To the Concerned Parent of a College Freshman

What a whirlwind this week has been for you! You’ve planned for months, running through the list of essentials and packing up those extra-long sheets, posters, and bed raisers, only to make numerous trips to Walmart during move-in. You finally realized there were no more errands to run to finalize the dorm room and no more paperwork to turn in, so you looked your son or daughter in the eye, took a deep breath, and said, “I guess it’s time”. 

It’s been 15 years since my parents left me at my dorm room at Virginia Tech and I still remember the sadness of the goodbye that would eventually settle into an unnerving reality that things were different now. I loved my parents as much as ever and desired the freedom that becoming an adult brings, but they were no longer going to be there every night to ask how my day was or help me navigate life’s challenges. 

Now that the dust has settled from move-in, I’m sure some of these realities are hitting you, the parent, as well. I believe this experience can hit Christian parents especially hard. You’ve “trained your child up in the way he should go”, teaching him God’s law “diligently when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Prov 22:6, Deut 6:7). Now you are sending him off into the world and fear creeps in. “Have I done enough?” you wonder. “Will he walk with Jesus now that he’s on his own?”

Some of the hardest phone calls and messages I receive are from Christian parents, deeply troubled that their student may not choose to join a church or campus ministry or show any interest in following Christ now that they’re out of the house. This breaks my heart, because while I have never sent a child off to college, I am a mother of three little ones, and just recently sent my oldest to kindergarten. “Will she be influenced by the world? Will she continue to love God and love others?” I have wept while pondering the question of whether I am equipping her and discipling her so that she will walk with Christ for a lifetime. Parent, I hear you and understand your concerns. I truly feel for you while you fear what the future could hold for your child and start to realize you can’t control it. From a fellow parent, and most relevantly to you, a campus minister, here are a few suggestions for how to practically care for and guide your college student, as well as process these fears.

Give them space

I know, I know. The piece of advice you probably don’t want to hear but already know to be right. Your student is journeying into adulthood. Their first semester of college, whether they realize it or not, they will begin to figure out who they are and who they want to become. You won’t be doing their laundry anymore, making their meals, or hearing from their professors if they miss class. Give them some space in their spiritual life as well. They are at a point in life where they need to be the ones to decide for themselves if they will invest in a church and campus ministry. Don’t misunderstand me; your input into their lives is still incredibly valuable and will be for the rest of your life! But trust me, unwanted pressure from parents to join a campus ministry is almost always a recipe for rebellion. Give them space and time, ask a lot of questions, and offer a listening ear. 

Every year, I get at least a handful of calls or messages from parents telling me they are concerned because their student isn’t showing interest in a campus ministry or church. I welcome these calls! I am your ally and want the best for your child. It’s why our family spends our life on college campuses. Sometimes I am asked by parents to contact students without telling them that the prompting and contact information was from them. I’m happy to do this if I already have a relationship with the student. However, if I’ve never met your son or daughter, a more helpful way to connect us to them would be to give them our contact information or ask if it’s ok if you share their number with us. Part of giving space is having healthy boundaries and letting your student take the initiative. Give them some space, and then incorporate the suggestions below.

Ask for and plan for quality time

Giving your son or daughter space does not mean you are waiving all responsibilities as a parent! Your role in their life looks different now, but you’ll never stop being mom or dad. Think of ways you can connect meaningfully with your student while they’re away at school. Maybe instead of waiting by the phone every afternoon after their 2pm class (because, let’s be honest, you have their class schedule memorized), wondering if you should call or if you’ll hear from them, you could set up a weekly time for a phone call. Preserve your Tuesday mornings or Sunday evenings for that time of connection, and in the meantime, don’t stress about whether you’ll hear from them. I know this isn’t true for every college freshman, but many will miss hearing your voice after day 2! Set up your routine time and be pleasantly surprised when you hear sooner.

If you are concerned about your child’s spiritual health, try not to bring it up in every conversation. Sometimes your daughter will call you needing help with the laundry machines because, remember? You’re not doing it anymore. Don’t try to sneak in a mention of how she should check out Cru or the church down the street in between answers to her actual questions. Rather, ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and seek out unhurried moments of quality time with your child. Bake her favorite dessert together or stay up late for some tea when she visits. If she doesn’t have a car, offer to drive her home for break rather than take the bus.

When I was in middle school my dad would occasionally offer to drive me to school. I quickly learned that these were good for “moments of instruction” and I got a little nervous every time he offered. Then, over time, I realized that he genuinely wanted to spend time with me and that not every car ride was a learning moment. If you build in this quality time throughout the year, don’t pounce with “have you joined a church yet?” after 5 minutes of conversation. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. I bet before long you’ll be talking about her spiritual health without even asking a direct question about it.

