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.
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.
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.
Christopher Unseth attended Brown University and is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. He blogs at postnineteen.com and tweets at @cunseth.