Before I left for college, everyone I spoke to asked me something along the lines of, “Are you ready for this next chapter in life?” The question became so common (and stale) that every time I answered, I would put a smile on my face and simply say how “excited” I was. If I was feeling extra crazy, I might be “very excited” on a given day. But the truth is, no matter the day, I wasn’t excited about this next chapter at all. As an exceptional worrier, I was incredibly nervous – cautiously optimistic, but nervous all the same.
Despite being raised in an amazing family, attending a church that loved Jesus, and surviving the wonderful ride we call high school, I felt woefully unprepared and uncertain about what I was about to face in college (not that I was about to tell anyone).
In hindsight, it’s unrealistic to think that I could’ve felt completely ready for any situation I might’ve faced at college. There are supposed to be surprises, new experiences, and unpredictable challenges. College forces us to meet new people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths, and stepping out from our comfort zones is part of what makes it such a remarkable time of life.
Yet despite the impossibility of completely preparing anyone for college, one of the primary responsibilities for both pastors and parents is to arm their kids with the tools to face whatever college (and life) throws at them.
By default, and for good reason, perhaps the most important thing parents and pastors teach their college-bound students is to “plug in” to a church and find a Christian community on campus. After that, parents and pastors seem to worry most about alcohol and sex, both of which are easily accessible on any campus in the country. For years in my youth group and at home, I was taught first and foremost what the Bible said about underage drinking and premarital sex, and then how to respond when someone inevitably offered me a drink or when I saw a situation going in a dangerous direction. Essentially, I was taught to have a plan for these common circumstances.
In the first few weeks of college alone, even though it wasn’t always easy, I realized just how prepared I was to turn down a drink or avoid compromising situations. However, when it came to talking about my faith with non-Christians, or even Christians from different backgrounds, I found that I had a harder time knowing what to do or say.
So much of my “training” for college had been focused on my outward behavior that I felt surprisingly unprepared to have real talks with people about my faith. It’s one thing to talk about Jesus with someone in Sunday School, but it’s another to talk about Him with someone who has a completely different religious background—or none at all.
In light of my own experiences, here are a few questions and situations I think every college-bound student should be prepared for:
Be ready to answer:
-What does it mean to be a Christian?
-Why are you a Christian?
-How can a God of love allow for so much suffering?
How will you respond when:
-You have to stand up for Jesus (in conversation or in actions)?
-You sin and someone calls you a hypocrite?
-A professor attempts to deconstruct your faith?
Before leaving for college, I wish I had given these things more thought. Not only do I think I would’ve been better prepared to interact with different people, but I’ve found that being able to answer these questions for myself was an important step in my own faith.
Though it may seem obvious, one of the best ways parents and pastors can prepare their students for the conversations they’ll have is to practice. That could mean setting up hypothetical situations and encouraging students to consider how they might respond to questions like these, given their audience. It could also mean interacting with other faith groups or even just another youth group at a different church—just encourage students to think and engage with people who are different from them.
When practicing and preparing students, instead of simply memorizing answers, have them consider a few helpful tips for the heat of the moment. Some things that have helped me are:
Pray. If someone asks you a challenging question, say a silent prayer for them, and ask that the Spirit would give you wisdom and guidance as you respond. Entering a conversation in a spirit of prayer is the ultimate way to “think before you speak,” and a great reminder that you’re not alone. Later, pray for that person. It’s foolish to think you’ll change someone’s mind in one conversation, but remember that it is the Spirit who changes hearts, not anything we say or do. Pray that God would continue to spark their curiosity, that He would continue to draw them nearer to Him, and that He would continue to use you for His will.
Listen. As James wrote, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Don’t just listen for the question, but why they’re asking it, and what else might be going on in their life. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in return, and sometimes, saying less is more. Giving a long answer with theological terms like “sanctification” or “predestination” can turn off someone very quickly, as can spouting off overly scripted phrases that sound straight out of a Christianity 101 manual. Sometimes, listening is just as powerful (if not more) as talking.
Investigate. If you don’t know or have an answer, admit it! That is completely fine. Oftentimes, people are irritated by Christians who pretend to have all the answers, and making up something won’t do any good for either of you. Admitting that you don’t know something is not a sign of weakness; instead, it provides you with a chance to do some research of your own (read the Bible, contact a youth minister back home or even a campus minister), and follow up later. Ask them to do the same.
Follow Up. Even if you think a conversation or situation went poorly, it always helps to follow up. Whether it’s lunch, coffee, or even a study session, building a relationship with someone who’s different than you can be more effective and rewarding than having a wise answer to a difficult question. If you want to broach the topic again, go for it, but building a friendship despite differing opinions is one of the most powerful things you can do.
As college-bound Christians, part of our calling is to spread the Gospel to all different kinds of people. We ought to leave for school equipped to answer common questions that we might face.
While these conversations about faith can be challenging, they are also incredibly rewarding. So fight the good fight. Cling to your faith (1 Tim. 1:18-19). And even if someone’s approach appears hostile, remember that they too are made in the image of God, and whether they realize it or not, they are seeking God in their own way, just like you.