Give up the illusion of control

Too often when it comes to discipling our kids, we assume that there’s a formula. You heed the instruction in Proverbs, they memorize the catechism, you do evening prayers and voila! Before you know it you’re sending off a perfectly mature, Jesus-loving 18 year old to college. What we forget is that even the instruction in Proverbs to “train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he shall not depart from it” is wisdom, not a promise. Even if it were a promise, let’s be honest, none of us are going to do it right! If we truly believe the gospel, that we are imperfect sinners saved by grace, we will recognize that every aspect of our parenting will be tainted with sin. What good news that God, by his grace, saves our kids despite our imperfect efforts.

We don’t neglect the important responsibility of raising up our kids to follow Christ, but at the same time recognize that it is God who changes hearts and lives and not us. You may be feeling right now that you have “lost control” with your son or daughter at college, but the reality is, God has been directing the steps of everyone in your family since they were conceived. The popular modern hymn, “In Christ Alone” says this well: “From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”

Parent, rest in this truth! Rest knowing that your child is in the hands of the God of the universe. I’m not going to promise you that your child is certainly saved and will eventually get “back on track” with your ideal for him. However, I can promise you that God, who is rich in mercy and abounding in steadfast love, sees and knows you, and sees and knows your kid, and is “working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Pray!

Parent, whether you’ve been praying for your child since conception or are just starting this practice, it’s never to late to start praying for your children. When you are fearful: pray. When you feel out of control: pray. When you lack wisdom: pray. Even, and especially, when you feel hopeless when your child walks away from the truth you’ve taught, “rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).

Here are some suggestions of how you can pray for your child. Pray for:

  • Your child’s salvation if he or she doesn’t already believe
  • Believing friends and a community that will point your student to Christ
  • Protection from anything that promises fulfillment that will ultimately not satisfy, and the realization that only Christ gives satisfaction
  • A good relationship between you and your child, and opportunities for quality time and deep conversation
  • Your own trust in God’s sovereignty

Dear parent, one day I will be the mom saying goodbye to my kid and I’m sure if I could talk to you, you’d tell me it’ll happen faster than I could ever imagine. For now, I’m a campus minister who desperately wants your son or daughter to know Jesus and the gospel that captures hearts and transforms lives. I’ll be praying with you and for you, and who knows? Next time I’m on campus maybe it’ll be your son or daughter the Spirit prompts me to say hello to.

-Written by Katherine Riendeau who is a campus staff in Cru at JMU

Humility

The Biggest Threat To Ministry

What would you say is the biggest danger keeping you from being effective for God’s Kingdom? Is it the moral confusion of our society, distracting the people you hope to help? What about “big” sins like sexual immorality or alcohol misuse? Maybe the biggest threat is your own busy schedule?

As Christians have watched leader after leader become discredited, I have been asking myself that question. As serious as those issues are, they are not what I’m most worried about. In my opinion, the biggest threat to effective ministry is pride. This pride doesn’t just affect “famous” Christians or full-time missionaries. You, college student, can be prevented from ministering to your peers by pride.

Youthful Arrogance

A google search for a dictionary definition returns three options, so let’s go with this
one: “a feeling that you are more important, or better than other people”. Now, I don’t meet many people who would say those exact words. Many of us, especially Christians, know that it is not socially acceptable to be obvious about our pride. But it still finds ways to assert itself. Here is what it might look in your life:

After pondering a theological question for only a few days, a student decides they have a better answer than the one provided by thousands of years of church history, and the intelligent individuals who have pondered the question already.

A Bible study leader insists on writing their own content rather than using a study put together by people with seminary degrees and decades of campus ministry experience.

When asked if she’s found a church yet, a woman says can’t commit to a local church
because she can’t find one good enough. This despite several wonderful, solid churches in her area.

After being passed over for a leadership position, a man gets angry, feeling like he was entitled to the job.

Are you recognizing yourself yet? I have done all these things, so I don’t bring this up to shame you. Pride can affect anyone, but there is something intoxicating about being eighteen and out of the house for the first time. Or being twenty-one and realizing that you are “older and wiser” than most of the people you know (other college students).

Part of entering adulthood is realizing that you can be responsible; that you have ideas and skills to contribute! Unfortunately, it is incredibly easy to take that step from, “wow, I can contribute!” to, “my ideas are better than anyone else’s”.

This is exacerbated by a culture that tells us we “deserve” to be given authority. All
while our social media grants young people influence disproportionate to their expertise. Even in ministry, we often equate skill with spiritual maturity, and give young leaders too much too quickly. All of these are traps laid for you, young Christian, tempting you to think of yourself more highly than you ought.

Your insight is valuable for the building up of God’s church. Your skills are necessary for the advance of the Kingdom. But arrogance would have you believe that no one else has insight to share. That you, and you alone, know all the pertinent information. That you are the only one who has figured out a solution.

