How spiritually prepared are teens for college?
Part 1 of an interview with Jonathan Morrow,
Author of Welcome to College:
A Christ-Follower’s Guide for the Journey
College can be the most exciting, as well as the most frightening, time of a young person’s life. On one hand are all the freedoms a recent high school graduate craves, but on the other are all the freedoms that come with responsibility. It’s a challenging time, especially for Christians coming face-to-face with worldviews different from their own. In Welcome to College: A Christ-Follower’s Guide for the Journey (second edition) (Kregel Publications), Jonathan Morrow helps students tackle this new stage of life and emerge on the other side prepared for what God has planned for them.
Q: What are possibly the most frightening questions a graduating high school senior can be asked?
What are you going to do with your life? What’s your major going to be? Will you be able to get a job when you graduate?
Students feel a lot of pressure to be, well, perfect. There’s a lot of anxiety to have it all together and everything figured out. Students feel pressure both from themselves and their parents (because most parents are spending a lot of money on college). They confess to feeling overwhelmed
by all the choices they have to make and the weight of the choices. The simple fact of the matter is they are often insecure and afraid of failing — especially at college. Then, if they are Christians, they have the added layer of trying to figure out what God would want them to do with their lives. All of this can be scary and overwhelming.
Q: We’ve all heard statistics about how many students walk away from their Christian faith during their college years. Are the numbers truly as bad as we have heard?
To be clear — any student walking away from their faith is too much. I’ve seen statistics as high as 75% and as low as 40%, depending on the survey and how the question was asked. But let’s split the difference and say one out of two walk away. At the outset, parents and students need to know college is not faith-friendly. Intellectual, spiritual, moral and relational challenges are coming. According to a study done by Harvard and George Mason University, one out of four college professors is a professing atheist or agnostic (a percentage much greater than the general population, which is 5-7%).
As I’ve worked with high school and college students throughout the years, here are the three most common responses to the challenges they face:
First, students relativize their faith. I guess this is just true for me, this is what I believe and how I was raised. Faith kind of gets quiet in their lives as they get older.
Second, they drift or pretend. On the outside everything’s fine. On the inside though, it’s, “I’m not sure I really believe this anymore. What do I do with that because this place isn’t a safe place to ask questions or have doubts?”
Or third, they will simply walk away. “You know what? I don’t believe this anymore. It’s not worth it. I don’t think this is really true.” They are weary of pretending.
What’s tragic about this is it doesn’t have to be that way. God has called students to do much more than only surviving. He has called them to engage our culture with the life-changing message of Jesus. This is one of the big reasons I wrote Welcome to College: to help prepare students for what we know is waiting on them in the college years. I want them to own their faith so they are ready to live it out.
Q: How important are the high school and college years in setting the trajectory for a life of following Jesus?
It’s critically important. If you get off-course in high school or college, it can have life-altering consequences.
Here are clarifying questions I like to ask students, “What story do you want to tell about the college years? Someday you will walk across the graduation stage and be filled with either satisfaction or regret. Which one do you want? Eventually you will summarize your college years in a few sentences. Why not go ahead and shape your future now?”
This final question will give students clarity. They also need to decide if they are serious about following Jesus or if they are going to drift into “playing Christian.” If they are serious about following Jesus, then they can set the destination they are pursuing early on, which will make all the difference.
Q: When should a parent or youth worker first present your book to his or her student?
I’ve been encouraged to hear how people are using Welcome to College. Some youth groups have purchased books to give away as graduation gifts. Parents have told me how they have read it along with their sons or daughters during their junior or senior year of high school. Together they have used the discussion questions in the back to start conversations.
In general, as soon as you can start the conversations, the better. Late middle school and early high school are great times to begin engaging your children on these topics.
Q: How can parents better prepare their children for the college experience, especially the new freedoms and responsibilities that come from being away from home?
Start now! Let them fail around you before they have true freedom for the first time away from you. Give them a long on-ramp of freedom and responsibility. Why? Because you don’t want the first time they experience freedom to be when they hit college campus and you aren’t around to help them choose wisely.
Imagine your son or daughter had never seen a Krispy Kreme donut, then when they got to college there was a dozen warm, gooey donuts in front of them. What are they going to do? Go crazy and eat them all. Give them some freedom now so they can fail around you, and you can help coach them as they fix it themselves. Don’t swoop in and fix it for them. Curfew is a good test case to begin exploring. Also, stay connected relationally. Don’t only focus on the details, finances, schedules and logistics; focus on the heart and excitement of this life transition.
Q: What advice do you have for parents who have teenagers on how to talk to them about the importance of truth and resist moral relativism?
First thing I would do is gently share that just because your son or daughter goes to church or a Christian school doesn’t mean he or she is not a closet relativist. He or she could be hearing great lessons and sermons each week, but if he or she has not been taught what truth is and the difference between objective and subjective truth, then he or she is more often than not simply and sub-consciously putting all that teaching into the “true for me” box in his or her worldview. Next, we need to give students space for questions and doubts. They need to wrestle with things to own it. We don’t just want them to give us the right answers, so press in to why. Lastly, love them unconditionally and be relationally present and engaged. That is the foundation for good conversations. Your faith shapes their faith.
Q: Tell us about how Welcome to College is set up and designed to be used. What are some of the topics you introduce and discuss?
I didn’t grow up in a Christian home. I began following Jesus as a high school junior at 17, so my “life” learning curve during the college years was pretty significant. I also had just about every anti-Christian professor along the way challenge my faith. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to believe in fairy tales; I began to explore if there were solid answers to the tough questions I was running into. After I graduated and got married, I told my wife that if God ever let me write a book, I wanted to write about everything I wish I would have known during the college years.
Typical graduation gift books have gold edges and little quotes, but my experience is that will evaporate in three minutes when the challenges of college life come. I wanted to write a book covering everything from evidence for God and the Bible, science and evolution to what to do with doubts, how to have healthy conflict with a roommate, how to discover God’s will and even how to have wise dating relationships, but in short four- or five-page chapters. A young person can read it straight through or turn to the issues he or she is struggling with. It can even be read in a small group of freshmen using the questions in the back. I heard from students at Clemson who were using it that way.
Find more resources to go along with Welcome to College at www.WelcometoCollege.tv or visit www.jonathanmorrow.org. Jonathan Morrow is also on Facebook (ThinkChristianlyOrg) and Twitter (@Jonathan_Morrow).