I am a graduate student at the university in my town. In regards to this venture, two well-meaning Christian men have taken it upon themselves to offer frequent advice. “What do you study at that school?” says one, an Amish vendor at the farmers market. He not-so-subtly wonders when I am going to enter the “real world” and find a job. He sees certain traditional aspects of Anabaptist identity – the rural lifestyle, agricultural vocation, and wariness of higher education – slipping away from me, and he is concerned. “Don’t put your roots down too deep in this town. You won’t be able to pull them up again.”
My second counselor, an outspoken Christian math professor, more discreetly implies that I am misusing my God-given talents by pursuing a master’s degree rather than committing the next five years of my life to serious doctoral study. “What would hold you back from pursuing a PhD? Keep your options open!” he urges me. He would be unable to fathom the reality of my home Anabaptist community’s educational views, where few of my peers finished high school.
I struggle to reconcile the words of my advisors and my identity as an unashamed Christian, a Mennonite, and a dedicated graduate student. Why does this tension exist? Why the animosity between Anabaptist expressions of faith and institutions of higher education? And are the concerns of either, or both, of my counselors well-grounded?
The Cause for Concern
Today a growing number of Anabaptists recognize that our faith and practice does not require settling in a rural community, working in agriculture or construction, or dropping out of school after eighth grade. A believer can live in the city and work a desk job while still fully embracing historic Christianity and distinctive Anabaptist teachings. Yet when it comes to attending college, many youth hear a series of warnings rather than encouragement from their church leaders. And the church has a valid cause for concern: according to a Barna poll, 70-75% of Christian youth leave the church after high school.1 While some of these college students eventually come back to the church, few return to the denomination of their childhood.
The college campus can be a toxic environment for a Christian. College professors are five times more likely to identify as atheistic or agnostic than the general American population.2 Seventy-two percent of college students participate in the party lifestyle and hookup culture.3 In my own experience as a Christian college student, I have often witnessed, read, or heard things that assaulted my faith morally or philosophically. And yet, fully aware of the sobering statistics and dangers to faith, I still encourage Anabaptist youth to attend college.
The Case for College
The apostle Paul exhorts Christians to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive” for Christ.4 He further warns us, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit”.5 Take every thought captive. Let no one take you captive.6 In order to survive in the twenty-first-century assault of deceptive ideas, the church must take on the tough questions of skeptics and respond with an encompassing, compelling Christian worldview. What setting is better suited for dialogue on these questions and acquisition of skills relevant to engaging our culture than the college campus? If I am willing, my college campus may serve as both my mission field and my training ground in the realm of ideas.
Along with Paul’s charge, I must face another command from Jesus Himself, “You shall love the Lord your God . . . with all your mind”.7 Could it be that my counselor from the math department is at least partially correct, that fulfilling this mandate may include developing my mind through my college education? Loving God with the mind may include disciplining oneself to read difficult books. It may involve developing a skill or attending a Bible institute. And for many young Anabaptists, it should certainly include continuing formal education by attending college.
The Cautious Way Forward
So how does a high school senior move forward, unafraid yet aware of the challenges that await on his local college campus? First, I contend that most of the so-called “Christian” young people who walk away from their faith in college never had a settled personal faith in Christ in the first place. The best way to prepare for college is to grow in your understanding of the faith now. This includes developing consistent habits of spiritual disciplines – prayer, personal Bible study, accountability, church fellowship, evangelism – and receiving training in Christian apologetics by reading books or attending seminars. Many young people would benefit from an extended period of study at a Bible institute. A firm foundation in the Christian faith not only provides answers to difficult questions, but also gives students a framework from which they can engage new challenges.
Apart from a well-grounded faith, the single greatest asset for a Christian college student is the local church. On my college campus, I have witnessed a professing Christian freshman struggle to plug into a local church, church-hop for a time, then slowly assimilate into the culture of his fellow students. Another friend entered the same college with a fledgling faith, yet found a strong local Christian community and submitted himself to accountability and consistent involvement with the church; his walk with Jesus has deepened and thrived in a hostile environment. Jesus has chosen the fellowship of the local church as the way for His followers to continue encouraging one another in faithful discipleship. If you are in college and care about your commitment to Christ, then you must begin to view your local church not as another inconvenient claim upon your time and energy, but as an essential accountability structure for your faith and a safe haven to ask questions and receive counsel. If you are an older member of the church, do your best to provide these things for the college students in your midst. Young people will thrive in college not by blazing their own trail, but by continuing in the counsel and warning of the faithful who have gone before.
In response to the self-appointed counselors in my life, I can benefit from the advice of both – and I need the admonitions of both. I must live in the balance of neither fearing the stretching of my mind nor basing my societal value on my college degree or lack thereof. I acknowledge the dangers and welcome accountability from the community of believers, and I encourage other youth to challenge the Anabaptist status quo when it comes to education by taking a step of faith and enrolling at their local college. In my academic pursuits, as in every other area of my life, I resolve to honor God to the best of my ability before a watching world. Will you, as fellow Christian college students or simply as lovers of God with your mind, do the same?
|Seth Lehman loves God, his bride, and cities, in that order. He and his wife, Heather, live in Bloomington, Indiana, where they frequent the coffee shops, sell at farmers’ markets, and seek to share God’s love with their friends and neighbors. Seth is a graduate student studying mathematics and working as a tutor at Indiana University, and he enjoys gardening, playing piano, and reading in his spare time.
1. “Christian Youth In America Are Leaving the Church”. CrossExamined. Accessed 6 August 2016.
3. “College Hookup Culture: Myth or Fact?” Campus Explorer. Accessed 6 August 2016.
4. 2 Corinthians 10:5. The Holy Bible, ESV. Crossway: Wheaton, IL. 2005.
5. Colossians 2:8, ESV.
6. These are points used by John Stonestreet in, “Entertainment and the Christian” (lecture). The Summit Lecture Series. Summit Ministries: Manitou Springs, CO. 2008.
7. Matthew 22:37, ESV.