3 Reasons Christians Should Consider a Non-Christian College

It's a big life decision—here's a few things to help think it through.

I was 17 and already making one of the largest decisions of my life: where to attend college. My high school counselor helped me construct a carefully ranked list of reach schools, target schools and safety schools. I filled out an early application, sealed the envelope and wistfully imagined its readers putting me in the “consider” pile or even better, the “admit” stack. Little did I know that choosing a school would not be as clear as my perfectly ordered list suggested.

Complicating the semi-utopian vision of my escape from home was the nagging question of whether my faith could survive anything but a Christian education.

My college list was a mix of private, public, Christian and non-Christian institutions. Presumably, I would happily attend my top choice, which was most certainly not Christian. But when the letter came, I felt totally unequipped to make such a huge decision—it felt as though the choice I had to make might stifle my relationship with Christ rather than going somewhere that would nurture it.

Your dorm is the starting line for several years of intense friendship forging and within these new relationships, your walk with God will reverberate throughout the lives of your friends.

What is the root of this anxiety? It is simply our wish to prioritize God’s purpose in our lives. To many, this wish translates into pursuing a completely, utterly and purely Christian education, par excellence. Yet this anxiety can translate into a missed opportunity for a Christian to fulfill the commission of Christ, which says to “go into all the world” and preach the gospel—with a heavy emphasis on the whole of the world.

It is also apparent that this anxiety can be misplaced. Christ lives and breathes at even the universities far-removed from any foundation of faith. We only have to think about Donald Miller’s experience at Reed College to see how Christ offers unique chances for students to share God’s love in non-Christian colleges across the country.

There are at least three big reasons why one should consider attending a non-Christian college. Of course, it’s not for everyone. But for those who struggle with the same dilemma that I faced on the brink of graduation, consider this a hearty assurance that going to a non-Christian college is not necessarily a choice to stymie your Christian faith. Rather, it can be a choice to engage with challenging new ideas and develop a greater understanding of what it means to follow Christ into the whole world.

1) Universities are a modern mission field, and non-Christian schools need you.

Being at college is like being at a giant, non-stop sleepover. Maybe this is a frightening image but I mean to only convey the closeness which you find between yourself and new friends. Many of your friends will have never read the Bible or even met a “normal” person who calls him or herself a Christian. Your dorm is the starting line for several years of intense friendship forging and within these new relationships, your walk with God will reverberate throughout the lives of your friends.

Gabe Lyons, in his book, The Next Christians, describes three types of Christians: separatists, blenders and restorers. This third group, restorers, is composed of those who thoughtfully engage the culture around them. These people do not restrict themselves to purely Christian and culturally separate settings of practice, but carry their faiths into every aspect of their lives, including their colleges. Be a restorer and join the movement that likely already exists at your future place of education. Think about the Christians who are already in positions to minister at a campus. They are praying for more students who want to share Christ’s love in their difficult mission field.

But the real question is, which type of college will nurture your faith the most? The answer is quite personal.

2) Your faith strengthens in adversity.

First, we should dispel the rumor that college will destroy your faith. Scholar Christian Smith has shown that attending college increases your chances of maintaining your faith. But the real question is, which type of college will nurture your faith the most? The answer is quite personal. If you are someone who enjoys the intellectual challenges presented by friends over why you believe what you believe, then you are ready to do the necessary research to answer the tough questions that inevitably arise in a non-Christian environment.

Coming out of college, you will be thankful to have met adversity with a willingness to learn about your own positions and the positions of others. If you are truly in love with the truth of Christ, then objections to your faith by others will only result in you developing a deeper understanding of it.

3) Christian schools aren't necessarily safe havens for your faith.

While many have had wonderful experiences at Christian colleges, there is room for debate about whether your faith is "safer" going to a Christian college. At my own college, I met a friend who spent a semester at one of America’s most quintessentially conservative Christian colleges. He wrote a book about the experience and one of his conclusions was the general similarity between the students at the Christian institution and the students at secular schools. The students suffered the same sorts of pressures, anxieties and moral dissonance at the Christian school as at my school. It was a good reminder that your faith is not necessarily going to thrive at a Christian or non-Christian college, it will thrive only if you decide to make it a priority in your life.

At my university, we Christians rallied around one another and prayed for each person in our fellowship group. We supported one another, we offered hope to each other and our lives were, for the most part, happily engaged in the hardest mission field we will ever face. The wonderful support in the adversity we encountered did more to bolster our faith than I could ever imagine somewhere else. Most colleges are equipped with terrific pastors and organizations with whom you can partner and walk through the mission of college together.

I wish to appeal again to God’s great mission for you in the world: share the good news, in love, with your neighbors and friends. It’s a common trope amongst Christians that the mission field exists not only across oceans but also in our own backyards; so what about our institutions of higher education? If you are ready to answer this call, join your sisters and brothers in the trenches of this wonderful place we call college.

