Representing Christ in a university setting can be daunting. I know. I was enrolled in some form of college (including online, community college, and a formal university setting) from the time I was 14 until I graduated last year at 22. My experience is fresh.
But it occurred to me recently that by the time a traditional-aged college student is ready to set out on their new journey, their parents have been out of the game long enough that they may not know exactly what to expect. Are they throwing their baby to the wolves? Will their kid be safe? Of course, there are plenty of books on the subject, but between the too-optimistic accounts and the gloomy ones, it may be hard to know how to prepare.
With September around the corner, I wanted to take a minute to speak to the parents of soon-to-be college students and to any of you students who are nervous. My goal is not to act as some all-knowing advisor, because the fact is every experience will be as different as the individuals involved. But I would like to offer my recent trek through the university system, and the strategies I found effective, as a perspective that many parents may not have direct access to.
Listening with Compassion
A lot of kids I knew growing up were groomed for debate with all of the statistics and defenses of the Bible in existence. Actually, I was one of these kids. Apologetics was important to my family, and I’m glad of this. Preparing your child with a sound defense of the gospel, and the logic behind their beliefs, is worthwhile. It allows them to evaluate and critically think through the new concepts being thrown at them by the world from a solid, Christian viewpoint. (If you haven’t talked about the stickier issues of faith yet, consider starting soon.)
But this prepared defense presents some hiccups. The problem I saw most often emerge in the classroom is that, while some of my fellow Christians had been taught all the arguments, they hadn’t grasped the concept of compassion. I sat in classes that were completely derailed, watched professors disrespected, witnessed Christian students shout down other students, all in the name of the gospel. These people knew what to say, but they didn’t know when or how to say it.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that Christians should sit quietly in the classroom and keep their faith out of sight. But they certainly shouldn’t preach the gospel in pride, hate, and anger, which is unfortunately the tack that I saw repeatedly, with pride as the biggest offender.
I was brought up to see the people around me who didn’t know the Lord as hurting human beings trying to solve the problems of the world in utter darkness; as people who needed the light, Jesus. I brought both my basis in apologetics and a compassionate heart into class, and usually spent the first half of each semester just listening. In my experience, beneath any surface anger toward religion—something that can often spark feelings of persecution in Christian students— there was always hurt. Instead of taking offense, I would take time to really hear the hearts of those around me, and I would pray, and then I would speak—with compassion.
The times that I offered the gospel in class were usually times when we were all discussing the brokenness of the world, and the solutions that might exist, not during heated debates. I boldly offered my perspective and trusted the Holy Spirit with the rest. And He was faithful to open doors I never thought would budge.
Do all things with excellence & respect
The most poignant way I represented God to my professors and peers was, by far, through my attitude. It’s a sad thing to write, but simply showing up on time and being prepared for class will already make you stand out from the crowd. Current university culture seems to take the overarching motto “C’s get degrees.” On 4/20 (or “national pot day”), I was one of five students in a 30-student class who actually attended. Showing up with the intent to learn, respecting the time the professor has dedicated to each lesson, being helpful: all these are exceptions to the rule, in my experience.
When I showed up to class, I was there not just to learn, but also to serve as Christ served. That took different forms depending on the class. Maybe it was volunteering to go first when the professor asked (and the crickets started chirping), or handing out papers. Lending a pencil to someone, helping explain an assignment, sharing a notebook, staying for a few minutes after class to erase the blackboard, even having the humility to attend a professor’s office hours for individual help all made a difference.
Although these things might seem small, these acts of service and humility opened more doors for me to spread the gospel than anything else I did at school. Why? Because these actions built relationships. I am still great friends with 90% of the professors in my major, not because I debated with them during class, but because I displayed Christ’s love in small, tangible way. And at this point I have shared the gospel clearly with almost all of them.
Don’t Live in Fear
I’d just like to start this section by saying straight out: as a college student, God’s Not Dead played like a fantasy-film for me. If you’d like a review from a great Christian reviewer that sums up why, click here. (Toward the end of this video (32 minutes in) you’ll hear about the research the reviewer did on the cases the film was based on.) No matter the legitimacy of the film’s portrayal of college, I know it scared many Christian parents. (If you haven’t seen it, it is about a Christian student in an atheist professor’s philosophy class.)
I just want to assure you, parents (and students): with God there is no reason to be afraid, even of someone as potentially powerful as a professor.
First of all, in all my years attending school, there was only one atheist professor who I felt did not respect my Christian views. And the fact is, she still gave me an A+ because I was willing to speak my mind. Now, I was in the arts, and this actually gave me a lot of opportunity to talk about God in class. Much of the western cannon is based on scriptural allusions, so 99% of the time, my contributions of scriptural context and explanation were not only appreciated, but sought out. I even had an agnostic professor exhort his entire literature class to read the Bible at least once.
Now, as I said, I can only speak from my experience, which was in Creative Writing, where a variety of ideas is encourage. That said, I do know that a friend of mine who majored in the sciences had to deal with different pressures. For instance, “Evolution” was a required class for her major. She is a creationist. After some prayer, she decided to talk to the professor. Although he was an atheist and evolutionist, he actually agreed that it was unfortunate the class didn’t balance the evolution theory with other theories.
What my friend realized was that she and professor were actually in the same boat: he had to teach the class a certain way because of bureaucracy and she had to take the class for the same reason. So, rather than being upset with him, she formed a strong relationship, and opened a door for future conversations.
But all of the anecdotal evidence is beside the point, really. I am positive there are individual professors out there who are so bitter they would allow religion to influence their grading. Your child might deal with that. Or they might not. Either way, God is the one they will have to rely on for wisdom in each situation. There is a lot more at stake than their comfort or grade. Whether they experience real persecution or not, encourage them to live in faith, not fear, for it is in Christ alone we find our hope. It is certainly not in laws or professors or 4.0s.
These three things—listening with compassion, doing everything with excellence and respect, and refusing to live in fear—not only got me through higher education with flying colors, but also opened opportunities to share Jesus. Remember that college is just another place that needs the gospel, and, more than grades or socialization or a future career, that is the reason to attend.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1
If you’re looking for more clean, entertaining reviews of Christian media from a Christian perspective, check out Kevin McCreary’s channel, Say Goodnight Kevin.