High Schoolers: What You Really Want In a College
Autumn represents that time of year when high school seniors and others make final decisions about where to apply to college. Early application deadlines are due in November, while regular deadlines come in January.
What does the average senior look for in a college? People generally want to maximize the balance between a school’s academic prestige, cost, location, social life, extracurricular programs, and so forth. All reasonable variables to consider.
But how often have you heard a seventeen-year-old say, “I’m considering this college because there is a great church nearby”? Or, “It’s a good university, but I’m not going to apply because I asked around and couldn’t discover any good churches in that town.”
A godly brother looking at various graduate programs said the latter to me a few days ago. For him it meant he was rejecting a school where some of the top scholars in his field teach.
Do you think my friend is being foolish? After all, college is only for a few years. Should the presence of a nearby healthy church really make or break what school you decide to attend?
Oh, please, yes. Follow my friend’s example. I dare say, determining whether there is a nearby healthy church may not be the most important criteria for a Christian in the college-selection process, but it should be a non-negotiable. If there is no healthy church nearby, Christian, there’s another college for you, somewhere.
EIGHT REASONS WHY A HEALTHY CHURCH IS A NON-NEGOTIABLE
Here are eight reasons why:
1) We were not made to be Christians alone.
Read through the Bible and find me a Christian who is not attached to a church (minus the first convert where no church exists, like the Ethiopian eunuch). To be adopted by God is to be adopted into his family. And we “put on” that family identity—we live out the family life—in a concrete local church. Try living as a family member apart from your family. That’s the Christian apart from a church.
Apart from a church, your faith in college will probably not grow, it will most likely shrivel, and it may well die. What growth does occur will be like the young sapling that grows at an angle because it had no stake.
2) Christians need not only fellowship, but also member accountability and elders.
Christian college students have long tried to sustain their faith through parachurch groups like InterVarsity and Cru. Parachurch ministries are valuable (I work for one), but the parachurch is not the church, and the Christian life needs what a healthy church provides:
- in-depth biblical exposition;
- the accountable fellowship of church membership and discipline;
- and the counsel and care of biblically qualified elders.
Jesus is not just a Savior, but a Lord. And this Lord exercises his Lordship through biblical exposition, congregational accountability, and elder leadership. Further, these things nourish your faith, like exercise and a healthy diet nourish the body.
Our faith needs more than fellowship; it needs the shepherding and structure of a local church. (See parachurch worker Byron Straughn’s excellent comparison of church and parachurch as a family versus a soccer team.)
3) College is often when we no longer have the life-long social support of our parents’ church and faith.
For children growing up in a Christian home, their parents’ faith and church act like the support beams that hold up a house perched on the edge of a cliff. Going off to college is like removing those support beams. You’ll quickly discover, is that house firmly fixed to the rock, or will it tumble into the sea?
Now, true faith is supernatural—a gift of God—which will finally survive with our without social support. Still, removing the parental beams can do great damage unless they are replaced by a church.
4) Secular colleges and universities will denounce your faith in the classroom.
It’s no secret that secular colleges and universities have become fairly hostile to a Christian worldview in the modern and postmodern West.
To put it another way, many of your professors will treat you as silly and naïve if you don’t join them in their fabricated reality where man is God and God is dead. Expositional preaching, on the other hands, describes reality as it really is—God centered, God-directed, God-judged. And you need this weekly antidote, lest you begin to believe that the academy’s cardboard movie-set version of reality is the real thing.
Young people should have the opportunity to ask hard and real questions about their faith. There is a time to wrestle with truth. No parent or pastor can demand that a student believe what they believe, and every person coming of age needs the opportunity to take ownership of their faith for themselves. But good luck doing that objectively apart from the influence of a healthy church, because the gravitational pull of your flesh and the university world is strong and moves in one direction only—away from God. You need to be able to hear both sides of an argument to ask and answer questions well.
5) On-campus social life typically offers a make-believe social world where freedom costs nothing and sin has few consequences.
I attended a secular university in the early 1990s, and I remember referring even then to the experience as “camp without counselors.” So many of us went to college to play, to party, to enjoy everything we couldn’t enjoy openly with parents around. On-campus college life was about alcohol and sex as much as it was about anything. And as long as you use a condom, say all the university officials, there is no such thing as consequences. Have fun!
It’s an understatement to say, “You’ll face many temptations in college.” The whole social experience is built on the idea that the human being needs complete freedom to define oneself and one’s morality in order to flourish. For many, the rush of responsibility-free freedom itself is the most intoxicating thing of all. Never mind that it’s a lie.
You desperately need a strong church helping you to stand strong amidst such winds. All of us do.
6) Many shipwreck their lives, their faith, their souls in college.
Perhaps you’ve seen the statistics: 60 percent of teenagers who go into college with faith appear to abandon it coming out the other side. Only 20 percent maintain a faith consistent with their high school years.
In other words, you can assume that people with more spiritual conviction and moral idealism than you on their first day of college squandered it entirely in college. Don’t be proud. Recognize your need for a healthy church.
7) College is often a time of self-discovery and the establishing of your adult identity.
With the support beams of your parent’s home removed, you really do begin the process of discovering who you are in college. Did you get homework done in high school because dad was watching over your shoulder, or because you’re self-disciplined? What do you want to major in? How will you make use of your days when you suddenly find yourself with an excess of unstructured time?
These are questions you want to explore and answer with the help of older and wiser Christians who have gone through different stages of life. Campus ministries serve good purposes, but just about everyone in them is your age! Don’t deprive yourself of older saints as you try to figure out who you are.
8) A healthy-church-backed Christian can do great evangelistic and discipling good in college.
I attended church three times in college (as I recall). And though I named myself a Christian, I utterly squandered my college years from a kingdom perspective. Instead I pursued the world with all my might.
Yet I can point to friends who made great use of their college years, evangelizing, discipling, and doing good. Since people between 18 and 22 are still making up their minds up concerning life and eternity, it’s a good time to evangelize and to disciple. Just think: you can play a role in helping others establish good foundations that will bear fruit in their lives for eternity.
Or you can do what I did: help people harden their hearts against God and prepare for hell. Which of those two options offers a better return on your time and investment?
WHAT IS A HEALTHY CHURCH?
Suppose you agree that finding a healthy church is paramount (I thought I’d throw in a SAT word for your fun!). What exactly is a healthy church?
First, a healthy church does a number of things: it builds itself up through God’s Word and not the wisdom of the world. It looks to the Bible for guidance on how to structure itself, not the latest polls or marketing methods. More significantly, it centers the weekly gathering around meaty biblical exposition, the proclamation of the gospel, and the practical application of the gospel to all of life. A healthy church keeps track of its members, and calls them to live responsibly in the world. And a healthy church possesses a plurality of godly men for pastoring, praying, and preaching. It loves God and it loves its neighbors in manifold practical ways.
Second, a healthy church is a number of things: it is hospitable, loving, and holy. It speaks in a language the world can understand, but it lives distinctly from the world. It’s culturally different somehow. Not that the people are weird or dress funny, it’s more that they are unusually welcoming, not suspicious of strangers, personally transparent, generous, quick to laugh but sober-minded, uninterested in evil but rejoice in the truth. It’s a place where old and young, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, one ethnicity and another find equal standing and the opportunity to serve.
So get your list of potential colleges together, but then talk to your pastor, talk to Christians on the prospective campuses, check out the 9Marks Church Search, even call and visit some churches before you decide on a college. It will be one of the most significant decisions you make about college.