors challenge you with the rich Christian heritage that they are stewards of.

  • Percival

    Joe #11,
    Sorry your college experience was so negative. But if you ever find a “perfect church community” please don’t join it. It is bound to be a cult or deeply disfunctional under the perfect surface.

    I wrote positively above about a Christian college education, but it is not all positive. Sometimes it is like a continuation of youth group for four more years. One of my professors once said, “The longer I teach here the more I think that it is called a small Christian college because it is a place for small Christians.” (Dr. Sherry, I hope I remembered your words correctly.) Too true. Years later as an instructor at a secular university, my wife (also a C. college grad) and I both noticed a big difference in the maturity levels of young Christian students . The university students seemed much more mature.

  • RJS


    I expect this depends on the Christian college/university, on the students, and on the various university ministries at secular colleges/universities.

    My experience is that many (not all) Christian students at secular universities are rather less mature as Christians largely because they have never ever been exposed to any deep Christian thought on any level. Many of them have no clue how to interface aspects of Christian life with intellectual engagement. Bracketing faith and intellectual life apart is one common coping mechanism.

    Now this can be true at Christian schools as well – but many Christian colleges, and professors at Christian colleges do a pretty good job of helping students learn to engage (although they may be labeled as “dangerous” by some for this because it doesn’t generally mean teaching the party line).

    I expect that there are pros and cons of both – and it depends rather closely on the specific circumstances.

  • Percival

    Of course there are many factors as you pointed out. I am tempted to ask what Christian college you are thinking of, but I won’t. However, that probaly makes a big difference. Even while I was in school we noticed that the students from Berea college ( a local competitor) seemed somehow more noble minded than our general population. I don’t want to name which schools we attended (although I’ve mentioned it before here) but I think that most of the students I knew going to Christian college had also never been exposed to deep Christian thought before either. They were raised on Sunday school and youth group in typical churches. Then when they actually had an opportunity to be exposed to something deeper, they usually responded with indifference. Special evening services? Who’s speaking? Cal Thomas? I’ll be there. OR, A church leader from India? Does he even speak English? What does India have to do with my life?

    If the students at the Christian college were more mature, I suspect it had more to do with their parents than with their church. When I met the parents of some of the shining lights, the connection between their brightness and their parentage usually seemed obvious. Many of the most zealous were from totally unchurched backgrounds but they had a lot to learn too. Often four years was just about right, sometimes but at times it was just about wrong.

  • Joel A.

    My advice to to an entering freshman would include the suggestion to build relationships with people and institutions outside the Christian college bubble. That might include after-school tutoring in a low-income neighborhood, teaching an exercise class at a local gym, or having a part-time job somewhere off campus. You could really tell this to any rising freshman, since the way of life on a college campus (with a low commuter population, it should be pointed out) tends to be very different from outside the college campus. But Christian college students, in my experience, have more consistently run to the gospel in their everyday lives when they regularly experience the joy and brokenness of the world.

  • Louise

    Two of our children attended Christian colleges and the third attended state universities for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. All our children attended public schools K-12. They participated in prom and sports and did well academically. They also regularly participated in church and youth group, VBS, and Christian camps and had made personal professions of faith.

    The two that attended Christian colleges struggled with all the rules and boundaries. My advice to students considering Christian colleges is that they might not be the best choice for those coming out of public schools. My oldest conformed to the rules, even became an RA for two years, but his faith suffered and he became cynical, after college he rebelled against the Christian lifestyle. He has since recovered his faith. Our second child lasted one year at a Christian college and then transferred out with our blessing. She got accepted into an allied health program at a state college and thrived there. Her faith flourished when she got involved with a campus ministry group.

    The pluses of the Christian colleges are usually smaller class sizes and getting to know the professors. Neither of our children had any complaints there, they had some wonderful professors, but the choices for study and majors are usually more limited too.

    The administrators over campus life have a lot of power and the threat of being expelled for infractions of rules even in off campus activity are very real. You can be a straight A student and be expelled, meaning you lose all the academic credits for that semester (if this happens toward the end of a semester) which as the parents know is a whole lot of time and money down the drain. Our daughter saw this happen to a whole team of girls. Students are also supposed to inform on other students if they see someone breaking conduct code rules. In all fairness the students that read and sign these codes should know what they are getting into.

  • formerprof

    Although Scott’s post deals with overtly Christian Colleges, as a former faculty member (19 years) at a nominally Christian school, parents paying for a student to attend one is a fundamentally bad reason, especially if it is at the exclusion of other options. Students tell faculty, especially women faculty, things the won’t tell their parents. No academic adviser wants to hear, “I don’t want to be here” or I don’t want to be in this major”, but “my parents will only pay for…”. It made my job a lot harder. For the record I was in the hard sciences and respect, as well as understand, much of what RJS writes and comments about here. As a member of a mainline protestant Church, I’m not even sure I should be commenting here.

    Granted, Christian colleges and other smaller, liberal arts colleges have much to offer. Smaller class sizes and closer interaction with the faculty are among the best reasons to attend them. My former institution had some of these qualities. More than ever, we need Christians who are deep and critical thinkers. As a scientist, our students need to have a deep and reverent understanding of the natural world. As parents, who pay for or at least contribute toward our children’s higher education, we have to take into consideration what we can afford and what is the best fit for the child. Compromises must be made. Understanding and knowing our children as the potential adults they might become is more important than we wish to admit. As academics, my husband and I understand fit, better than most. In the end, it wasn’t the state school with the free ride, or the nominally Christian colleges for our daughter. Overtly Christian schools were not even an option with a millennial, prodigal, and crazy smart daughter. She is a student at Reed College in Portland Oregon. Ironically, I think she came home more Christian than when she left. Nothing more need be said.

