The Crucial College Prep Your Children Need If They’re Going to Survive Spiritually

By Tom Gilson Published on April 26, 2023

Is your son or daughter going to college this year or next? I’m sure you’ve done the basic college research, or else you’re in the middle of it: academics, financial costs and financial aid, intramural sports, residence life, maybe even the party scene. Have you thought about the most important factor of all, though? These college years aren’t only about what your adult child will know four years from now, or even how much they’ll owe. It’s about who they will be.

If spiritual life matters; if marriage relationships matter; if it matters whether your child can tell true from false, up from down, male from female, then college is almost the last place a young adult should be. Virtually every school in the country has an array of torpedoes aimed at the kind of life you’ve brought them up to live. Not every college is that bad, but the exceptions are very few. If you’re aiming your child toward one of them, good going. If not, chances are you’re sending your child away to get buried under anti-Christian beliefs along with anti-moral lifestyles, and total confusion about just about everything that really matters.

This is no empty theory I’m bringing you here. I served 34 years with Campus Crusade for Christ. After that, during the two years just before I joined The Stream, I was national director and vice president for another national campus ministry, Ratio Christi. I saw campus anti-Christian hostility rising through those years. It’s even worse now. Sex? Yes. Drugs and alcohol? Of course. Marxism? Pretty much everywhere. Not just in the classrooms but in the dorms and Greek houses.

I’ve heard one parent after another groaning and weeping over the faith their kids lost in college. Is that what you want, too? Your child needs education for life, but what kind of education, for what kind of life?

It’s Not Too Late to Find Out

I could try to talk you out of sending your child into the lions’ den we call college, but it’s better if you find out for yourself. Maybe you checked into academics and finances thoroughly enough. I’m going to show you how you can do the same with a college’s spiritual environment. Because you need to know.

This is no time to be satisfied with careless assumptions. The first one to guard against is the idea that they have to go away to school. You have other options:

  1. No college at all (that’s a growing movement, and not necessarily a career-killer at all)
  2. A spiritually sound college (they’re few, they’re expensive, but they may very well be worth it)
  3. College nearby, with your student living at home so they’re not immersed in the toxicity 24/7
  4. Or your basic going-off-to-college experience — but with definite spiritual guardrails set up around it

Check Out the Churches

You need information in order to decide. Here’s how you can get the facts you need. I urge you to do it together, parents and students both making the survey trips and having the conversations I’m advising here.

Your first step is to find a good church near the campus you’re thinking of sending your son or daughter to. Schedule an appointment with two or three pastors or key volunteer leaders there. You need to know first of all how solid their teaching is. You can’t quiz them on everything, so try these two key questions. If they answer these with sound biblical wisdom, very likely they’re solid on other doctrines.

First, ask what they teach about Jesus Christ being the one God and the one way to salvation. If they’ll waffle on that, they’ll waffle on just about anything.

Second ask they guide and advise students to deal with transgender and homosexual friends and classmates. You want them to answer in a way that’s securely anchored to biblical truth, shows wisdom in navigating the complications of not going along with the crowd, and guides students to show love no matter what.

It’s even worse now. Sex? Yes. Drugs and alcohol? Of course. Marxism? Pretty much everywhere. Not just in the classrooms but in the dorm.

Then ask the pastor, “Realistically, what are the risks for Christian students on campus here? What does it take to make it through college spiritually intact?” Ask for their church’s track record: Do students in their ministries stay with the faith through college? How many? (Don’t be afraid they’ll feel like you’re a pest. They won’t blame your son or daughter for it, and you need these answers.)

If you don’t get good answers, your search is still on. You haven’t found the good church near campus that you need to find. It might take time, but you need to keep looking until you find it.

Scope Out the Student Ministries

While you’re there, meet with leaders of at least two Christian campus ministries. Ask the same questions about their doctrine and how they guide and disciple students. Get their insight on spiritual hazards for Christian college students there. Ask them also what the fellowship is like in their ministry. How often do students get together? What do they study? What do they do for fun? Are they really friends with each other? Does the ministry hold have retreats and conferences to build those relationships, under good Christian teaching?

