June is traditionally the month when graduates are recognized. College grads have already walked the fateful stage and most high school grads either have or are preparing to do so. Major life transitions like this are often fraught with challenges of various sorts. For young people who have been pursuing a faith relationship with Jesus Christ, one of the staunchest challenges they will be facing in the coming weeks and months will be to the validity and legitimacy of this relationship. This is particularly true for students preparing to head off to an institution of higher learning.
While there are a variety of different reports as to what the actual number is, one thing is clear about the experience of far too many students coming out of church youth groups into their college years: for the majority of them, their faith doesn’t survive the journey. The reason for this is twofold. First, the hard fact with which the church needs to wrestle is that it generally does a pretty terrible job of preparing students who have taken up the journey of following Jesus how to handle significant, targeted challenges to their faith.
The second reason for this mass exodus from the faith is that the environment of those campuses is openly hostile to any but the most generic expressions of the Christian faith. The majority worldview on pretty much every campus is naturalism. Those who are not naturalists usually subscribe to some form of postmodernism and its plethora of modern spiritualities. There are many professors at colleges and universities all over the country who might properly be called evangelists for one of these two worldviews. Their goal, sometimes unstated, is to see their students come to think just like they do. They are not interested in academic freedom or open intellectual inquiry. They are interested in creating ideological clones. And they are happy to use a variety of means to accomplish this end.
As a result, when these students get to college and their faith gets challenged in an environment in which standing up for their beliefs is guaranteed to bring social consequences (and possibly even academic consequences) that are swift and severe, rather than standing strong, they fold.
How can we as a church better prepare our young people for this onslaught? What wisdom can we offer our grads that, if put into practice, will give them a leg up on the challenges waiting for them on campus? I think one of the best answers to this query comes from a man who had faced a number of pretty significant challenges to his own faith of each kind by the time he sat down near the end of his life to do some writing. The apostle Peter spent his entire life immersed in one culture or another that not only didn’t appreciate his faith commitment, but was openly hostile to it. It was a series of environments that while different in the particulars were remarkably similar to that of the average college campus. Well, near the end of his life, he wrote a letter to some believers who were themselves in a hostile cultural environment to give them some advice on how to handle it. Now, the persecution of his audience was likely to be physical and that of Christian young people on a deeply secular campus is going to be nonphysical, but the wisdom still holds.
In 1 Peter 3:13-17, the apostle begins and ends by encouraging faithfulness in the face persecutions. Indeed, let us make sure first and foremost that we are being consistent with our confession regardless of the public reception it receives. In between these bookends Peter gets to an actual response to the faith challenges we receive. The wisdom comes in two parts. Look at what he writes starting in verse 14: “Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”
This first part of Peter’s suggested response to the persecution we face for living out our faith can be boiled down into a single word: Truth. We should respond to challenges to our faith with truth. This truth, though, has three aspects to it. The first aspect of truth is that we should not fear the challenges. For high school grads, there is a very good chance that in the next year or two they are going to encounter a professor who makes it his personal mission to trash the faith of any students who come into his classroom—even at some so-called Christian schools. She may ridicule them. He may bully them. She may offer what seem to be compelling defeaters to everything they’ve believed up to that point. Do not fear. What you have been learning in your time with your church family is the truth. And the truth is this: Jesus is Lord. Anyone who proclaims something different is lying to you. Have no fear of the challenges you face for when they are put to an honest examination—something they are not likely to get in class—they won’t hold up to the truth. Jesus is Lord.
This is actually the second aspect of truth. Before you get into these challenging environments set your hearts and wrap your minds around this fact: Jesus is Lord. He is Lord and there is no other. Let this be your starting point for all the learning you encounter. Make this your foundation and then have no fear in wrestling with the variety of challenges you will face. They will not be strong enough to crumble this foundation stone if you hold to it tightly.
The third aspect is to be ready to offer up a defense of the truth. This means that you have to actually know what you believe. This takes some work, but 1. I can tell you that there’s nothing so encouraging as knowing the answer to a hard question someone asks about the faith; and 2. if you are a follower of Jesus you are commanded to be able to do this so it’s not really an option. The fact is that you are going to both encounter and ask yourselves some really hard questions about the faith over the next few years. You probably already have been. That’s okay. You should ask hard questions. The Christian faith is the place for deep-thinking people. Just know this going in: there aren’t any objections or hard questions you will encounter that don’t already have really good answers. Don’t get lazy and ask without seeking an answer as far too many do. From your foundation point, wrestle hard and until you are satisfied with what you have found.
Just take three pieces of advice with you on the search process. First, don’t rely on the internet. I know that’s easy, but while there is good stuff there, there’s also a ton of junk and it’s sometimes hard to sort out which is which. Second, don’t ask an unbeliever. I don’t say this to sound arrogant, but on questions of the validity of the Christian faith unbelievers aren’t going to give you the right answer because…they don’t think the faith is valid or else they would be a Jesus follower like you. Instead, ask a believer you trust to be honest and informed. Find somebody you know and trust and who believes like you and wrestle with the tough stuff with them in order to land firmly on the truth.