Prepare Christian High Schoolers for College: A conversation between Sean McDowell and Jonathan Morrow
Editor’s Note: Today’s blog post, Prepare Christian High Schoolers for College, is a conversation between Biola University‘s Assistant Professor of Apologetics and internationally-known speaker, Sean McDowell, and Jonathan Morrow, who is an adjunct professor of Apologetics at Biola and director of cultural engagement at Impact 360 Institute where Morrow teaches high school and college students. Morrow recently rereleased his classic book Welcome to College, and in 2010, Morrow and McDowell co-authored a book Is God Just A Human Invention?, which is a tremendous read for those interested in Christian apologetics. We’re grateful to Dr. McDowell for allowing us to repost this interview from his blog, SeanMcDowell.org.
SEAN MCDOWELL: Your book Welcome to College has done quite well. What motivated you to do an update?
JONATHAN MORROW: Many students are not prepared for the ideas, experiences, and relationships that will challenge their faith and shape their future during the college years. I want students to not just survive the college years, but to also flourish there—with their faith firmly intact. In many ways, Welcome to College is everything I wish I would have known as I began the college years as a Christian.
Over the past 9 years since the first edition came out, I have been so encouraged by all the notes and emails from both students and parents about how Welcome to College has been helpful to them in navigating the college years. I wanted to make sure it was fresh and updated with the best information to speak to a new generation.
If anything our post-Christian culture is moving even faster today and there are some new pressure points young people are experiencing that must be addressed. I’m more convinced than ever of the importance of the high school and college years in setting the trajectory for a life of following Jesus. That’s why I am really excited to see the completely updated version of Welcome to College come out so it can help equip more students to own their faith.
MCDOWELL: What issues have changed since you first wrote WTC, and how do you address them?
MORROW: There are many new challenges that students face today that I address in the book, but two of the most significant are questions of Identity and Tolerance. For example, social media is not just about teenagers being shallow or narcissistic. Social media is driven by a teenager’s real need for acceptance and affirmation. That’s why Instagram and other platforms are so popular. Instagram serves as a way for many young people to feel accepted or “liked” but also for them to be rejected or ignored. But the deeper issue here is one of Identity—who am I and do I matter? That’s a powerful driving force that can lead to a lot of unwise decisions. Students need to first know and then stand in their Gospel identity—that they are perfectly loved and forgiven in Jesus and they don’t have to perform for God’s acceptance.
Then there is the current misunderstanding of tolerance. Our culture wrongly understands tolerance to require agreement with everyone’s sincerely held beliefs rather than extending to others the right to be wrong. Tolerance is not agreement. It’s treating someone who believes very differently than I do with dignity and respect as one made in God’s image.
Today, students are afraid to disagree about spiritual and moral questions because they don’t want to be viewed as a bigot or judgmental. We need courage to talk lovingly but boldly about the truth. To love someone is to seek his or her highest good — that includes having some gentle, but perhaps uncomfortable conversations about important questions (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).
For example, there is growing confusion among young Christians about homosexuality and the Bible. With the success of the LGBT agenda in getting same-sex marriage legalized in 2015 by the Supreme Court, this conversation has only become more prominent. There is also intense pressure to reject God’s design for sexuality. In the updated version of Welcome to College, I spend time helping explore and engage these important questions. It will take training and courage for students to overcome the tyranny of tolerance on college campuses. They need to love well and think well.
MCDOWELL: What do you think are the most common reasons students end up disengaging their faith in college?
MORROW: There’s a lot to be said here, but as I have worked with students over the years, I have seen three basic kinds of students who disengage from their faith. First, students relativize their faith. “I guess this is just true for me, this is what I believe and how I was raised.” Faith kind of gets quiet in their lives as they get older. In practice, they leave biblical Christianity but keep the label Christian.
Second, students drift or pretend. On the outside everything’s fine. On the inside though, it’s, “I’m not sure I really believe this anymore.” They have unfortunately learned from people around them that real Christians don’t have doubts, questions, and insecurities. They don’t want to disappoint their parents or youth pastors so they don’t rock the boat. But inwardly they drift and pretend to still believe.
Or third, they will simply walk away. “You know what? I don’t believe this anymore. It’s not worth it. I don’t think this is really true.” They are weary of pretending or they simply want to live how they want to live.
At the end of the day some of the most powerful reasons students disengage from their faith during the teenage years are unaddressed questions and doubts, insecurities and isolation, moral struggles, and unwise relationships that pull them away from their faith.
MCDOWELL: Overall, how would you describe the worldview of most high school and college students? Are Christians much different?
MORROW: Unfortunately given how powerful pop culture is in shaping our students and their lack of training in biblical worldview and apologetics, I don’t tend to see a significant difference. Yes, there are exceptions but not too many. Students tend to relativize and privatize their faith. As sociologist Christian Smith has described it, they think of God as a divine therapist there to help them with their problems who operates in the background of their lives and who just wants them to be good people (i.e., Moralistic Therapeutic Deism).
Teenagers need to know what they believe as Christians, why they believe it, and how to live it out. We can’t just sit back and assume that just because a student goes to church or attends youth group that they are ready to follow Christ in today’s culture. Attendance isn’t cutting it; training is needed. Knowledge of the truth matters more than ever. And students need to know that they are not alone in this journey. They need encouragement to stand firm in a confused culture. There is a very real battle raging today for the hearts and minds of young people and we cannot operate with a business as usual mindset.
MCDOWELL: If you were going to give parents just one piece of advice as they prepare their teenagers for the college years what would it be?
MORROW: There is so much to say here! But if I had to limit myself to just one, I’d say this: create safe space for your son’s or daughter’s honest questions, doubts, and insecurities. You want to preserve and nurture your relationship with them during the teenage years. Whether you realize it or not, you are still the single most influential factor in shaping their faith. A safe relationship with you is huge in terms of helping them come to own their faith. And of course, pick up a copy of Welcome to College to help you navigate those conversations!
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell; read his blog: seanmcdowell.org. You can also read this, and other posts by Sean McDowell at the Good Book Blog.
Jonathan Morrow is an adjunct professor of Apologetics at Biola University, director of cultural engagement at Impact 360 Institute and author of Welcome to College. For more posts on how to build a lasting faith in the lives of your students and prepare Christian high schoolers for college, visit his website, jonathanmorrow.org, or follow him on Twitter, @Jonathan_Morrow.