The Three Most Important Lessons Christians Can Learn in College

Here at the Summit, we have an audacious goal of planting 1,000 churches by 2050. (By God’s grace, we have already planted 298!) One of the most bittersweet realities of planting churches is sending out your best leaders. One of the greatest benefits is getting to learn from them along the way. So we decided to ask some of our Summit Network pastors to give back a little share some of what God has taught them.

Every Monday throughout the summer, check in here for a dash of wit and wisdom from some of our Summit Network church planters. To find out more about how the Summit Network equips leaders to plant, grow and multiply gospel-centered churches, visit Next up: Will McGee!

–Chris Pappalardo, Editor

For four incredible years, I had the privilege of serving as a minister to college students. These were some of my best years of ministry and they prepared me well for a lifetime of being a pastor.

Several years ago, I was speaking at a conference for college students. After my talk, I was asked, “What are the most important things that Christian college students should learn while they are in school?”

I don’t remember what I said. I’m not great on the spot, so I imagine my answer was generic and only marginally helpful. But I have thought about that question a lot over the years. 

And now I have an answer:

1.) Develop a robust understanding of God’s grace—for yourself and for others. 

College is a crazy season of life. Students are living on their own for the first time and being exposed to new ideas and people. They are learning how to live with a new-found freedom that didn’t exist inside mom and dad’s house. 

I’ve seen Christian students respond to this new freedom in two ways:

One set of students becomes afraid of new ideas and experiences that don’t jive with their Christian upbringing, so they bury themselves in a campus ministry, only spending time with other Christians. They begin to judge everyone on campus for living licentious lives. They consider themselves morally superior to their “sinful” peers and begin to swell with pride. They fail to love their neighbors, fail to empathize with others, and poison their own souls because they believe that God is more impressed with them than all the heathens around them. They fail to recognize their own need for grace and fail to show it to others. 

Other students are seduced by the same experience of freedom. Over time, they do things that they never thought they would do. This often brings them great shame and guilt. They feel like they have failed the standard set by their Christian upbringing. They feel that God is angry with them, so they become distant from him. They feel judged by the “good Christian” kids.

The solution for both sets of students is to gain a biblical concept of grace. That God loves them. Full stop. 

The legalistic student needs to know that their good works do not make them any more loved by God. They are not “God’s favorites.” 

The licentious students need to recognize that nothing can separate them from the love of Christ. Nothing they have done has made God love them any less. The front door to God’s grace is always open, and they are always invited to come home. 

If you fail to develop a healthy theology of grace you will crush others under the weight of your judgment. Or you will crush yourself under the fear of not measuring up. 

2.) Prepare for suffering today.

While many students come to college already having experienced a great deal of tragedy in their lives, a lot of students have lived 18 years free from much pain and challenge. 

The reality is that if you live long enough, you will experience difficult seasons of life. College is a time to prepare for these seasons ahead of time. I’ve found that those who consider God’s faithfulness in suffering before they have suffered are usually better prepared. 

When I was in college, one of my close friends received the tragic and unexpected news that her father had died. I remember watching her life very closely over the years that followed. She spoke often and boldly of God’s faithfulness even in her deep sorrow. She grieved, but not without hope. Her life was a living sermon that preached the compassion and faithfulness of God. 

Years later, great suffering and grief came into my own life. When my son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I was able to reflect on my friend’s example and trust that God was faithful even in the midst of my pain. I don’t know how prepared I would have been had I not spent time in college preparing for suffering ahead of time. 

I have pastored many college students over the years who have lived through their parents’ divorce, who have buried their friends, who were abused. Our world is broken, and life is very difficult, but those who resolve today to set their hope on a God who is making all things new can persevere through life’s greatest trials tomorrow. 

3.) Think about heaven—a lot. 

This is hard for 18 to 22-year-olds because it seems so far away. But as I get older, I become more convinced that when we “set our mind on things above” (Colossians 3:2), it profoundly shapes our lives in the here and now. 

C.S. Lewis once quipped, “Read history [and] you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were those who thought most of the next.” Lewis even personified this idea in his favorite Narnian creature, Reepicheep. Reepicheep, a tiny mouse, was so fixated on Aslan’s country that he was courageous, kind, and hopeful while still living in Narnia. He knew that in Aslan’s country, witches and goblins had no power and that good always prevailed over evil.

The motto for the college ministry that I was involved with was “on campus as it is in heaven.” We had t-shirts and other swag printed. We even had a hashtag (yes, those were a thing even waaaaay back then). But this wasn’t simply a catchy slogan. It was a deeply theological statement about how to live in the world today. 

I believe that if you can capture a vision for what life is going to look like in the new heavens and new earth, it will make you long for it in such a way that you begin seeking it now.  

You will seek justice, because you long for heaven where there is no injustice. 

You will love the unlovable, because you long for heaven where everyone is fully known and fully loved. 

You will partner with the poor, because you long for heaven where there is no poverty. 

You will celebrate diversity, because you long for heaven where you will worship with people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. 

You will put your sin to death, because you long for heaven where sin has no power. 

You will strive to help people worship Jesus, because you long for heaven, the place where every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

Will McGee, Ph.D. is the lead pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Brooklyn, NY. He is married to Rebekah. They have three children. Will enjoys reading, running, playing music, and exploring the greatest city in the world.