Most important: Do their students make it through college spiritually alive?

Be encouraged: Students who get fully involved in good student ministries tend to thrive spiritually, often better than young adults who never enter the lions’ den. It’s no guarantee. Nothing could be. But it does mean that sending your child to university need not mean you’re sending him or her to spiritual death. For some it’s a place to grown in faith like nowhere else in the world. But they need support from churches and from other students. Very few make it without it.

And now you’re ready to make your decision. Well, no, not really. There’s no such things as being totally ready for a decision like this one. At least you’ll have a better shot at it. You can decide with wisdom. Skip the spiritual research, though, and there’s no way in the world you can say you proceeded wisely.

Who do you ask?

I’ve told you generally who to ask. Now, how do you find them? For churches, start with your denomination. Otherwise, start with phone calls to the student ministries I’m about to name, and ask them for their suggestions. For Protestant student ministries, I’ll recommend starting out with the two ministries I know best: Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ, when I was in it) and Ratio Christi. There’s also Navigators, InterVarsity, and maybe a group that’s connected to your denomination. Catholics can try the Newman Center, or start with a local parish if there’s a conservative one nearby.

Another hint, if you’re having trouble tracking down a good group: See if there’s a Students for Life chapter on campus. They’re not formed specifically for Christian discipleship but you can bet someone there will know who is.

I am not saying — and you should not assume — that every one of these groups is spiritually sound on every campus. That’s one reason I’m advising you to ask about their teaching.

And now for the one last, most important move to make before you pack your child off to go away for school.

Your One Best Move If You Send Your Child Off to College

What you’ll find in this research will be sobering. You might still decide to go the traditional off-to-college route. If so, I have some very practical research-based advice to close with here. It’s a small, easy thing, in a way, and it will significantly improve your child’s chances of coming out of college spiritually alive.

The key is to get them started on the right trajectory. The first weekend or two can make all the difference. How will the start their college life? Will they connect with committed Christian students, and a good church? Or will they take advantage of their new “freedom” to party, right off the bat? Most importantly, who will be their friends?

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You can’t play helicopter parent there, and you shouldn’t … at least not very long. For two weeks, though, there’s a way you can have the influence you need. You have every right to do this. You’ve already had your meetings with churches and campus fellowships. Between you and your student, undoubtedly you’ll be able to agree on one of each that seem good places to check out.

So you require it. For two weeks.

Make It a Real Requirement

Two weeks is not too long to keep a tight eye on things. It’s long enough to help give them chance to meet the right friends and get used to going to the right places. So I urge you to make it a very simple yet absolutely firm requirement.

Tell your son or daughter, “You will go to church the first two Sundays, and you will go to the campus fellowship we agreed on for their first two weekly meetings. That’s required. Absolutely required. Just for two weeks. We still care what you do after that, but the requirement only lasts that long. You can stand that, right?”

Then you put teeth in it. You tell them you need proof. A photo, a video, a physical bulletin, anything to demonstrate they really did it. If they do that, great.

If not, then they should expect you to cut off their college funding immediately, completely, and for keeps. Seriously. Make sure they know you mean it. If they don’t do this, you will not pay another cent for their college. That includes food and housing.

That’s what I mean by “absolute.”

Because You Love Them

If they think that’s too hard on them, just tell them, “Hey, we’re doing you a favor. If you get peer pressure to go out and party, you can say no and blame it on us.” That’s not the biggest “favor” you’re doing them, though, and you know it.

You have every right to control a few hours of your college-student child’s first weeks away that way. It’s only two weeks.

And it’s your money. You need not invest it in an education you don’t want them to have. Their new friends may hit them hard with peer pressure, saying, “What’s wrong with your parents that they’d force you to do this?” Just tell your child to answer them, “What’s ‘wrong’ with them is that they love me.”

That’s my strong advice if you send them away to college. Remember, though, that’s not the only option. Now is the time to do the research. Find out what they’re getting into. You’ll be giving them a much better chance of coming out of college spiritually alive and intact.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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