A week ago, our family went to visit our alma mater with the girls. It was good to see our friends the Colvins & Wens, catch up and see how God is leading them in their lives. Jeff flew a kite on campus with our daughter, and it was crazy thinking that not too long ago, we were among the stressed out students walking by us, thinking about upcoming final papers and exams on the last week of classes.
It’s May, which means that many students are transitioning out of their campus ministries to go back home or to a new city for work. Jeff told me the other day about being in college and having a college graduate visit. He told them that his life just consisted of going to work, coming home, and playing video games. His point in painting this bleak post-college life was to tell them to make the best of what they had now in college because they’ll never get it again. Unfortunately, when I was a student, I heard people say things like that too. I am convinced though that this is not how God desires us to live our lives or “encourage” our college-aged brothers and sisters!
I understand that the post-graduation transition looks different for each person depending on the experience they had in college/ campus ministry and the places they are moving back to. At our church and the church Jeff interned at during seminary, many students commute to school or live nearby. These students are involved in the same churches they will be in after they graduate and the transition is more seamless (though starting to 9-5 job is a not a small change for them either). But for those who studied away from home, like us, or really experienced God at school learning to love, follow, and serve him first in the context of a campus ministry, I have noticed that the transition is often more complicated. I have seen some of my friends really take off spiritually and grow much more after college, and I have seen many others who have struggled.
Having been a college student myself away from home, staffed with a campus ministry, and talked with friends through their post-graduation experiences, I want to offer a few words of encouragement for those stepping into the post-college world in the upcoming months.
1. Prepare yourself to find a good local church, settle in, serve, and give your heart there.
This is the one thing that I have found makes the biggest difference between my friends who have graduated and thrived and who have really struggled with their faith after school. It’s not that the friends who found good churches were more spiritually mature or serious about their faith, but that the Christian life is impossible to live out alone.
While there are extreme cases where Christians may have to go through a time of isolation from other believers (being in an unreached people group, being jailed for the faith, etc.) and God is able to preserve them even in those circumstances, Scripture gives us stern admonitions to not neglect meeting with other believers because we cannot make it apart from them (Heb. 10:24-25). This isn’t because going to church proves our faith, but because we were never meant to make it on our own. Some college graduates mistakenly believe that their faith was never real and their spirituality was only an act of conforming to those around them. They think this because after they graduated, they stopped pursuing God. While there is something to be said about our faith being tested and God humbling us from our prideful view of our own spirituality, I think more often than not, it’s because these Christians believe that having true faith would have meant they would be able to continue to walk with God without being settled into a solid church. In reality, Scripture says that we cannot live the Christian life apart from the local church and the means of grace God has given us through the church. (I’ve written about some of that here for those interested: When You Don’t Feel Like Getting Up For Church)
I encourage all who are moving on from campus life to start looking for a church that is gospel-centered and is solidly committed to preaching the Scriptures, loving God and loving people. Learn a bit about what to look for in a church if you’re not going back to your home church and start praying about it even now. (You can start here: 9 marks of a healthy church). I know it’s easy to get discouraged when looking for a new church, and without people around you it gets easier and easier not to go, so I encourage you to even try to get connected with other Christians you know that are already in your new city before you go. You can also look up churches online for example at the Gospel Coalition Church Directory or Redeemer City-To-City churches.
2. Don’t try to replicate your college experience, but find out what it means to follow and serve God in your new stage of life.
College is a unique time and college ministry is a unique place. Life is different because as a college student, the amount of time you have, your responsibilities, and circumstances will never be replicated again. That’s one of the reason why in many ways, college is a special time many begin to experience God in fellowship with other Christians, serving him by making choices about what they spend their time doing, and sharing their faith with the students they have constant interaction with in the dorms, classrooms, and dining halls.