Top Comments

Janna Watson

1

Janna Watson commented…

The church I currently attend places great emphasis on colleges like Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University. When looking at both colleges rules and regulations, I see more of a legalistic viewpoint than a christian one. Plus like someone mentioned earlier, neither one had my choice of major- legal studies. My whole life I have attended secular colleges, and to be honest I prefer it that way. I could never survive in a so called "Christian College" like Pensacola because of their lack of freedom. Watching students like hawks, not being able to date, only listening to hymns, 24/7? No. I love the freedom I have in Christ. But I do not use it to take advantage of others, I use it like the Bible says "To love others." My point is that choosing the right college for you is also about conviction. Let God point in the right direction, and see how far you'll go! This has been one girl's experience/opinion.

Andrew Caldwell

2

Andrew Caldwell replied to Christopher Unseth's comment

Christopher,

Thank you for replying and engaging the points that I brought up.

Yes, certainly there are wonderful para-church organizations that serve as Christian support networks for students at non-Christian universities. I don't want to disregard that non-Christian universities can be places where young Christians grow seriously in their faith - spiritually and intellectually. What I wanted to address is the sentiment I've often heard that non-Christian universities provide avenues of more spiritual and intellectual growth more so than their Christian counterparts. I think it would be fair to say that non-Christian and Christian universities both have value in the ways that they can challenge and grow their students spiritually and intellectually (If I can be biased for a moment, I would argue that one of them is much more active in how they grow students spiritually :) )

As for the concept of holistic education (which, if not obvious, I think is the most valuable model of college education - recognizing that I haven't really articulated what that is explicitly here), I didn't mean to suggest that yours was otherwise - you certainly attended a fine institution. What I was trying to convey is that I've seen many people attend universities whose education model was not much than a means to a degree. Now, there is certainly value in this model, and I don't mean to look down upon it in any way. I bring it up to suggest that, particularly in the context of the Christian church which, I would argue, does not do the greatest job of teaching and guiding its young people to think critically about their faith and what they profess, there is evermore the need for institutions of higher learning that educate the whole person. Obviously there will be many people who feel the call to attend a non-Christian university, and that should not be discounted or viewed as a bad thing. But we need Christian institutions of learning to educate and guide young people in their faith and their scholarship.

With regards to engaging the world of the secular academy - I completely agree with you! It's a challenge that faces the church now and will in the future - a mission that takes courage to embark on, and we need to support and encourage those that do. Thanks!

11 Comments

Santine Hsueh

1

Santine Hsueh commented…

I remember debating between Wheaton College and University of Illinois. Attending U of I was probably the greatest choice I made because there were definitely things I learned here that I would NEVER be able to learn in a Christian college.

Andrew Caldwell

2

Andrew Caldwell commented…

If I may, I'd like to respectfully disagree with some of the points you make here.

"If you are someone who enjoys the intellectual challenges presented by friends over why you believe what you believe, then you are ready to do the necessary research to answer the tough questions that inevitably arise in a non-Christian environment."

Implicit in this argument is that one will not be challenged in their faith at a Christian university. On the contrary, attending a Christian university challenged many of the beliefs that I held about my faith. However, it also gave me a vocabulary to discuss the new issues I was being presented with, backed up with scholarship to think critically about the topics and texts that I was encountering. Further, this was done in a Christian community where faculty nurtured their students, guiding not to become mindless followers of a religion, but to thoughtfully reflect on their faith and what it entails, its context in the culture and the wider world, and how they can live out that faith. Now perhaps one would find their way to a similar experience at a non-Christian university, but the emphasis on holistic education - educating the entire person, their character, their mind, their heart - that is often emphasized at Christian universities is of immense value, and is a perspective that I just do not see many non-Christian universities putting much though into. If we're debunking myths pertaining to this, let's go ahead and debunk the myth that students are not intellectually challenged in their faith at Christian universities. It's just not true.

"At my university, we Christians rallied around one another and prayed for each person in our fellowship group. We supported one another, we offered hope to each other and our lives were, for the most part, happily engaged in the hardest mission field we will ever face. The wonderful support in the adversity we encountered did more to bolster our faith than I could ever imagine somewhere else."

That's wonderful that you had this experience in college. I too had a similar experience of support and encouragement from my friends and peers. I was also fortunate to have faculty that not only cared about my education in a particular field, but cared about my well-being, my character, and my development as a thinking Christian. Now certainly there will be people like this non-Christian universities, but I think that is not the norm - at least in my experiences at a Christian university and a non-Christian university. I think that you undervalue Christian professors in your admonishing of non-Christian universities.

Christopher Unseth

4

Christopher Unseth replied to Andrew Caldwell's comment

Hi Andrew,

You bring up some really great points. I think that it is indeed very important to remember that faculty at a non-Christian school are less often Christian, in fact, some are anti-Christian! And I would never suggest that everyone should go to a non-Christian school. But for some of us, it might just be the proving ground where our faiths become real to us and there are wonderful support networks even at non-Christian schools through Intervarsity, Chi Alpha, and Campus Crusade, to name a few.

Your other point asks: can Christians be just as spiritually challenged at a Christian college as at a non-Christian one? It's a great question and I think that I would say that it's a very personal decision as to what kind of challenge you'd like.

