Pastors’ Corner: How to Really Appreciate Your Graduating Seniors This Year

By Tom Gilson Published on April 27, 2023

It’s a big day coming for graduating seniors, and churches across the country share a common tradition of honoring them on a Sunday morning for it. I love those times. It’s a huge accomplishment, and they deserve the special treatment.

But I’ll never be able to watch another one of these moments without flashing back to the conversation I had in the fellowship hall with the parents of one of those honored seniors. It was about eight years ago, and their son was headed to Ohio State that fall. I gave them my heartiest congratulations, and then I said, “I don’t know if you knew this or not, but I happen to be a senior leader with a national campus ministry called Ratio Christi. Do you mind if I mention something we’ve learned about students and life on campus?”

“That would be great,” they said. So I continued. “As you probably know, the spiritual atmosphere at Ohio State is like it is on most campuses these days. It’s pretty seriously anti-Christian … .”

I was going to give them the same advice I wrote here. I couldn’t go on, though. Not right away, not after seeing the shock in their eyes. There showed no sign of disagreement or doubt, just … surprise.

I don’t think they knew that was the case. They didn’t know what they were sending their son into.

Your Best Gift to Graduating Seniors

That’s a parent’s issue, but pastors can help head it off, along with a lot of other spiritual dangers young people face. That’s what I want to encourage you with today.

Don’t think it’s just colleges. The internet, social media, entertainment media, and news media — it’s all filled with anti-Christian hostility. You don’t have to go off to school to run into it.

You’re probably going to hand these seniors a gift that day. The best gift any church can give its students is the preparation they need to survive spiritually.

Diving Into Hostile Waters

You know they’re heading into hostile territory. If your church is preparing them for it, kudos to you. If not, more than likely it’s because you’re feeling way too tight on time, or else you don’t know how to start going about it. Or maybe for today’s seniors, you might think it’s already too late.

I’m almost tempted to say it is. They’ll face spiritual opposition in college, but it won’t be all that new to them. They’ve needed equipping since the day they first heard, “Transgender is good, Christians are transphobes, believers are bigots.” Probably around third grade or sooner, in other words.

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So don’t miss your chance. This has got to be high on your teaching agenda. But this article is about today’s seniors. If it’s too late to give them everything, it’s not too late to give them something — which could still make the difference.

I’m going to focus on college-bound kids here. They won’t necessarily hear more anti-Christian messages, but they’ll get swallowed up in it more abruptly, and without the right prep they’ll be immersed in it 24/7. If you can help them get ready, you can help the others just as well.

Parents’ Help

First thing: You really need their parents on board. Please make sure every parent reads my companion piece. They have the most power to make sure their kids started on the right trajectory during those all-important first two weeks, when the first temptations come, and all the peer pressure with it. “Come on, let’s pa-a-arty!”

That article tells parents how to head that off, right at the start. Fail in that, and you could be taking away the student’s best long-term spiritual strength for the college experience.

But partying is just one place their convictions will be tested. If they have any, that is.

“Beliefs” Won’t Hold Up. Convictions Will.

I keep seeing surveys saying the majority young people from good, solid Christian churches and families will walk away from their faith when they leave home. I don’t believe it.

I don’t doubt the numbers. I just don’t think they’re walking away from their faith. It’s their parents’ faith they’re leaving behind, not their own. If those were really their beliefs and convictions, they wouldn’t abandon them so easily.

How do you help kids develop convictions? By teaching? That’s a fair start. But only a start. It might get them to the opinion stage, or even to belief, if you do it well. But convictions aren’t just opinions, and they’re more than just beliefs. They’re beliefs that have been ground deep into their souls through good teaching, and (this is harder but you dare not miss it!) by standing up to a real test.

It’s their parents’ faith they’re leaving behind, not their own. If it were really their beliefs and convictions, they wouldn’t abandon them so easily.

So no student should go to college without learning what Christian doctrine says on key challenges they’ll be pressured with. That’s not enough these days, though. They need to learn how to be confident the teachings are true. Then they need to know why it’s good that these teachings are true. And then they need practice standing firm when they’ve got another student — or even a prof! — telling them, “Your beliefs are backward and bigoted, and you’re probably causing some poor fellow student to commit suicide.”

I’m talking about practice with others in your church, at the very least. A simulation, in other words. Soldiers don’t go into battle with nothing but classroom training. They practice in simulators, and they practice with live fire. Come to think of it, attorneys engage in mock trials. People who want to make a case had better practice making it under opposition.

Is It Too Late?

Students are heading out very soon. More than once now I’ve asked if it’s too late. That’s because I suspect you’re asking that yourself. I don’t want to be overly pessimistic, but it’s no good painting the picture rosier than it is, either. It’s not too late, as long as you or someone in your church knows what to teach them. Or if you can put yourself through the world’s fastest crash course on it. It’s not an instant, easy learning experience, however.

Do what you can, though. For one thing, talk to last year’s seniors. Ask them to tell you frankly what it was like their first year out. Give them freedom to be honest: Do they really still believe? If so, what helped? If not, what was it that did them in? If you find one who’s standing strong, he or she might be your best trainer for next year’s freshmen. If you don’t find one who’s standing strong, then you’ve suddenly come face to face with what happens to kids who go out into the lions’ den unprepared.

I don’t know if it’s too late for this year’s students. The worst-equipped of them all could still end up growing spiritually by connecting with a great church and/or a great student ministry. If you can’t do the right equipping for this year’s freshmen, then start gearing up for next year’s. It’s not too late for them.

The Graduation Gift

You’ll probably hand students a graduation gift on that special Sunday. I recommend it be a Bible — a very specific one. Give them a copy of the Apologetics Study Bible for Students. Besides the Word of God, it’s packed full of short, pithy, and extremely helpful articles on just about every question they’ll face, from science to race to sex, written by a long list of experts. I have an article in it on “Can a person be gay and Christian?” You can bet they’ll face that one, along with just about every topic we have in there.

The other best gift you can give is prayer. I don’t know your students, but to the best of my ability I’m praying for them. Give them my congratulations. May God guide them as they go.


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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