At a Christian college, you'll find many opportunities for Christian growth and discipleship. How do you make the most of those opportunities? We took our question to several spiritual leaders in the Christian college community. Here's what they had to say.
Build Good Habits Now
"A lot of students leave for college with zealbut you need more than zeal to grow spiritually," says Bob Rohm, vice president for Christian ministries at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. "Zeal without knowledge can lead to chaos."
It's never too early to start practicing the basic disciplines of solitude, service, prayer, worship and Bible study. Even if you practice the disciplines now, there may be ways to make these activities even more meaningful.
"For instance, when you study the Bible, don't just read the words. Meditate on them. Chew on them," recommends David Roland, campus minister at Shorter College in Rome, Georgia. "Also, keep a spiritual journal and write prayers and questions to God."
Bill Fisher, dean of Christian faith and life at Huntington University in Indiana, agrees that students should always study the Word in a way that broadens and strengthens their faith.
"I love it when students come to college with a hunger for God's Word in a new way," says Fisher. "These are students really engaged with the Scripture. The Bible is always food for your soul but making it food for your mind will help build a solid spiritual foundation."
Personal devotions are also important in enhancing your spiritual development. However, try not to approach it thinking, This is my devo time and when I'm through with this, I'll go about my day.
"Paul talks about praying without ceasing and walking in the Spirit," says Fisher. "Try to live in a way that every moment is your devotional life. Devotional time should bleed into your day. It should be your launch pad for your life as a whole, including how you date, how you study, how you build friendships, everything."
Jump into Community
You should start connecting with the campus' Christian community even before you settle into the dorm. During your campus visits, check out a few churches in the area. Also, ask current students where they go to church and what they like best about their church.
"I think the most important thing for students to do when they first get to college is to find fellowship groups. That peer support is crucial in fostering spiritual accountability and growth," says Stan Keehlwetter, dean of the chapel at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
The typical college campus is exploding with opportunities to connect. Besides the fellowship you'll find at church, there are dorm Bible studies, peer support groups, music programs and athletic programs, just to name a few. You just have to find your niche. For example, if you dig nature, try campus prayer walks.
By making connections with people on campus, you'll also find spiritual mentors and accountability partners. These folks are crucial to your spiritual well-being. For instance, if you recognize that you're struggling to make time for God, talk with your resident director, a professor or the campus chaplain. All of these people can provide wise counsel to help get you back on track.
"Christian colleges have a very well-established and organized support structure that students can take advantage of when they need help refocusing," says Keehlwetter. "Faculty and staff, as well as resident assistants have all struggled with the same issues themselves, so they are in a great position to be able to offer advice."
God made us relational beings, which means that we're at our best when we're learning from and loving one another. Keehlwetter recalls a freshman who was incredibly quiet and reserved when he first got to campus. But then he got involved in sports and developed close friendships with his teammates and slowly he began to come out of his shell. As he opened up to people and started making friends, he began to grow spiritually. "This student's relationship with his peers impacted him greatly. It made him much more outgoing and engaged," says Keehlwetter. "By senior year he had become a real spiritual leader."
Grow Through Service
Christian service is a powerful tool for spiritual growth. For this reason, spiritual leaders encourage new students to get involved in serving and helping others.
"You can get involved in prison ministry or work with the elderly in an assisted living facility," says Keehlwetter. "You can serve as a mentor to elementary or high school students in the surrounding community. The possibilities are endless."
Service helps us get outside ourselves to see God's bigger plan for our lives; it helps us learn to love God and love people. Roland notes that when students step outside their own lives and experience how others live, they often develop a new perspective on how they want to live.
"Going on an overseas mission trip or into an inner city often prompts students to change their major or rethink their paths in life," says Roland. "Witnessing injustices in the world makes students reevaluate who they are, and they see more clearly the areas in themselves that need changing."
Nathan Flora, campus minister at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tennessee, recommends that students not obsess over the question, "What does God want me to do with my life?" Instead, he says that they should focus on the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world. Then they can ask themselves how God equipped them to best serve in what God is already doing.
"Don't get caught up in trying to uncover some secret plan God has in mind for you," says Flora. "Instead, learn where God is working in the world and then consider your gifts and abilities. You have the freedom to follow God on many different paths. God will bless you in whatever choice you make."
Prepare to Stretch Your Faith
Fisher recommends students come to campus with a plan to connect with God.
"A lot of students have 'ridden the spiritual wave'meaning they've gone to church their whole lives but haven't given a lot of thought to what their faith really means to them," says Fisher. "You need to have a plan for transferring your faith setting from one place to another."
Fisher says there's a phrase they use on campus: "Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The idea is to challenge yourself in ways that will stretch your faith. This can happen in a number of waysfor instance, through classes and chapel services that put you in touch with Christian history and the broader Christian faith community.
Stretching your faith also means engaging in conversations with students who come from other Christian traditions. Fisher remembers a student who entered his office one day with a bewildered look on his face. The student said he'd talked to a Lutheran and was shocked to learn that Lutherans were so committed to Christ.
"It's funny how we have preconceived notions about people without even getting to know them," says Fisher. "That's why it's so important to talk to other people."
To broaden your faith, the phrase, "Stop, look, and listen" comes to mind. And when you're confused, don't be afraid to seek answers.
"Ultimately, your spiritual maturity is up to you," says Keehlwetter. "You learn by asking questions. So ask a lot of them."
Fisher agrees and adds, "Remember that questions don't have to be faith-shattering. They can be faith-enhancing. Embracing those questions will help you develop a deeper faith, more maturity in Christ, and a readiness to engage the world."
Also, keep in mind that college is designed to help you learn and grow in many different ways.
"These four years of Christian education are rather unique in the grand scheme of your life," says Flora. "There's so much academic, emotional, psychological, and spiritual potential for every student on campus. Since you're free from the many commitments that come later in life, this is the perfect time to really delve into your faith and determine what it means to you and live it out creatively."
It's About God
"Don't let the word 'discipline' scare you off, thinking that it sounds too much like work," says Rohm. "Yes, it takes effort, but the freeing joy that comes from practicing spiritual disciplines is amazing."
Of course college life is hectic. You're bound to have days when you miss your devotions or you fail to make it to chapel. That's OKdon't have a big guilt trip over it. Just pick yourself back up and go on.
"Guilt is not the motivator God wants to use to stay in touch with you," says Flora. "So let go of it. The earliest Christians didn't have the resources we have to practice daily devotions. They stayed in touch with God's Spirit through fellowship, prayer, conversation and Scripture.
"You can do the same through conversations with students, and through interacting with Scriptures spoken in classes, cars, dorm rooms and cafeterias. And don't feel that praying before a meal is just a courtesy prayer because even a quick, simple prayer is keeping you in touch with God. Don't take these moments for granted. God uses them to nurture your relationship."
And while we're on the subject of guilt, don't feel bad about taking a little time for yourself. Take a hike, sip coffee, or just chill with a good book. Carving out some personal time will refresh and revive your soul from the inside out.
Remember, the spiritual disciplines aren't just about taking in information and ideas; they help you build a deeper relationship with God.
Says Fisher, "This is the timein the context of a Christian communityto experiment with the spiritual disciplines and really grow with God."