FAITHFUL Through College
C. S. Lewis wrote, “It is a good rule, having read a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” Having just read Chaim Potok’s classic, The Promise (1969) with Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God (2008) waiting on my desk to be read, I obediently turned to my bookshelves in search of “an old book,” and I found an old favorite published in 1797. It was Real Christianity, written by William Wilberforce.
A powerful and change-making force in history, young Wilberforce became a follower of Christ in the midst of a political and social climate that was often hostile to Christian influence. Centuries later, our youth are facing similar cultural circumstances. I was reminded of this when I read what Wilberforce said about a topic that is causing much debate in the contemporary church today – namely the attrition of young people from the faith once they leave home and go to college. Definitive numbers are hard to come by, but in my view we do have a problem of young people abandoning the faith. But what gave Wilberforce the credentials to speak across the centuries to this issue that was not only a problem then, but still plagues us today?
Wilberforce was ambitious, possessing a sharp tongue, and had, at 25 years of age, taken the British Parliament by storm. His political career was skyrocketing when he shared a long summer vacation in France with Dean Isaac Milner of Cambridge. They debated whether or not evangelical Christians were “good people” who went “too far.” Slowly, through the Dean’s influence, Wilberforce came to an intellectual assent to the gospel, but feared that an open confession of Christ would dramatically change his lifestyle and conceivably jeopardize his political career. But after a long moral struggle, he dedicated his life to Christ and His service.
The old parson John Newton, the former slave trader, convinced him that he should remain in his position of influence in society and at the same time, address the issue close to Newton’s heart – the condition of the slaves. Eventually, the conviction gripped Wilberforce that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners” as recorded in his diary on October 28, 1787. He saw the “reformation of manners” (the transformation of society) as the prerequisite to the suppression of the slave trade, and he attributed both to his newfound faith in Christ. His “old book” has much to say to contemporary society.
He described young men who, having experienced a Christian upbringing, subsequently lapse into unbelief.
But they go off into the world, yield to youthful temptations, neglect to look at their Bible, and they do not develop their religious duties. They do not even try to reflect, study, or mature in the thoughts that they once might have had as children. They may even travel abroad, relax still further their religious habits, and tend to read only about those controversial issues of religion.
The fact that young people struggled with their faith in the eighteenth century doesn’t make it any easier for parents seeing their young people struggling three centuries later, but it does remind us that this is not a situation that can be attributed solely to the modern world. We must look deeper to find the reasons and to develop ways of helping our young people remain faithful through their college years and far beyond.
Let’s look a little more carefully at the points Wilberforce raised.
They go off into the world. Of course they do, if they’re going to develop into mature adults who contribute both to the world in which they live and the Kingdom which they profess. But this “world,” according to Jesus, is no friend of disciples (see Jn. 15:18-21), and He knew that prayer was needed if they were to stand against the attacks of the enemy of their souls. There is clearly no substitute for prayer for our young people – and parents and grandparents must not prove deficient in this area. And while young people tend to think they are invincible, they must be trained in a prayerful lifestyle that alone will equip them to stand firm and tall.
They yield to youthful temptations. Our young people need to be instructed that the New Testament uses one Greek word (peirasmos) for both “temptation” and “testing.” A temptation is a solicitation to go wrong; a testing is an opportunity to do right. It comes down to recognizing an alluring, exciting opportunity as a potential for moral disaster or as a chance for spiritual development. Then it’s a matter of knowing that choices have consequences and of choosing not to allow the mind and the will to be overtaken by hormones and emotions.
They neglect to look at their Bibles and don’t develop their religious duties. Given the amount of reading that a serious student is required to do, it’s not hard to understand why many of them rarely open their Bibles in a college dorm. The reality is that if they have not developed a love for God’s Word and some kind of discipline in daily devotion, it will be extremely hard for them to start once they have left home. The same can be said for neglect of corporate worship or campus small group involvement.
They don’t even try to reflect, study, or mature in the thoughts they once might have had as children. The transition from a handed-down faith to a personal faith deeply held is one that some of our young people never achieve. Addressing the hard questions of faith in the face of skepticism must be well under way before the young people head out on their own. Otherwise, they’re sitting ducks.
They may even travel abroad. They don’t even need to do that today as the campus will be populated with exotic young people from around the world, “comparative religion” classes may be required, and the students will very quickly be introduced to a special brand of “tolerance” that tacitly teaches all religions are the same. If they are not convinced of the reality of their own faith, they will finish up confused about everybody’s “faith.”
Wilberforce concluded, “They gradually begin to doubt the reality of Christianity. A confused sense of relief that it is all untrue settles within them. At length, they are convinced of their doubts in a broad sweep over the whole realm of religion... it may be termed “the natural history of skepticism.”
A final scathing comment of Wilberforce should not be overlooked. He said, “The poor examples of some professing Christians disgust them.” In my experience, great numbers of young Christians are struggling particularly in the student days because of the breakdown in their families. One told us recently that she would not go home now because her parents had divorced and remarried, and she didn’t know where she belonged anymore. Another asked plaintively, “How can two people who loved each other start to hate each other and call themselves Christians?” Hard questions that parents need to bear in mind.
So what can parents do?
- They can invest in their marriages so that their children do not have to take the trauma of divorce with them to college.
- They should learn to pray individually and, if possible, collectively for the young college students.
- They should talk to their pastors and youth pastors about the effectiveness of the youth ministry in preparing Christian youth for a hard world.
- They should recognize that examples of regular worship, devotional commitment, and service are necessary if young people are to learn them and continue in them after leaving home.
- They should research and make available materials likely to prepare their young people intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and morally for college.
- They should explore campus and off-campus ministries and introduce the young people to them before they attend the university.