Life after college is different. There isn’t anything inherent better or worse about it, it’s just different. The responsibilities, opportunities, and day-to-day life routines will change– and that is a good thing because it is a God thing. God is the one who controls your circumstances, and you need to trust that there is no better place to grow to love him and love people than the one he has sovereignly placed you in. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek to change your circumstances (like if you’re in an unhealthy church, or in extreme cases like an abusive relationship, etc.), but that there is no “ideal” life season, job, or situation you need in order to love God, love people, and grow mature in. It will be really hard for you if you think that the only way to keep loving and serving God is by doing what you did when you were in college. Why? Because you won’t be in college anymore. So, as I did when I became a new mom and moved into a new stage of life and as I am still doing now, I encourage those transitioning to pray and ask God what it means to serve and love him now. The heart of what you learned and practiced in college will remain the same– treasuring his word, growing to know him more, loving people around you– but the way it looks will be (and should be) different.
I have found that many who think that serving God at work will look the same as what they did in college end up either feeling guilty about not being able to do the same things and/or not knowing what it means to do their God-given work in a Biblical sense. Some even give up, discouraged, and “settle”. I believe that many Christians struggle because they don’t know how to make sense of the mundane work that makes up most of their days. One recommendation I have is to read up on some resources about God and work that I’ve referenced before on this blog. (There are some at the end of this old post that can get you started: Why Does My Work Matter?)
3. Humbly bring back what you learned from college to the new (or old) churches you’re going back to.
I am so thankful for the work that college ministries do on campus. I was heavily involved in my campus ministry when I was in college and worked at one post-graduation. But I think that one thing that many college students aren’t prepared for is life in their local churches after they have had a really great time of growing and learning in the context of their campuses. This sometimes leads to major discouragement, discontent, frustration, and disillusionment.
This is where finding a good, solid church is so important because it will help you to see what it means to live out the Christian life in a fuller scope than just the college years. I also think that recognizing that serving and loving God will look different for different people in different seasons of life will help many to adjust to going back to churches or entering churches that aren’t filled with college students. At the same time, I believe that those who have experienced God in deeper and new ways at school can still bring back what they learned to the churches at home (or their new churches). This doesn’t mean necessarily starting or leading the same type of ministry that you saw in college, but seeking to see what the vision of the local church and the leaders are, coming on board with that, prayerfully considering and asking the church leaders how you can serve, and using all that you have learned in order to build up the local body of Christ. It is okay to recognize the unique experience you had or even see some of the things that may be lacking or needed in the local church. But rather than using your college experience as a measure to judge other places, see the experiences and lessons you have learned as entrusted to you by God. When you see them as a gift to be stewarded, you can humbly pray for opportunities to serve and use your gifts or perspective in support of your church’s vision, and in time they can be used and leveraged for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
4. Direct thanks to God for your time in college rather than getting lost in nostalgia.
There isn’t anything wrong with missing friends or fellowship (or free time!) But nostalgia in and of itself often leads to a discontent that ultimately indicates a heart that says “God, you have placed me in a worse place than before. What you have given me now is not best.” In college, I loved taking long walks on our beautiful campus, sometimes hours at a time, praying, thinking, journaling. I remember such sweet moments of communion with the Lord as I prayed to him, sang to him, and reflected on all the things I was learning. Now, with two young girls at home, I can’t just take spontaneous breaks like that anymore. I can be tempted choose to react to these memories with a sense of loss (“Oh, I’ll never get that again. Those were the good old days.”), or dismiss them as not “real life.” But I don’t think either of these reactions is what pleasing to God.
Remembrance is one of the themes of the Bible, particularly remembrance of what God has done. But this remembrance isn’t empty nostalgia, longing for the good old days. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Rather, the remembrance we are called to is one that reflects on the way God has delivered and God has helped us already in a way that strengthens our faith in his promises for the future. This is seen most importantly in our remembrance of the work of Christ on the cross, and in smaller ways, in the specific works of God through our lives. In 1 Samuel 7:2, after God delivered the Israelites from battle, Samuel set up a stone, named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help,” in order to remember that “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” For me, instead of being sucked into longing for my college days, going to Cornell is sweet when this type of remembrance is in view. I remember who I was before college, how God worked powerfully in me at that time, and I give praise to him. I get to remember places I prayed, what I prayed there, and how he has answered since then. I am reminded of how far he’s brought me since graduation and how he is so good and so faithful to me.
