Over the last few months I have been working through a 6-part series helping Christian students think through how to prepare for life at a big university. This topic is particularly relevant, I hope, given the number of high school seniors who are in the middle of deciding where they will go to college in the fall.
This little series is based on a recent lecture I gave to the Regents School in Austin, Texas, where I laid out 6 principles designed to help rising college students think more clearly about what’s ahead. It’s also based on my book, Surviving Religion 101. You can read the prior installments here, here, here, here, and here.
We now come to the final installment, and arguably the most important of the series: “Stick together like a band of brothers (or sisters).”
I can still remember the first time I saw the World War II film, Saving Private Ryan. The opening scene of the D-Day invasion was so profoundly gut-wrenching, I almost had to leave the theater. It’s the first time I think I ever really got a taste (just a taste, mind you) of the horrors of war.
I could barely watch as those brave US soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, knowing it was almost certain they would die. And, at Omaha Beach, most of them did. The Nazis were dug into elevated positions, forcing the Americans to charge forward, unprotected on the open beach, into a barrage of bullets and explosions.
When faced with such incredible heroism, an obvious question comes up. What allowed these soldiers to be so brave? What could explain a person’s willingness to give their life so courageously?
I suppose there’s many answers to those questions. But as the movie wore on, one answer became quite clear. Following the Normandy invasion, the movie tracks a small band of soldiers who take a harrowing journey through war-torn France to find a solitary soldier, Private Ryan, and bring him home. Ryan had lost his three brothers, and the State Department didn’t want his mother to have to lose her fourth, and last, son.
After Private Ryan is finally found, it turns out he doesn’t want to leave. He wants to stay and fight. And here’s why: “You can tell [my mother] that when you found me, I was with the only brothers I had left. And that there was no way I was deserting them. I think she’d understand that.”
So, here’s the answer (or at least one of them) for how soldiers could exhibit such unimaginable bravery: they didn’t do it alone.
For Private Ryan, it was the comradery, the brotherhood, the friendship—centered around a common goal—that made him so willing to give his life. And the same could be said of the countless soldiers who died on Omaha beach. They could do things together that they could never (and would never) do apart. They were a band of brothers.
The same is true of the Christian life. Christian college students are not headed to the beaches of Normandy, that’s true. But the Christian life is a battle and the university environment can be a hot war zone with lots of enemy fire. So, how do you survive it? By not going it alone. The number one priority for students has to be to find a band of brothers and sisters to walk together with them.
First and foremost, that involves finding a good local church. Students need a church home where they can be a member, get involved, and sit under the preaching/teaching of the word of God. There are lots of church options, but make sure to find one that believes in the gospel message—we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone—and that affirms the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Similarly, students need to find a good campus ministry to plug into. This won’t replace the local church, but it will be a vital part of on-campus life and fellowship. Here’s where students can meet fellow believers who can walk with them through the ups and downs of college life. Their encouragement is often the key to keep you going, especially when things are difficult.
In my experience, the number one determining factor for why some Christian students stay strong and others fall away is the degree to which they plugged into solid Christian fellowship. As the book of Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).
And such fellowship is about more than just surviving college. Many of the Christian friends made in college—a student’s band of brothers and sisters—will be dear friends for the rest of their life. Some of the strongest bonds are formed in the field of battle. They are not just a blessing for four years, but maybe for forty years or more.
Christian friends are important, but long-term Christian friends are even more important. As a famous song once said, “You can’t make old friends.” So, plan to make them in college, and they will bless you the rest of your life.