Growing Your Faith on a Secular Campus

Death by a Thousand Cuts?

(This post was originally published in The Banner, September 2011. You can also find it online at their site.)

It’s true. Some young Christians do lose their faith while in college or university. We’ve heard the stories and statistics. But higher education is not inherently hostile to Christianity. With proper support, even secular campuses can be powerful fields for growing faith. I know firsthand. I suffered my own faith crisis as an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Today I’m a campus minister.

Death by a Thousand Cuts?

Yes, some professors are hostile to the Christian faith, but they are a minority. Most professors, even those who are atheists, are not overtly anti-Christian. Most operate with tolerance, even respectful tolerance, of religion. It’s just that they run their classrooms under the assumption that religion doesn’t matter.

Religion often gets ignored rather than attacked. The intellectual environment on most secular campuses is not explicitly anti-Christian; rather, it’s based on an unbiblical worldview. That worldview creates assumptions, ideas, and practices about life, society, values, truth, and justice that at points prove incompatible with a biblical worldview. The resulting friction—in thought and deed—indirectly undermines a student’s faith.

My experience both as a former undergrad and graduate student and as a campus minister on secular campuses suggests that most young Christians do not lose their faith through any single, fatal intellectual attack. Rather, their faith bleeds to death from a thousand cuts.

I suffered a major depression during my undergraduate years, partially brought on by a faith crisis. The accumulation of a hundred minor nagging issues caused the crisis, but it wasn’t only intellectual questions that cut at my faith.

I now recognize four major sources of cuts to a young Christian’s faith on a secular campus:

1. Loss of Christian Community. Many young Christians leave home, church, and Christian friends when they move to a secular campus. Losing our faith community means losing a major source of encouragement, accountability, support, spiritual nourishment, and joy. These are cuts from omission.

2. Poor Lifestyle Choices. By this I do not mean only the usual suspects of sex, drugs, and alcohol, which can lead a young Christian into an ungodly and self-damaging lifestyle. I also mean greed and materialism. Some students focus so much on getting the right grades for the right degree for the right job for the right money, they neglect considering how to use their gifts and learning for God’s kingdom. They leave so little space for God, they never fully recover.

3. Christian Offenses. By this I mean past and present offenses by other Christians. When Christians commit atrocities in the name of Jesus (the Crusades, for example), or even when they do something stupid or disrespectful (burn the Qur’an, say, or predict the rapture), these are cuts to a young Christian’s faith. They are sources of embarrassment that only add fuel to any anti-Christian rhetoric and further support the “best-leave-religion-out” environment on campus.These are also sources of doubt: “Why would a gospel of grace and love produce such hateful and judgmental practices and acts?” Young people could very well conclude that it isn’t a gospel of grace in the first place. For many youths, actions speak louder than words.

4. Insufficient Intellectual Framework. Young people are curious. They have tons of questions and want to learn for themselves why and what they should believe. But often they have never been given a safe environment for asking honest, deep questions. Whenever they ask tough questions, they are either given cliché answers, dismissed and ignored, or silenced for not having enough faith! Often this leads to a rather limited or narrow intellectual framework that supports their Christian faith. And the questions they have prior to college not only resurface with a vengeance in college, but many, many new ones emerge. Eventually, an insufficient intellectual framework can crumble under the weight of all these questions.

Growth Factors

So how do young people heal from the many cuts to their faith?

Just as there is no one fatal blow to faith, there is no one magic formula to help you grow in faith either. But I can name four major sources, or supports, that a young Christian needs on a secular campus in order to grow in faith:

1. A Christian Community. College students, especially those away from home, need to find a new Christian community, either on campus or in a local church—preferably both. This community should, ideally, allow young people to voice their tough questions without judgment. Providing thoughtful answers will help, but answers are not an absolute necessity. Exploring, journeying, and dialoguing together can do more than simply lecturing or preaching to young people.

Finding a new Christian community is never easy. A student’s original community can help by suggesting churches or campus ministries. It’s intimidating and also time-consuming for college students to find a new Christian community. Churches need to be intentionally hospitable and student-friendly in order to ease college students into their communities. Invite students to your homes. Give them free meals. Allow them to ask questions, even if you don’t have the answers. Allow them to serve in the church—to play music or lead worship—if they so wish. Make it as easy as possible for them to feel at home and to belong.

2. Personal Integrity. Of course, college students still need to make the choice to seek out a Christian community. This is where personal integrity comes into play. Students, you need to learn to make choices based on who you are, to be internally and not externally motivated. You need to remember and know that you are a child of God and, therefore, choose to behave out of that reality. You need to have integrity to make your spiritual walk a priority, to practice the disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, worship, and service. The foundation for such personal integrity is laid in the family home; it cannot grow overnight in the midst of a busy college schedule. Parents need to help their children develop this personal integrity long before they set foot on campus.

3. A Holistic Christian Worldview. In order to choose wisely and to discern between competing ideas, we need a biblically informed worldview that is wholistic, equipping us with a sufficient intellectual framework to engage all our questions. This worldview does not need to have all the answers, but it must provide a sufficient framework that can help us either find the answers or carry the questions without causing our faith to break. Such a worldview needs to be learned and caught from within a Christian community that embodies it.

