How to Keep Collegians from Losing Their Faith, Part 1

Written by Mark Farnham

On January 2, 2015

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]

In the previous post we examined 12 reasons why college students tend to lose their faith. This begins the first of three posts on ways the church can help prevent this.

What Students in Churches Need to Hear from Church Leadership

Losing_faithLet’s take a closer look at what is missing in the preparation of young Christians for the challenges of college life.

What They Need to Hear about Solitary Christianity

It isn’t enough to urge young Christians to go to church. They’ve heard that already, and they’ve probably had Hebrews 10:25 quoted to them until they’re blue in the face: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” What they really need is the correction of their individualistic ecclesiology.

Don’t think these young Christians don’t have an ecclesiology just because they’ve never heard the term! Every Christian has an ecclesiology-a view of what the church is and what it is for. Unfortunately, some of the phrases we use to explain the Christian life to young people convey to them a false ecclesiology. We say to them, for example, that to be a Christian is to have “a personal relationship” with Jesus Christ or to make “a personal commitment” to Jesus Christ. The intention of these phrases is good-it is true that Christianity is not just a set of beliefs but a relationship with the living Lord and Savior, and it is true that it requires not just a belief lodged in the head but a commitment of the will. Unfortunately, the term personal in these phrases gives young people the wrong idea. It produces in them the “just you and me, God” view of Christian life I mentioned earlier.

Scripture never describes our relationship with Jesus Christ as “just you and me.” Its emphasis is not on the solitary believer but on the community of faith. We are the “body” of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27), the “people” of God, the “nation” he has called to holiness (1 Peter 2:9); we are citizens of the commonwealth of heaven (Philippians 3:20), in which we must “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). God has always acted through a community. It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God made Eve. Not only Noah but his family was saved. Abraham was called so that from him and Sarah might come a people more numerous than the stars of heaven. On the day of Pentecost, God founded the church. God has made us social beings, and his plan of redemption through Jesus Christ is also social.

Explain these things, then, to the younger members of your flock while they are still teens, and tell them that their true peer group is the fellowship of the saints, the household of God. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian, and if they go into the world alone, they will be swallowed.

What They Need to Hear about the “Big Story” of Revelation

There are two things about revelation that very few students understand, yet both are crucial to their ability to defend their faith on the modern college campus. The first is the reasonableness of revelation; the second is its plot.

Revelation’s Reasonableness

Too many people of college age it seems unreasonable that God should have spoken to man-too magical, too weird.Yet, as we read in Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 RSV). John R.W Stott makes this observation about this passage:

It is ludicrous to suppose that we could ever penetrate into the mind of God. There is no ladder by which our little minds can climb up into His infinite mind. There is no bridge that we can throw across the chasm of infinity. There is no way to reach or to fathom God …. It is only reasonable to say … that unless God takes the initiative to disclose what is in His mind, we will never be able to find out.'”

This is “the reasonableness of revelation.”

Revelation’s Plot

Although young Christians know “Bible stories,” they often fail to realize that the Bible as a whole is a single great story-the true story, with extensive commentary, of God’s dealings with humankind. College-age Christians need to hear from you that, like any story, the Bible contains characters, conflict, development, a turning point, a resolution, and an end. In this way they’ll become equipped to see it as a whole.

Who are the characters? God, the people who come to know him, and the people who persist in rejecting him. What is the conflict? That although God designed us for fellowship with him, we have rebelled against him beyond our power of returning and have broken ourselves beyond our power of repair. What is the development? That time after time he reaches out to us, that time after time we rebel again, but that he promises us a Rescuer who will be able to change our hearts. What is the turning point? That he visits us himself as a man of flesh and blood, accepting a criminal’s death on the cross in order to take the burden of our rebellion and brokenness upon himself. What is the resolution? That by trusting this God-man as our sin bearer, we may be forgiven and begin to be transformed. And what is the end? That one day in heaven, the community of his people will be perfectly and permanently united with him, as a bride is united with her husband.

This story is the basis of all stories, the one and only context in which our own lives and struggles can make sense. Through sin we have tried to write ourselves out of God’s story; through Jesus we can be written back in by him. This is what young Christians need to hear.

What They Need to Hear about the Reasons for God’s Rules

A young person who is wondering whether the rules really come from God needs more than Scripture texts. He isn’t asking, “Does the Bible teach this rule?” but “Why is this rule good?” In our age the question doesn’t often arise about robbery (except by government), torture (except by abortion), or forsaking idols (except the self). It does arise about sex. Paradoxically, to understand the prohibitions regarding sex one has to understand why sex is good, and this is something most Christian students have never heard. Christianity takes a higher view of sex than any other religion. It’s why it also has the strictest rules about it. Anything so important has to be handled carefully.

How can you explain this to younger Christians?’ They need to learn that the first good is procreation, which means more than making babies. It also means raising children in the love and fear of God. You can make them without a marital commitment, but you can’t raise them that way. The commitment must also be permanent, because the knowledge that your procreative partnership will continue into the then and there affects its quality in the here and now. Besides, once grown, the kids will have kids, and the kids’ kids will need their parents’ parents too. This is a matter of shattering importance. Every child is an image of God who will one day be older than the stars are today.

College-age Christians need to learn that the second great good is union. In marriage, sexual union takes each spouse out of the self for the sake of the other. Solitary sex can’t achieve this; it keeps you locked in self. Homosexual sex can’t achieve this; it directs you, narcissistically, to a mirror image of your self. Neither can casual sex achieve this; it endlessly joins and severs, joins and severs. Imagine what it would be like to repeatedly tear off and reattach your arm. There would come a day when no earthly surgery would suffice; the unitive power of your body would be lost. It is the same if you repeatedly tear off and reattach your various sexual partners. Eventually they all seem like strangers, and you just don’t feel anything. You have destroyed your capacity for intimacy.

And teach them that the third great good is mystery. This good is realized only when the spouses belong to Christ, for they become a living emblem of his sacrificial love for the church and of the church’s adoring response. Paul is so awed that he calls matrimony one of God’s secrets: “This is a profound mystery-but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). The little humilities and the mutual sacrifices of the husband and wife are a training for the heavenly union between Christ and his church; the awe of their wedding night and the ecstasy of their embraces, a parable of it.

[Adapted from J. Budziszewski, “Off to College: Can We Keep Them?,” from Is Your Church Ready: Motivating Leaders to Live an Apologetic Life, edited by Ravi Zacharias and Norman Geisler (Zondervan, 2003).]

In the next post J. Budziszewski continues talking about ways the church can help college students keep their faith in the face of opposition.

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