The new academic year is starting, with lots of people setting off to university for the first time. This is exciting, but for many quite daunting – especially so for Christians. In this article we’ll look at some of the challenges faced by Christians starting university and give some suggestions for how to face them. It’s quite a long article, but hopefully will be helpful.
When I went away to university, I told the people I met that I was a Christian, I attended church every Sunday and I went along to Christian Union meetings. The problem was that the rest of life was not consistent with this. My ‘Christianity’ was fake; it was only skin deep and underneath I was no different to anyone else. I was not a real Christian and the people living around me could see this.
God then began to work in me and I started to see the inconsistencies in my life. I attempted to do better, but I couldn’t. It was only after I realised that I could not change myself, but needed God to change me from the inside out, that there was any real difference in me. This was because God had given me a new heart and I had been converted – he had given me repentance and faith. And then, although it was a battle, the other aspects of my life started to reflect my outward claim that I was a Christian. I was walking the walk as well as talking the talk. People soon noticed this as well!
So, first and foremost as you head off to uni, think carefully about how real your Christianity is. Will you be trying to be a ‘Christian’ in your own strength, or are you a true Christian looking to God for help? This is a matter of life and death, a top priority for us each, and worthy of very careful, prayerful consideration.
Of course, conversion does not suddenly make all the difficulties go away. Rather, as all Christians prove, seeking to live consistent, God-honouring lives is a daily battle that we sometimes lose. Being at university doesn’t make this any easier. However, don’t despair, the Bible gives some good advice.
What should I expect?
For most people, going to university is their first time living away from home and making day-to-day decisions about how to live. You’ll suddenly be responsible for everything from time and financial management, to food shopping, cooking and doing the washing! You’ll probably find yourself sharing accommodation with people who have very different habits to yourself. You might struggle with loneliness or homesickness.
For a new Christian student however, one of the biggest challenges is how to deal with the typical ‘student lifestyle’ – drinking, partying, casual sexual encounters etc. On one hand, these things may trouble or shock you, however, you may also find it hard to resist becoming immersed in them – they can seem very tempting, or as just a bit of fun, and of course, none of us likes to be different. Certainly for me the ongoing battle of university life was how to be in the world, but not of the world (see John 17:14-15). You will also find that universities are a melting pot of ideas and the things you have been brought up to believe will get challenged and even ridiculed.
How can I face the challenge?
Given the challenges that will come, how can you be faithful, standing firm on your beliefs and resisting the temptations thrown at you?
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke records that the early Christians ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship … , and in prayers’ (Acts 2:42). Their example gives us three clues as to how to continue in our faith in practical terms:
- Doctrine: A doctrine is “a body of teaching”. These Christians continued in the teachings of the Apostles, the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they did so steadfastly, not half-heartedly. At university, surrounded by so many other influences, it is easy to become lukewarm in your faith or even to start doubting that what the Bible teaches is true. Key to countering this is to clearly know and understand what you believe. Daily Bible study and regular worship will help you to stay spiritually healthy, and to grow in grace. Paul gave Timothy some sound advice,
‘But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.’ (2 Timothy 3:13-17)
- Fellowship: Being with other Christians is crucial. They will be able to encourage and correct you, and also be a great help if you are feeling lonely or homesick. Find a place of worship where you feel at home, where you will hear the gospel preached, where you will be faithfully taught and where there are people you can talk to . University Christian Unions are another place where Christian fellowship can be found. Of course CUs bring together people from a whole range of church backgrounds and it is important to be discerning and careful not to embrace wrong teachings. However, having friends who share your basic beliefs, share your morals and live a lifestyle similar to yours is a blessing. You are bound to have differences of opinion about some things, or not agree with everything that is taught at CU meetings, but if you approach thethings prayerfully and, like the Bereans, who ‘received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so’ (Acts 17:11), you may find that you learn a lot and grow in your Christian walk. However, as beneficial as involvement with the CU can be, it should never become a substitute for regular church attendance.
