How to Be a Christian Despite Attending a Christian College (Sept-Oct 1997)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
September – October, 1997

28It usually takes me longer to offend people than my title; this may, however, be the exception. I’m going to jump out on a limb and say that, though I am somewhat skeptical, I think it IS possible to be a Christian despite attending a Christian college.

I think you can be a Christian there. It just isn’t particularly easy.

Often when I’ve spoken at youth rallies across the country I’ve heard Christian college recruiters plugging their schools with the “faithfulness factor.” They quote some statistics proving that you basically CAN”T be a committed Christian if you go to a state university. Evil profs will steal your faith every time, they warn.

Problem is, that doesn’t match my experience. I’ve also spoken at lots of campus retreats for ministries from state universities and seen campus groups that are doing just fine, thank you: alive, evangelist, and faithful. Not everyone thrives at a state university, of coruse. Some do lose their faith. But what wilts some galvanizes others.

Several of your parents hoped that if they could just get you through that pagan, public high school and ship you off to a Christian college, everything would be fine. But I have news for them: it isn’t always. Some who graduate from a Christian university peek in the rearview mirror and realize that they were more alive spiritually during their high school years.

Why? Because the life of following Jesus is uphill … against the current … into the wind … against all odds. “God bless you,” Jesus said, “when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me … You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:11-14).

Resistance builds strength, though we don’t usually like it. I don’t really enjoy running hills when I train for a marathon. I prefer running in Abilene, where by “hill work” we mean stepping over a speed bump. (By the way, can anyone explain to me why so many churches in town are named for elevation? Highland, Hillcrest, Baker Heights, Southern Hills … just wishful thinking, I guess.) When you’re lifting weights, you’d rather quit than do five more reps, but you know that it’s those last few that are really strengthening your muscles.

The same principle is true spiritually. Resistance can wipe us out; but it can also make us stronger. Christians are meant to be the counter-culture to the world around them. In high school, you could see clearly what it meant to follow Christ. At a state university you can fairly well spot light and darkness. But sometimes on a Christian college campus, everything becomes fuzzy. It’s almost as if when everyone is a Christian, no one is a Christian. Instead of light and dark, we have many nuances of gray.

This is my fourteenth year to preach in a church with hundreds of students from a Christian university and I’ve seen it many times: great young men and women who slowly let their faith slip into a coma.

Sometimes it involves immorality: after all, you can sleep with your date on Friday night and then come back to a dorm devotional! But more often, it’s just a faith that slowly gets lazy. Lots of religious language. Lots of religious activity. Just not a lot of gospel-shaped faith. And as spiritual rigor mortis starts to slip in, here’s what happens:

First, flu shot faith develops. When you get a flue shot, you’re actually being given a weak strain of the flu virus so your body can build up immunity to it. Christian education can be the force that energizes and focuses your life. But it can also serve as a flu shot: filling you with a weak strain of the Faith Virus, so that you’re immune to the real thing. Faith can be defined by the Least Common Denominators of Bible knowledge and church attendance. So much for taking up the cross and following Christ!

Second, minivan fever develops. We just returned from a 2500 mile trip in our extended minivan. At first we drove the van. Eventually we drove one another – to insanity. That extended minivan seemed the size of a Miata by the time we got back in Abilene. We were together breathing the same air for too long. We’d fought over where to eat. (My five-year-old goes for Happy Meals with Hercules action figures; my 15-year-old goes for bulk; my wife goes for ambience; I go for cheap.) We’d battle over music. (Diane goes for Susan Ashton; I’ll take Eric Clapton; the teenager prefers George Strait and Shania Twain; Christopher wants Barney sing-alongs – the audiotape from – well, you know.) What we needed was to get OUT of the van.

Sometimes in and around Christian colleges, people become like minivan riders. Since they’re not out in “the world,” they spend way too much energy criticizing one another. Just listen: you’ll hear people this year become bent out of shape over the most unbelievably small stuff. Get a life.

Third, holiness weakens. It weakens because people feel like they can’t confess their struggles around all their hyperspiritual friends. In another environment, you might feel free to confess your sin and ask for help. But how can you admit – to all these people who seem like Chapel Poster Children – that you’re addicted to Internet pornography? How do you tell someone that you cheated on a test, pushed by fear of how your parents might respond to midterm grades?

And fourth, the disease of worldly values takes over. Of course, we don’t let them in the front door. No, we baptize them, put church clothes on them, and smuggle them in the back door. We put on our best Christian smile while holding to the world’s materialism, lust for success, and fascination with externals over internals.

Bottom line: The state university is a great place for some to lose their faith; the Christian university is a great place for some to trivialize their faith.

Well, hopefully you’ve realized that I’m speaking partly with my tongue buried in my cheek. For I’m glad you’re here. I’m well aware of wonderful reasons for you to seek a Christian education (just as I did). But don’t take spiritual growth for granted. Being on a Christian campus doesn’t make a person a Christian!

So what can you do to keep your faith from slipping into a coma? No great insights here. They’re actually no-brainers. But many overlook them.

First, I encourage you to be a real live member of a real live church. Abilene churches are notorious for floaters: people who don’t call any one church their home. You need a place where you can know some of the leaders, a place where you can meet some families, a place where you can participate in a ministry. I’d love to have every student at Highland this year while I lead us through Mark in a series called “Shadowing the Savior.” But honestly, I’d rather you be plugged in as a member of another church than a floater at Highland.

Second, I encourage you to be part of a small group. Find a few others who will meet regularly to share struggles, sins,  encouragement, and prayer. Every week Diane and I meet with three other families. Our group has covenanted together to help one another follow Jesus.

Third, I encourage you to practice the spiritual disciplines. All the chapel services in a year don’t take the place of your private meeting with God – a meeting with prayer, meditation, confession, and scripture.

I’ll close with the great slogan I’ve seen on a tee-shirt. It says, Si Hoc Legere Scis Nimium Eruditionis Habes. That’s Latin for, “If you can read this, you’re overeducated.” Let me tell you: God isn’t impressed with overeducation! He is, however, impressed with hearts devoted to him and to other people. I think you can experience that – despite being at a Christian university.Wineskins Magazine

This article is a condensed version of Mike Cope’s sermon on August 24, 1997 at the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas as students were beginning a new year at Abilene Christian University.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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