Campus Faith Survival Guide

When I was an active Boy Scout, I earned and then later taught the Wilderness Survival merit badge. The highlight of the course was making an overnight shelter and then “surviving” a night in the woods. All this took place at the camp where I was on staff, so in reality I knew I wasn’t far from help. Still, this notion of survival has stuck with me throughout the years, and I often take an interest in shows and books about braving extreme conditions.

Lately I have focused my attention on helping high school students transition to college in a way that grows their faith. This is an altogether different kind of survival, but one I think is essential. The following is a brief overview of a presentation I have been giving lately. I hit the highlights, but I would love to come share with your youth group in person or speak with you about preparing youth for this transition.

Campus Faith Survival Guide

Balance the Head and the Heart – The idea of balance and the quest to maintain this concept is a kind of overarching principle in the life of a college student. We all know students who get to campus and become easily overwhelmed with the options and freedom. Many of us struggled to adapt to a schedule where we were our own boss. So I routinely preach balance of activities and commitments – even and perhaps especially ones regarding faith. I also encourage students to maintain a balance with what they are learning in their courses with their own traditions and experiences. Students who take religion and philosophy courses are exposed to ideas that challenge many of their faith assumptions and foundations. This is the nature of education. If students invite this challenge and respond to it with a balance of new research methods and mature responses from their backgrounds, the turbulence is much more manageable.

Connect with a Campus Ministry – It is easy for me to promote this as a campus minister. However, I firmly believe that being involved with a strong campus ministry can shape one’s vocation as much if not more than one’s classroom experiences. In fact, my own story bears witness to this. I encourage students to visit several campus ministries, but to commit to one within two months of classes starting (lest they become totally overwhelmed with midterms and ditch everything that is “optional”). I also recommend starting with the faith/denomination you are coming from. Even though this might not be a great fit for the long haul, there is less translation work up front, and a better balance is maintained. Students should be involved in a campus ministry that offers them a safe place to ask questions, grow as a leader, and serve through their gifts.

Invest in a Local Church – There are different schools of thought around the relationship between a campus ministry and a local church. I am of the opinion that campus ministries are not to be seen as churches. So I encourage all my students to find a local church that welcomes them and puts them to work. For many students selecting a church continues to revolve around 1) worship style and 2) the “trendy” church (i.e. the one everyone they know attends). I challenge students concerning both of these marks and encourage them to find a church with a clear sense of identity and mission which will equip and empower them to hear and follow their calling while forming lifelong relationships with people of different generations and backgrounds. More on this last point in a bit.

Share Life With a Small Group – For many years, even when I was serving as a pastor, I did not meet regularly with a small group. I had no idea what I was missing until I was invited to join a group. Now I cannot imagine life without a small group with whom to share life. Students need this group experience as well. Much about their transition can be isolating, and it is crucial that they learn we are not called to be faithful to God’s calling on our own. I encourage students to find a group where they can be as vulnerable as possible. This might mean they are not in a group with their closest friends, and I think much is to be gained by making sure a group is constantly challenging you to be more than you think you can be. The Covenant Discipleship model is especially helpful in my opinion. Many churches and campus ministries might offer small groups to students, and this is certainly something to look for when finding a point of connection.

Form Spiritual Practices and Disciplines – Faith is in many ways something that we practice. We develop good practices that become habits or we don’t, and these become habitual as well. Those who stop connecting with a church in college will often find it much harder to start back. I would argue that one’s time in college is an ideal time to begin forming spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, journaling, Sabbath, and engaging with Scripture. After all, those in college are developing other habits around study, rest, play, and scheduling. They are learning balance, so it makes all the sense in the world to incorporate spiritual disciplines. One of the best ways to begin learning these disciplines is to identify a spiritual mentor – someone whose spiritual life looks like what you want yours to be in twenty, forty, and sixty years – and share time exploring the practices that have formed them. This is a key reason for being a part of a church that takes intergenerational ministry seriously. Students are around their peers all the time; those who excel in their faith and life will form meaningful relationship with people from other generations while in school.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive list. I welcome your feedback and ideas about what should be a part of one’s survival guide as a student and how you might challenge what I have shared. Feel free to comment on this post or e-mail me at