- Prayer: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Lord Jesus said, ‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41), and, ‘Men ought always to pray, and not to faint’ (Luke 18:1). These verses highlight the importance of prayer in the Christian life, and what a privilege it is to be able to go directly to the Lord Jesus with our troubles, trials, sorrows and joys. We have a friend in Jesus who is always ready to hear and answer our prayers. Pray to him to help with university life – to keep you from the worldliness and temptations around you, to help you to live for his honour and glory, to comfort you if you’re feeling lonely.
A final practical point is that to stand firm in your Christian faith means being a Christian publicly. It is easy to end up going along with things at first because you don’t want to be different and then one thing leads to another. So be open about your faith from the very beginning and be clear about where your boundaries are – it is much easier to say no to something the first time than the second or third time.
Encouragingly , if you are faithful to your God and consistent in your actions, you will find that most reasonable people will come to respect you and accept you for who you are.
An incredible opportunity
Going to university isn’t all negative though. It provides many opportunities – to study new things, to meet new people, to try new activities, and it is right to take advantage of these things. As the hymn says, ‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’ (see also James 1:17). Note though how it says good gifts – take the opportunity to get involved with university activities, but only if they are not contrary to God’s laws. Make new friends, but take care who you become close friends with – will they be a good or a bad influence on you? (This is where a good CU can be really helpful, providing friends with similar values to your own.)
Don’t forget though that the main reason you are at university is to study and to get a degree. It is easy to get taken up with the things on offer through the various clubs and societies, Christian or otherwise, and become distracted from this main purpose.
Focusing back on our theme of being a Christian at uni, it is a place perhaps more than anywhere else where you can live out your faith in front of the world and to be a clear witness to those around you. You will be thrown into close proximity with lots of people, some of whom may never have come into contact with a Christian before – this could be the only time in their lives when they do. What an incredible opportunity!
The Lord Jesus commands us to let our lights shine before men (Matthew 5:16) – you cannot do this if you keep yourself to yourself. Some things you have to avoid, however, especially at the beginning, try to spend time with those you live with, cooking together, having a coffee, getting to know them and letting them get to know you. You may find that you will never be close friends with them but, it is important where possible to be friendly and not to hide yourself away. But, to emphasise the point, when you are with people, be open about your faith, and here is that word again, be consistent.
Thinking again about why you have gone to university, you can be a witness in such simple things as attending all your lectures, seminars and practical classes and being conscientious in your studies. ‘Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31). Neglecting your studies is dishonouring to God and it is amazing how the world notices these things.
Living among unbelievers at university is a real challenge, but the Lord can bless your witness, and make you salt and light to those around. I can testify to this from the other side – it was partly the consistent lives of some Christians studying with me, that, as used by God, brought me to know Jesus as my Saviour.
What if I mess up?
Upon conversion, Christians are not suddenly transformed into sinless human beings. A battle must be fought each day against Satan and our old sinful nature. This can be particularly challenging at university when living so closely with the world, surrounded by temptations and alternative ideologies, often twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Sadly, it is inevitable that sometimes you will fail, you will sin, and will do something that dishonours your God.
Whilst you should mourn over these things, and ask for God’s forgiveness, don’t despair. He has promised that if we ‘…confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:9). Ask God to forgive you, to help you to get back on your feet and to carry on the battle.
A faithful God
I hope that these various points will be helpful if you are going away to university, or leaving home for the first time. In whatever path you are walking, ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass’ (Psalm 37:5). University may seem like a daunting prospect, and to live there as a Christian even more so, but remember that, if you are a Christian, the Lord Jesus prayed for you: ‘I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil’ (John 17:15), and you can always pray to him for help and wisdom. If you seek to serve and honour him, he will be with you and help you.
‘…them that honour me I will honour’ (1 Samuel 2:30) and ‘he is faithful that promised’ (Hebrews 10:23)
Another helpful article, Starting University, can be found on the Christian Values in Education website. Ensuring there is a good local church is one very important aspect of choosing a university. [A00047 – 23/09/2017, 11/09/2019]