4. A Wise Christian Mentor. An important way to learn and clarify a Christian worldview is to have a wise Christian mentor. A good mentor is someone who can help you think for yourself, give you good resources, model a healthy faith, and allow you to express doubts and ask questions—even if he/she does not have all the answers. Mentors can be campus ministers or chaplains, Christian professors, pastors, or any mature Christian. College students, you may find it helpful to have a mentor who understands college life and the kinds of questions you will face in the academic setting.

Finding a good mentor is not easy. It can be just as intimidating as finding a new Christian community. But student-friendly churches or on-campus Christian groups make mentoring part of their ministry. In addition, campus ministers or chaplains are often available as mentors. And if you listen and watch carefully, you might be able to find a Christian professor, even one in your area of study.

Yes, finding a mentor takes work and time, but I can’t emphasize its importance enough. Every Christian needs a mentor at some point in his or her life.

Again, the home church can help. I read once about a church that gives each of its college-bound youths a Starbucks gift card with the condition they use it to take out a potential mentor for coffee and conversation. Creative ideas like that encourage and empower college students to find mentors. Churches can also make suggestions and referrals. They can match high school youths with mature Christian members. And when the youths enter university, those mentors can, at least, continue to contact them and provide spiritual support.

Before You Reach Campus

With these supports in place, Christian students can grow, even flourish, in their spiritual life on secular campuses. I had a good mentor and a good on-campus community. It was through a Christian Reformed campus ministry that I learned the Reformed Christian worldview that helped me recover, along with relational support, from my depression and faith crisis. In many ways, I owe my faith life to the Christian Reformed Church, which was also a major factor in my becoming a campus minister.

Not every Christian student has such a happy ending to his or her college years. Many feel alone and isolated, confused and disillusioned, hurt and guilt-ridden. Not all the sources of their frustrations occur on campus. In most cases, their faith starts bleeding to death even before they enter college.

Church communities that do not allow youths to doubt and question, that do not take them seriously, or that exclude or hurt them can be far more fatal to a young person’s faith than any secular campus.

But faith flourishing also begins before students reach campus. An inclusive, safe, and honest community that invites questions and explorations, that encourages youths to serve, that provides mentoring relationships, that teaches the Christian faith and the biblical worldview best equips young people to face the challenges of not only a secular campus but a secular world. Indeed, they can even flourish and grow.

Recommended Reading

The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief & Behavior During the University Years by Steven Garber (IVP, 1996)

Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning and Living by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Eerdmans, 2002)

The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness by Donald Opitz and Derek Melleby (Brazos, 2007)

Did you have similar experiences of a faith crisis in university?

Or did you grow in your faith during your university years? What helped you grow in your faith?

Related post: The Calling of a Christian Student

8 thoughts on “Growing Your Faith on a Secular Campus

  1. I find it crazy how the external world can so easily influence your thoughts and behaviour. I am currently in my 5th year at Queen’s University. Spent four years believing that a life full of greed, materialism, sex, alcohol and weed was the way to be without giving it second thought. Unfortunately, it just brought extreme cases of anxiety and depression, no wonder we are having a huge “mental illness” epidemic in universities. There is a terrible stigma of christianity and spiritualism here (within my group of friends and peers) and I got so easily sucked into it. Sorry just rambling


    1. Thanks Herman for commenting.
      We are all vulnerable to bad social pressures. You are not alone in that. And you are right that it can harm us.
      Which is why I think a good community is important to give us good support.
      I pray the rest of your time at Queen’s goes well.
      I know by the way a campus pastor at Queen’s. Let me know if you want to meet him.


  2. I’m an outsider looking in. By that I mean that I did not grow up in church or go to Sunday school on a regular basis. My parents were non-practising Christians. I was raised on justice for others and questioning the status quo – it was in York University that I took a secular course on the Bible that answered a lot of questions for me that allowed me to trust its story rather than what I was able to glean from Christian peers.

    Since becoming involved in the church I have seen many examples where the young adults are taught rather than equipped. Their mentors are often a youth leader – who may have journyed with Christ in a deep way but has not yet had to struggle with the secular world on all those little issues that add up.

    When I talk to other adults I hear the same lament “we lost our children – they no longer go to church”. I have heard this in CRC, Presbyterian and Baptist.

    I believe that campus ministry is vital to these adults. It is a chance for them to ask the tough questions – but first they have to seek a relationship with campus ministry. I have witnessed committed Christians reluctant to ask questions because “they would not be allowed” in their home church. This reluctance is due in part to the role we has older adults have in their lives. No one wants to ask a question that we are not prepared to talk about. Abortion, homosexuality, sex, divorce.

    I believe that this can be changed. First by supporting campus ministry. Get to know the campus ministry in your local university. Ask about what kinds of questions are being asked. Think about how they would be dealt with if asked IN church. Move towards preparing the church to engage with younger adults not just in formal programs but in ways that are safe for questions – mentoring is a fantastic idea. Lastly, think outside the box. What about those who can’t go to university or start working summer jobs in a secular community. How do provide a place for safe reflection about what happens outside our doors?

    Sorry for the long response. I think youth pastors are great but they need help by others who have different experiences and perspectives. We need to provide opportunities and space for hard questions and grace to engage rather than give a quick answer. As we do this, our youth will be able to guide themselves and others as they experience new challenges.


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