  • DRT

    A couple observations about the comments. Certainly we need to match the personality and maturity of the student with the university. Some students may have learned to think independently before going to college. Many not so much.

    Even within choosing secular institutions there is a very broad range of typology. I would never have survived the school my oldest son is going to. They watch him and nurture him and hang out with him. I could not take such a thing at that age, but he respects the attention and likes it. It is good for him.

    I also must say that there were some very excellent responses here. I don’t want to pick sides, but I started to make some notes as I was reading and #5 from Patrick Oden is wise beyond his apparent years. wow.

    Tim March#8, I think secular is good because I feel university is a time for kids to learn the breadth of ideas out there and you probably don’t get that at a Christian university.

    The other comments are great too, what quality.

  • KB

    I went to a Christian College and it was a wonderful experience. I remember not really feeling challenged in my faith and really missing that aspect (I graduated from a public high school.) But I found ways to become involved in service projects and ministry opportunities. I chose my college because it felt like “home” to me when I visited. Probably not a very scientific method, but it worked for me. For someone living away from home for the first time, a feeling that “these are my people” helped to ease the transition. The “bubble” was a nice transition to adulthood for me. And scholarly, and enlightening, and all of that too 🙂

    And I think “finding a Christian spouse” is definitely one of the perks. Where else can you meet so many quality Christian guys all in one place?

  • Michael W.

    After 3 years at a Christian University in Grand Rapids, I’m weary to advise others to attend such a school. As a Biblical Studies major, the University has done wonders for my education. However, overall, the institutionalized conservative Christian community has taken quite a tole on my emotional and spiritual well-being.

  • David S.

    Having just graduated from a Christian college, I honestly believe that my faith was tested more than it would ever be at a secular college. I went to a community college for a few years, and there was a teacher who spoke against biblical ideas. I didn’t agree with him at all, and had a few arguments with him(though, we respected each other). I was very conservative at that point in my life. When I transferred to a Christian college, I saw that some of the teachers had ideas that I once thought were liberal, but they had the spirit of Christ in them. It made me more open to what they had to say(many of them were not really liberal). That, in turn, opened my mind up to looking at things differently. I realized that most of what I had believed about the Bible while growing up was simply wrong, or misguided. My theology has had to be re-shaped. College stretched me.

    The professors there are very committed Christians, and they showed me so much love while I was there. I would tell the person going to a Christian college that they need to keep their daily walk with Christ a priority, or they will dry up quick. Even then…..the road can be difficult. Be honest in your prayers, and seek God with all you have.

  • RJS

    formerprof (#18),

    Many commenters here are from mainline Protestant churches, and your comments are excellent ones.

    My daughter attends a Christian college and it has been a great fit for her. I think she is becoming more mature in the way David S (#22#) mentions. Of course I was never trying to protect her from “liberal” ideas – but it is still a great growing experience in an atmosphere where Christian faith is not ridiculed and professors are open to many perspectives.

    But there are some schools I would be wary of – any one that defines Christianity with a tight constraint on acceptable ideas. However, we put no constraints on the school she chose – it was up to her, and she could have gone to more or less any sort she chose.

  • DRT

    I am curious. Do you find Christian colleges with high enough academic standards? The competition defines the quality……and there must be less competition, right?

  • AHH

    I wish there were a button to “Like” comment #1.

    I went to state schools, but looking from the outside it seems like some Christian schools (I won’t name names) foster the “fortress” mentality, while others do a much better job of allowing their students to think and grow into a faith that is their own. I think of Messiah College, Seattle Pacific, Regent in Vancouver, Gordon College, and North Park as examples of the latter.

    And then there is a third category — schools trying to produce soldiers for the political culture wars. Hillsdale is a well-known example, but there is also one not far from where I live that has veered in that direction after hiring a Republican politician (with no academic qualifications) as their President. I would hope that young people who prioritize following Jesus would avoid those.

  • amy

    Dr. Mcknight– Thank you for your blog– I enjoy it immensely!! Quick observation, above you said, “The older I have gotten, the more students I have seen whose faith has gotten chewed up at secular schools, and the closer my own children get towards heading off to college myself, I have come to appreciate all that a Christian university has to offer.”
    Just curious– you make, (quite correctly based on my experience as a Pastor’s wife and a secular university professor) the observation that many student find/lose their faith in the secular setting post-high school. However, I would like to pose the question– Is the problem really the university setting, or is it the communities of faith the students come from?

  • Kristin

    Major in something that will allow you to provide for yourself. If God really wants you in “youth ministry” or “missions” then He will call you out of your career path in due time. I really don’t know what to make of the number of christian college grads I know who are now unemployed and completely disillusioned about what to do with their life and how to pay the bills.

  • Alice

    It depends on the university, but my alma mater is consistently ranked highly by mainstream publications. The quality Christian universities see all universities as their competition, not just Christian ones.

  • b payne

    Very disappointed in the whole Bible school thing. Cost a fortune,students were not treated well. Would never recommend a baby Christian to go, if you have a great church serve and be fed right where you are. Pursue your education at a college or university that offers exactly what you need for your future, have God in the centre and He will direct your path.

  • Chris Davenport

    This is a great blog! I don’t have a spiritual measuring stick (I wish I did!) but I have grown to believe that there is really no such thing as a Christian College. There are only Christians. In my case I went on a scholarship to a “Christian” College and the Christians there helped revive, renew and redirect my faith in God toward a life of service. I am less clear on where my children should go now, but I wish for them the supportive Christian community that I found at Messiah College.