A plea to prospective university students
From time to time, in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the new school year, I receive enquiries about churches in particular places. They usually go something like this: “So-and-so has got a place to study this-or-that at such-and-such university in such-and-such a city. Do you know of any good church that he or she could go to?”
My initial response is almost always to hang my head in my hands, because I am grieved over the failure of the prospective students and their parents and perhaps their pastors to consider the consequences of their actions and to plan accordingly.
What would you think of someone who told you that they had made arrangements to move to a new planet, and then asked if you knew if the atmosphere was breathable? Or that they were on their way to a new country, but they were not sure if there would be any food there that they could eat, and did you have any recommendations? You would look at them as if they were mad! Air to breathe and food to eat: surely these are your first considerations when planning such a significant step, not the questions that you worry about once the business of getting there has been accomplished!
So why is it that year after year, professing Christians students (and their parents) plan their intellectual, academic, professional or social development (or invest in the development of their offspring), and only subsequently ask whether or not their souls will receive faithful and loving care in the only environment on earth that Christ has ordained for the lasting health of his people?
Consider this: those three or more years at university occur at a seminal time of life under peculiarly trying circumstances. For many, this will be the first time away from home, away from the protection of parents and the shepherding of the pastors they have always known. They will go into a stimulating, demanding environment with a host of new enticements, fresh temptations, different companions, peculiar challenges, and unexpected opportunities. For many, the regular and immediate outward restraints of knowing and being known, of parental government and pastoral oversight, will be removed for a prolonged period of time. And all this at a time when the character is only just being formed, when physically, mentally, emotionally and very often spiritually, there is a degree of uncertainty and instability alongside rapid development. The previous anchor points of life are necessarily (and not necessarily unhealthily) being altered, and the soul may drop its anchors in better places, worse places, or simply be cast adrift. And into this potentially fruitful, potentially devastating environment goes the student, and he or she often does so without any notion of where they will find Christian care, compassion, example and instruction over the long haul. Could it be that one of the reasons why we see so many professing Christians falling away or losing their way during their university years is that they have headed off to their colleges and courses without first determining where and how they will obtain their spiritual sustenance?
This is not an argument against Christian unions and the like, nor is it an argument for stay-at-home-or-local schooling, but such a situation reflects a cripplingly low and badly mistaken view of the church, and the Christian’s relationship to it. One fears that neither the parents nor the pastors of the church from which the prospective student comes have ever made clear the Christian’s priorities, or – if one or other have set them forth – they have been thoroughly rebuffed. If that is the foundation, what will be the building? How strange to see a Christian parent providing books, clothes, funds, food, and making countless other investments in the success of a university place, and then seeming to just hope that their child will not make shipwreck of the faith along the way without making any of the appropriate provisions for the care of their souls!
I acknowledge that the prospective student may not be a Christian, and may relish the prospect of finally being out from under the compassionate, concerned and determined government of church and home. Even so, surely a concerned parent or pastor might give well-meaning counsel in the hopes that – whatever the young person’s response may be initially – should there ever be a softening, or a need for care, there will be someone on hand to provide it with faithfulness and tenderness? Is there no prospect that a message could be sent to a pastor in the university town to keep an eye open for an uncertain or slightly disgruntled new face in the congregation over the first few weeks of term?
Of course, the same holds true of decisions relating to employment and other spheres. A fantastic promotion, much improved prospects, a more impressive salary, a lovely new home in a much better area, a wonderful school for the kids and so on and so forth . . . and a potential spiritual dryness that will hold back the spiritual development of a child of God for the rest of their life on earth.
Now, to be sure, we cannot predict or pre-empt the work of God in such things. We make foolish errors often, but believers have a heavenly Father who is working all things together for good, and the battles fought as a result of our mistake may make significant contributions to our spiritual formation and yet prove a means of blessing. Of course we might make the best plans we can, under God, and discover that a distant or well-meaning recommendation amounts to nothing; people can be mistaken, sometimes badly; beneath the surface of an apparently healthy church may lurk a looming disaster. Nevertheless, none of this is an excuse to act foolishly or disobediently and expect the Lord to tidy up the mess afterward: “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”
For the Christian who is a prospective student, this may mean more work and hard choices. It may mean sitting down with lists of universities on one sheet and churches on another and working out where there is an appropriate correspondence. It may mean beginning with a long list of universities and doing the research on faithful churches in those towns and cities, with a line drawn through those halls of learning without halls of holiness in the vicinity – no matter how otherwise enticing the prospects or how creditable the courses. It could require a couple of visits to see how the rubber hits the road in a particular congregation. It may mean that you make your plans and decisions with the words ringing in your ears, ratcheted into your mind, or written on your paper: “Those who honour me, I will honour, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” Should unforeseen dangers and trials then come, there is a promise for the child of God to cling to: “Lord, you know that in my heart and in my plans I set out to honour you. Father, please now protect and prosper your child!”
In the coming year, then, as you contemplate any move, whether it be a application for a university place, a shift in employment, or any other such change of place, consider your soul, and therefore consider the church. Make every effort to get yourself into a spiritual environment in which you will not merely survive but are likely to thrive. Before you go among wolves, seek out and set out after God’s appointed environment and God’s appointed under-shepherds for the salvation, succour, support and safety of his flock.