Higher education has a hard road ahead. Christian colleges, in particular, are in crisis over lower enrollments, the financial constraints that come with fewer students, and larger ideological conflicts that reflect our increasingly fractured society. Data indicates that young people are the demographic most likely to leave organized religion behind.
Arguably now more than ever, college is a coming-of-age time when many young adults figure out who they are and what they believe.
For Christian students, going to college means figuring out how to “keep faith” and deepen it. This retention depends in part on learning how to flourish in mind, heart, body, and soul; how to love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself; and how to do college right, not by avoiding mistakes (which isn’t possible) but by making wise decisions early to avoid the more common and ruinous obstacles.
Drawing on my experience as a theology professor at a Christian university, here are the habits and choices I’ve seen work well, along with a few to resist.
1. Go to church—but not online.
The first and most important thing to do is find a local church, place membership there, and attend worship every Sunday you’re in town. Try the college ministry, go on the retreats, join a Bible study. These are non-negotiables for being a believer in college. If you’re at a Christian school, you might be tempted to let campus activities be a substitute for church. Don’t—they’re not. Nothing can replace the people of God, the word of God, the Lord’s Supper, or worship in the Spirit with fellow disciples.
If you’re not at a Christian school, you might feel tempted to sleep in on Sundays or let the busyness of intramurals, classes, roommates, and concerts distract you from what matters most. You’re already a Christian, though. You know what matters most. Go to church.
What kind, you ask? I’m not going to answer that question. But I will say: Unless you need it for health or accessibility reasons, streaming worship shouldn’t be on the table. It’s not the same. Find a local body—read: body—of believers who pray, listen to the Scriptures, proclaim the good news, celebrate communion, and serve the community.
Christian worship is Word and sacrament—each is essential. Word and sacrament doesn’t mean “word and worship band,” or as I like to call it, “CCM and TED Talks.” If you want your faith to survive college, you need the sacraments. And you need fellow believers.
2. Delete social media—for real.
I teach a class on the topic of Christian discipleship and digital technology. None of my students protest when I say they—we—are addicted to screens. None of them denies wishing they could cut in half (or more) the amount of time they spend daily on their smartphones (typically 4 to 8 hours; one student averaged 12 per day). But all of them suppose it’s impossible.
During the course of the semester, I invite them to delete any and all nonessential apps from their phones for a one-month period. No more YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok. They imagine their lives will come to a screeching halt. But here’s what they discover instead: Not only do they not need it, they don’t even miss it.
I invite you to do the same. If it’s too difficult to delete completely, limit your daily usage to 1–2 hours. Turn it off on Sundays, especially. If you meet someone, swap numbers or email addresses. Your spiritual and mental health will skyrocket as everyone else’s plummets. Do it. You’ll thank me later.
3. Build a library—starting now.
My first rule as a professor is never to assign a book I don’t love—a bad book, a boring book, or a poorly-written book—but not every professor lives or can live by this rule. And not all books are life changing.
However, some, or even many, of the texts you encounter will be worth your time. If they’re worth your attention now, they’ll be worth revisiting later. Don’t view them as obstacles on the way to a diploma. View them as the point—the reason you’re in college in the first place.
If you’ve gotten rid of social media (or at least most of it), you can sit still with a book in your lap for more than five minutes at a time. If the book means something to you, if it speaks to you or sparks something in you, or even if it seems to mean something to others you respect—keep it. Money permitting, don’t rent it. Buy it. Store it away. Come out of college with a small but growing library.
Let these years plant a seed that sprouts over a lifetime—a yearning to keep reading about the world around you and God’s work in it.
4. Make friends—with the dead (and others).
There’s an old Latin phrase: nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur. Roughly rendered, it means “no one knows anything except by friendship” (or love). C. S. Lewis suggested there are four loves. I like to think there are four friendships, and they’re perhaps more widely available on a college campus than anywhere else.
