The North American church is losing younger members. College is a critical time for forming or rejecting faith, but religious disenchantment grows already during middle and high school. As college educators, we inherit the results. Some of our students are reluctant to discuss faith-related topics. Others quietly protest to themselves about Christian education.
I have struggled with this issue partly because I want to ensure that my students have heard the love-drenched gospel of Jesus Christ. Also, I know from conversations with students at many Christian universities that they often see the church as hypocritical, unloving, and culturally backward.
Therefore, on the first day of class, and later as appropriate, I share a bit of my faith journey—after talking about my own academic path and my family life. I realize that I am not my students’ pastor, and I teach in a classroom or online, not in a church. Still, my students and I are at an avowedly Christian university where faith is relevant to our relationships as well as to the subjects we study.
I hope to offer a winsome, transparent testimony with space for doubting students to feel welcome. Then I can comfortably call upon my faith journey as appropriate during the course, including when students express their concerns about the church in class sessions or in private conversations.
I begin by saying something like this: “I just want you to know that although we are together at a Christian university, we might be at different places in our faith journeys. It can be confusing. Even the word ‘Christian’ means so many different things to people. For some, it connotes specific political or moral convictions. For others, it means rules and regulations and even hypocrisy. I get it. I have some of those feelings too.” I aim to affirm the Christian faith while admitting that addressing the faith can be a messy business.
Then I personalize both the Christian faith and my own faith journey. My goal is to create an hospitable climate for personal differences in faith backgrounds and understandings. I add something such as this: “You will hear me talking about being a ‘follower of Jesus Christ’ because that’s how I view myself. To me, being a Christian means following Jesus. I’ll invite you during the semester to follow Jesus as well—maybe when I talk about discerning a Christian perspective on our course topics. The Bible is especially important, but we have to be careful not to misuse Scripture.”
Finally, I know from experience that I need to say something specifically about doubt. Many of my students carry doubts; some of them have significant doubts about Jesus or at least the institutional church, even if they don’t admit their doubt to others. Some students are quiet skeptics. As such, I say,
Maybe some of you have doubt about following Jesus. I get that too. In fact, I have doubts, especially when terrible things happen. I struggle to understand why God let me grow up in a difficult family situation that contributed to my lifelong anxiety and depression. I struggle when I see how some Christians and churches treat people, and when some apparent Jesus followers say awful things about others in public. But then I think about the blessed person who wrote the book of Hebrews near the end of the Bible. The writer talks about great people of faith, including Abraham, the father of the Jews. The author says that Abraham went forward in faith even though he didn’t know where he was going [Heb. 11:8]. Wow, that’s me too. I follow Jesus, but often I don’t know how to be faithful in today’s crazy world. If you too have doubts, if you feel lost sometimes, I’m so glad you’re here. We’ll journey together.
My goal is to use Scripture to cast an inviting sense of personal faith. In my experience, most students have not considered doubt as an aspect of faithful living. They tend to think of faith as on or off, true or fake.
I never want to challenge students’ faith in ways that will turn them away from the Lord, causing them to “stumble” (Rom. 14:13–23). But I do seek to be honest and transparent so students trust me and feel free to talk with me privately about their faith and doubts.
This posture also provides a context for me to assure students that although I am deeply committed to a Christian perspective in my field of communication, there are different views from within the faith. I want to hear about their journeys to be faithful communicators in a broken world. In short, I hope to welcome student doubters to a lifelong journey of following Jesus Christ, with all of its joys and perplexities.
I am convinced that our approach to student doubters is enormously important for the future of Christian higher education and the church. If we can model authentic, humble faith, we will teach through powerful attraction; we will persuade by demonstrating authentic faith in action, doubts and all.