I encourage upcoming college graduates who have experienced God deeply and loved their time at their campus fellowships to rather than look at what a campus ministry was able to do or at the “college life” with longing, to look to and give thanks to God who was the one who worked in your heart during the time there and through the people you knew there.
5. Resist cynicism. Trust him with your regrets, recognizing and clinging to the grace of God.
While there are some people who can’t stop longing for their college days, I know some who can’t look back without being dismissive of their college selves, campus ministry experiences, and anything college-related. I understand. It took a while before I could look back at my freshman self, full of zeal and immaturity, without cringing and just shaking my head. And then, there’s the mistakes I made, sins I committed, and people that I hurt that I feel regret for still, even after 10 years.
Sometimes, I see cynicism form because stepping into the “real world” from the “college bubble” was tough on the faith of some and they stumbled and fell. Sometimes it’s because people had rough experiences in their campus ministries and only after stepping out did they see how it impacted their view of God and the church negatively. I see some who question their faith, God, and Christianity and begin to question of whether or not what they had in college was “real” or even whether it was their “real self.”
There’s much I can say here and each person’s struggle is unique, so just briefly, I want to encourage you to look at the signs of grace in your life and consider that God knew completely what was in your heart and what was going on around you, and see how he was working in you despite yourself and despite imperfect Christians around you. As you go look back at your younger, less mature, more naiive, less sanctified self (which was really you at the time, just all those things–less mature, more naiive, less sanctified), don’t rest your gaze there. Let the grace of God bring you to a place of deeper gratitude, worship, humility, and grace. Gratitude for his blood that covers your sin and his patient perseverance with you in spite of yourself, worship for his immeasurable love and mercy with which he loves you now even though in a few years by the grace of God you will more mature and Christlike than today, and humility and grace towards others who are more immature and young in the faith than you. When you do this, you can be honest– both about the ways you fell and failed and about the ways he truly did work in and even through you by his grace and to his glory.
6. If you don’t end up struggling, praise God! And pray for your friends who are having a hard time.
Some of you already have a strong local church to go home to and a healthy understanding of work, God, church, and life. Praise God for this! I just encourage you to remember and be kind towards your friends who have a harder time transitioning. Instead of saying (or thinking) “what’s wrong with you?” I encourage you to consider that while you are strong, you have a unique opportunity to strengthen the weak. Pray for your friends, particularly those who became Christians in college, to find and settle in good churches. Listen to and lift up those who are struggling, and thank him for his grace toward you in your transition.
7. Lastly, consider the faithfulness of your God and look to the future with joyful hope!
I have always resisted a doomsday portrayal of college graduation. Why? Because it makes it seem like God is the God of the college campus and not of the rest of life! Or that his grace and the gospel which began a good work in you is insufficient to carry you through to the end (as opposed to Phil 1:6.) This is simply not true. In the same way that many of us may not have sought God as we entered into college, but he worked in us miraculously to bring us to himself and into a community of people who love him, it is not our faithfulness to him that will sustain us through the years, but his love and faithfulness to us in Christ.
Your life will change in the coming year, but look to him who has not, does not, and will never change. His grace and the knowledge of his mercy has not been exhausted in your 4 (or 3 or 5) years in college. He saved us so that in the ages to come, he may show to us the immeasurable riches of his grace! (Eph. 2:4-7) That does not end after graduation! He has worked in your life up until now, and he is able to keep you from falling– from the day you walk in cap and gown until the day of his coming. Be encouraged, looking to him who alone does not change, who has been with you up to now and will continue to carry you through to the end.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25 ESV)
1 thought on “Staying Christian Post-College: A Word to Graduating Seniors”
Thank you so much for these encouraging words! I just graduated from USC, and I think this is what I really needed to read. I am staying to serve with ICA and disciple guys for at least another year, and I wanted to know if you had any words of advice for those serving in campus ministry after graduation. Three of my classmates are also staying, and we would really like to hear what the Lord has taught you.