I drove a friend home last week who goes to Moody Bible Institute. He and I have wonderful discussions about Christianity and what some contemporary theorists say about meaning and significance in literature. He's so sharp! He knows the theories and he knows how to refute them. Likewise, we talk about the Christian scholars he's read. Just as he knows the secular theorists, I know most of these Christian’s arguments and frameworks of thought, as well as their weaknesses. What's the difference between my Moody friend and I? He has primarily read Christian texts and I've primarily read secular ones. BUT, we can both speak intelligently about each side.

However, the challenges we faced were of a totally different quality. I was immersed in the world of secular scholarship, getting a primary-text reading of these theories from people who actually believed what they said. While I lament not reading every Christian source that he has, he also laments only being able to speak about some of the theory through the mediating force of his teachers and other Christian literature on the subject. I chose direct engagement with the secular academy while he chose the buffer himself - but both of us have benefited from the experience and in fact, we now benefit each other in a wonderful way by having productive discussions on a wide range of topics.

I would not go so far as to say that my education wasn't holistic. Maybe it wasn't holistic according to the program of Christian pedagogy. But it was holistic in that I entered into an experience we call "college" where I wrote papers, studied texts, lived with Christians and non-Christians, chose my relationships carefully and in accordance with my faith's values, coming out of that place as an adult with coherent thoughts and a faith of my very own.

As to your last point, the myth that students are not intellectually challenged in their faith at Christian universities needs debunking. There are millions of smart, engaging, sophisticated Christians in the world who went to Christian colleges. And while this is very true, the kinds of Christians who advance the discussion in the secular academy in regards to religion, science, and literature, have at one point or another, shed the penchant for attending exclusively Christian colleges and forayed into the dangerous world of the secular academy. Unfortunately, the academy is a closed system that lacks conversation with most Christian institutions. This is a mission-field that must be penetrated from the inside and the ground-up.

Andrew Caldwell

2

Andrew Caldwell replied to Christopher Unseth's comment

Christopher,

Thank you for replying and engaging the points that I brought up.

Yes, certainly there are wonderful para-church organizations that serve as Christian support networks for students at non-Christian universities. I don't want to disregard that non-Christian universities can be places where young Christians grow seriously in their faith - spiritually and intellectually. What I wanted to address is the sentiment I've often heard that non-Christian universities provide avenues of more spiritual and intellectual growth more so than their Christian counterparts. I think it would be fair to say that non-Christian and Christian universities both have value in the ways that they can challenge and grow their students spiritually and intellectually (If I can be biased for a moment, I would argue that one of them is much more active in how they grow students spiritually :) )

As for the concept of holistic education (which, if not obvious, I think is the most valuable model of college education - recognizing that I haven't really articulated what that is explicitly here), I didn't mean to suggest that yours was otherwise - you certainly attended a fine institution. What I was trying to convey is that I've seen many people attend universities whose education model was not much than a means to a degree. Now, there is certainly value in this model, and I don't mean to look down upon it in any way. I bring it up to suggest that, particularly in the context of the Christian church which, I would argue, does not do the greatest job of teaching and guiding its young people to think critically about their faith and what they profess, there is evermore the need for institutions of higher learning that educate the whole person. Obviously there will be many people who feel the call to attend a non-Christian university, and that should not be discounted or viewed as a bad thing. But we need Christian institutions of learning to educate and guide young people in their faith and their scholarship.

With regards to engaging the world of the secular academy - I completely agree with you! It's a challenge that faces the church now and will in the future - a mission that takes courage to embark on, and we need to support and encourage those that do. Thanks!

Samantha Prosowski

1

Samantha Prosowski commented…

I was one of those people who debated back and forth about going to a Christian college. In the end, I attended a Mount Vernon Nazarene University for two years, and now the rest of my college career has been and will be carried out in non-Christian schools. God has done a lot in me through each school, so I encourage everyone to pray about what God will be doing in your life through the college you go to! :) I loved going to a small Christian school, and actually just wrote a post about this sort of thing! I linked back to RELEVANT, too. :)

http://sisfor-samantha.blogspot.com/2014/05/christian-university-things-...

Janna Watson

1

Janna Watson commented…

The church I currently attend places great emphasis on colleges like Pensacola Christian College and Bob Jones University. When looking at both colleges rules and regulations, I see more of a legalistic viewpoint than a christian one. Plus like someone mentioned earlier, neither one had my choice of major- legal studies. My whole life I have attended secular colleges, and to be honest I prefer it that way. I could never survive in a so called "Christian College" like Pensacola because of their lack of freedom. Watching students like hawks, not being able to date, only listening to hymns, 24/7? No. I love the freedom I have in Christ. But I do not use it to take advantage of others, I use it like the Bible says "To love others." My point is that choosing the right college for you is also about conviction. Let God point in the right direction, and see how far you'll go! This has been one girl's experience/opinion.

Bri Lyons

4

Bri Lyons commented…

I was torn between attending Taylor University, Calvin College and DePaul University. I am so glad with my decision of attending to go to DePaul. I agree with all three points, especially point number two. I was really worried about how I could keep my faith. But I have no more worries now. It is all in God's hands and my priority to live a life for him. I can not wait to start my college life in 2 weeks and glorify God.

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