Are you angry about a deficiency at your church? Are you frustrated about something in your campus ministry? Be careful. Your frustration may be valid, but that does not make you an expert, and it does not make the leaders of those institutions’ incompetent. There may be good reasons for the way things are. Whatever situation you are facing is likely more complicated than it first appears.

We are having an important cultural moment in the church, where leaders are being
held accountable for grievous sins. Leaders should be held accountable, and sins should be called out. But even when we are morally correct we have a choice: will we approach our Christian siblings with the arrogance of being momentarily superior, or will we approach them with the humility of one who is also saved by grace through faith?

Pride in Scripture

You may still be wondering why I say pride, and not other moral failings, is the most dangerous sin. Let’s consider scripture. In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells the story of two people praying. One is a religious man, a Pharisee. If you’ve spent time in church, you probably know that the Pharisees get harsh treatment from Jesus. But in their day, they were respected religious leaders. Think of this first guy as someone who reads their Bible daily, goes to church every week, volunteers with youth ministry, and generally is a Godly man you admire.

The other is a tax collector. This job title was shorthand for someone who worked for the pagan Roman empire and against God’s people. They were usually cheating people out of money as well. It’s hard to have a modern-day equivalent, but just think of someone whose character you don’t admire at all.

Both men pray to God. The Pharisee, aware of his squeaky-clean religious image, prays confidently to God. He talks about his spiritual resume, and thanks God that he is not a sinner, like the tax collector. Contrastingly, the tax collector is self-deprecating and lowly. He pounds on his chest and begs God to have mercy on him.

Jesus ends with this statement in verse 14 : “I tell you that this man (the tax collector), rather than the other (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It is very clear that, although the tax collector has many sins in his life, it is the pride of the Pharisee that is the point of concern. This is in concert with a litany of other scripture that condemns pride (James 4:6, Psalm 75:4, Jeremiah 9:23-24 just for starters).

I say pride is the most dangerous, because by its very nature pride cuts us off from the correction of God. If we believe that we are better than other people, then it is almost certain that on some level, we believe we are better than God. If we are prideful, we do not see our need to be saved. When we are arrogant, we are not responsive to calls to repent of sin. Pride prevents us from relying on God to change others’ hearts, which is the core of ministering to another person. It is the sin that, left unchecked, will feed all other sins in our lives.

Steps Towards Humility

I have good news and bad news. Lets start with the bad news. It is rare that I meet a college age person who doesn’t struggle significantly with pride in some area of their life. I don’t know if it is something about developmental brain stages or what, but being prideful is a hallmark young adulthood. 

The other piece of bad news is that God often teaches humility through suffering. In my early twenties I saw my inappropriately high view of myself and I asked God to teach me humility. He did this by allowing me to go through the hardest period of my life to date, and he permitted that period to stretch on for multiple years. It was awful. 

This is your heads up. The path to humility likely leads straight through a valley of suffering. Yet the gold of our character is rarely purified in any other way. Any small bit of humility I have gained has come at a great price, and this makes it more valuable to me. I know I still have a long way to go!

The good news is that you can fight pride and pursue humility whether you are currently suffering or not. A few quick tips are below:

  • If you think you aren’t prideful, then it is probably a bigger problem in your life than you realize. Everyone struggles with pride, it is arrogant to think you are immune to it.
  • Find a Christian who is older than you and ask them to meet with you regularly. This can be formal or informal. Tell them you want to fight pride. Then simply be honest with your thoughts and feelings about situations. They can point out where arrogance is creeping in and speak wisdom to you. 
  • Pray for humility. Ultimately it is Christ who overcomes our sinful hearts. Ask His Spirit to make this change in you.
  • Discipline yourself to behave humbly, even if you don’t feel humble. Can you listen more and defer to others’ ideas above your own? Can you serve those around you by doing “lowly” things like cleaning toilets or washing dishes? As we discipline our bodies to behave in humility, our minds and emotions will follow.

Christ and Humility

The one Being in the universe who has every right to think highly of Himself is the one with the most humility. If there is anyone who can rightly demand that all people at all times defer to Him, it is God. Yet when God became a man and walked among us, that is not how He behaved:

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled Himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11

Christ deserved every top position and every accolade. Yet He humbled Himself, and lived a life of relative obscurity and service to others. Then He was wrongfully accused and criminally executed in the most humiliating way possible. 

Did you notice the “Therefore” halfway through? It is because of His self-forgetful love that we worship Him.  He is worthy of worship all on His own, but His demonstration of humility paradoxically exalts Him as the supreme servant and King. The more we realize just how humble Jesus is, the more we exalt and worship Him. It is part of what makes Him great.

Are you more important than God? Are your plans superior to the Creator and Sustainer of Life? Of course not. And if God lowered Himself to serve, we should not aim to behave differently. Christian, your only way forward is to run from pride and pursue humility. Your life and ministry depend on it.

-Written by Jane Story who is a campus staff with Cru at JMU