Helping College Students Try On Faith Ownership


by Eric Woods


I’m not much for trying on clothes. I’m happy to be the guy who buys his jeans online and returns the ones by mail that don’t fit.

But my sister-in-law? She’s a different story. She is fanatical about trying on clothes before she buys them and making sure they fit just right. Rumor has it that, as a child, she’d try on a dozen pairs of pajamas at the store, and then—because you wear them lying down—would lie down in the dressing room in each pair, tossing, turning and squirming to make sure they were going to be comfortable for sleeping.

And, as I think about the 20-something million students heading back to college in the next few weeks (or heading there for the first time), I find that image stuck in my mind. As a campus minister, serving on a state university campus for more than a decade, I had a front-row seat for the kinds of spiritual tossing, turning and squirming that many students go through as they try on their faith… sometimes, really, for the first time.

The four (or five or six) years of college that an increasing number of young adults experience, needs to be the time when they are allowed, even encouraged, to try on their faith, see how it fits, and ultimately gain a firm sense of ownership.

Let them squirm.

The college years at both Christian and public schools can be an uncomfortable time. The protective and familiar faith grid of parents, youth pastors, and the “home church” now stands at arm’s length. Competing viewpoints from peers and professors can threaten to unseat long-held beliefs and presumptions, and college students find that what was a comfortable faith back home, may be not so comfortable anymore.

That’s ok. Let them squirm. Expect them to wrestle with what they believe, and let it be ok. Resist the urge to step in and check the fit for them. Instead, commit yourself to praying for the college students you care most about, and make sure they know you’re available as a sounding board…a safe place for tossing and turning.

Hold the mirror.

College is also a time of self-reflection, a chance for young adults to step back and ask themselves if they like what they’re becoming. As pastors, youth pastors and parents, our job is to hold the mirror, not provide an ongoing commentary about the trends we don’t like.

I’ve made it my mission to affirm what I can affirm, and on the flip side, to simply be there to help students see themselves clearly. I find they are much more likely to abandon bad habits or steer clear of trouble if they identify it themselves. It’s a skill they need to practice now.

Make sure they own it.

At the end of the day, or the college career, we want to have young adults who are so comfortable walking around in their faith, that they can’t imagine moving on to the next phase without it.

More than a few times, I’ve had graduating college seniors—yes, they do eventually graduate—tell me that when they came to college, they thought they knew what they believed, but now they really do. After being allowed the space to try it on for themselves, and walk around in it for a few years, they have left their college years with a faith they truly own, and one they will hang on to for a lifetime…like a comfortable pair of pajamas.