First, there’s friendship with the dead—authors who are no longer with us but whose books live on. Stanley Hauerwas once remarked that what makes Lewis so perennially popular is his capacity for friendship with readers: “He makes himself available to his readers as a trusted friend in Christ.”
Find others like him who do the same. Befriend the dead.
Next, there’s friendship with the living. I’ll say more about that in the next tip below.
After that comes friendship with elders, a relationship we often call mentoring. Find a professor, pastor, or boss—someone older whom you respect, ideally (but not necessarily) a fellow believer. Knock on their door. Interrupt their schedule. Ask them questions. Get yourself invited to coffee or even to their home. It may not feel like friendship now, but once you graduate, it might develop in that direction.
After graduation, my former students have trouble calling me “Brad” instead of “Professor East.” But eventually it sticks. Some of them stay in touch with me for years. It’s wonderful.
Finally, consider friendship with Christ. Mere hours before his arrest, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. The last time he speaks to them before the cross, he says, “You are my friends” (John 15:14). He extends relationship to the men about to abandon and betray him. God in the flesh befriends us in Jesus. He sees us not only as followers but as friends.
The life of faith is nothing other than maintaining lifelong friendship with Christ. Let your time in college be about that, and you’ll do all right.
5. Throw parties—just not that kind.
College is a festive time. The question isn’t whether to celebrate, but how.
You’re a Christian, so you know the obvious things to avoid: Don’t get drunk. Don’t sleep around. Don’t break the law. Ignore the old line about sowing wild oats. Even apart from sin, they suck the life right out of you. They’re not “fun while it lasts.” They sow little more than regret and shame. Christ is able and eager to cover all of it, but that’s after the fact. Before the fact, choose the good life.
This is where friendship with the living comes in.
Wherever you and your friends live—a dorm, an apartment, a rental property—make it a space of welcome for friends, strangers, newcomers, and outsiders. Watch ballgames and coronations and series finales. Surprise roommates on their birthdays. Get dressed up. Throw a party for a saint’s feast day. If you don’t have a penny to spare, then dine out on ramen. If someone has extra cash, put it to use. Not everything has to be saved. Sometimes extravagance is called for.
6. Eat well—and get some sleep.
This one’s simple. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, would improve my students’ lives more than getting enough sleep. And by “enough” I don’t mean six hours, although many of them live on three or four per night. I mean a full eight or more.
Imagine going weeks and weeks without water. That’s what chronic sleeplessness does to your body. So get some sleep. (And not with a smartphone nearby. Nothing could be worse for you.)
More broadly, care for the body God gave you by eating well and exercising. Even better: When you eat, cook your own food; and when you exercise, do it outdoors. As Paul writes, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
7. Say thank you—to everyone.
Too often, college marks the time when students realize how backward and embarrassing their home is, whether home means a town, a church, or a family. This awakening is not a mark of maturity or growth. It’s teenage rebellion by other means. Resist it at all costs.
Instead, let college be the beginning of a life of gratitude. Write physical thank you notes. Shoot a parent a text. Send a coach an email. Don’t imagine that you’re better than where you came from—even if you had a hard upbringing. Find someone to thank God for, then thank that person yourself.
Someone wiped your snot and changed your diapers. Someone got you where you are. Now is the time to realize that you’re not and never will be self-made, because nobody is. Like everyone else, you belong to God, and he made you who you are through the sweat and tears of countless others, usually nameless. Those you do know deserve your thanks.
You’ll learn new things in college. Your learning will change you; it’s supposed to. But whatever you learn is meant to build up others, not puff up yourself. Let gratitude absorb whatever vanity threatens. Giving thanks in all things will cover a multitude of sins.
If in four years you emerge humbled, prayerful, and grateful, then, regardless of your diploma, your time will have been a success. You’ll have shown—or rather, God will have shown through you—that keeping faith in college isn’t an oxymoron. It’s what Christ calls you to. And he will always give you what you need to do his will.
Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.