Does College = Losing Your Faith?

by The Rev. Richard Woelmer

As a campus pastor I’ve talked with many a parent terrified of sending their pride and joy off to college, where opportunity to exercise new-found freedom is around every corner. If your parents went to college, chances are they remember the atmosphere pretty well. Perhaps they managed to get through it with their faith intact, or were part of the majority who forsook church during their twenties, and then realized the need to return once they became new parents. I, too, remember the free-wheeling world of college life. So please understand if your parents exhibit fear. It is natural—and well founded.

My experience was not too different from today. We didn’t have ipods, computers, cell phones, texting, or Facebook. But there are still plenty of common denominators: freedom, sex, drugs, and alcohol. All those good and great things that were missing in my day make it even easier to get into all those dangers in common with today.

As a freshman at a large state university, I felt I was walking into a den of iniquity. I was one of three people on a floor of fifty who regularly attended church. My particular floor was known across campus as being wild. All I had to say to an acquaintance was “I live on the fifth floor of West Akers,” and their eyes would grow wide with wonder.

But I emerged with my faith intact, and you can too, despite modern conveniences that make getting into trouble so much easier. It’s not likely that you’re going to go through four years without any bumps and bruises, but there is tremendous help available on many college campuses, both secular and “religious.”Real help and comfort can be found in the place where God’s Word is preached and His Sacraments are faithfully administered through LCMS campus ministries.

Campus ministry settings vary across the country. Some are congregations that serve both the resident community and the college campus, called “town & gown” congregations. There you’ll see ages from pre-school to elderly. There is usually an associate pastor, vicar, deaconess, or DCE who works full or part-time with students.

Others are made up almost entirely of students. These are often stand-alone churches either on, or within walking distance to campus.  The pastor’s full-time responsibility is to serve students. Usually the only one with a little gray hair is the pastor! The congregational leadership is mostly students. Some campus ministries offer housing in some type of student center in exchange for being hosts or care-takers. There are sometimes other part-time or volunteer staff people who work with international student outreach.

Even when there is no congregation nearby that engages in full-time or part-time campus ministry, there is usually a “town” congregation that will bend over backwards to make sure you have the opportunity to receive the Word and Sacrament. Some congregations even “adopt” Lutheran students, and transport them to Divine Service, or take them to enjoy a nice dinner. These are called “campus contact” congregations.

I know you’ve heard this before, but success in many areas of life comes down to making choices. If you as an ambitious freshman seek to make your college years a positive and productive experience, there is no better choice to make than finding the nearest Lutheran campus ministry and becoming a part of it! It won’t count that your roommate is Lutheran (or Baptist, etc.), thinking that discussions about faith with him or her can substitute for the gifts given in the Body and Blood of Christ. These gifts are meant for you to receive regularly, not just to discuss or think about or remember!

Students give lots of reasons for staying away from the gifts of the Means of Grace in college. Here are some of the most common ones I hear as a Campus Pastor:

1) The feeling that Sunday morning is “my time”, and during “my time” I choose

to sleep.

2) This attitude: “Since I’ve been good all my life and gone to

church, Sunday School, youth group, and even parochial school, I can now

experience the world and leave my childhood behind”.

3) Doubts about whether God is real, given the state of the world and the

contempt that very smart professors heap upon Christianity.

4) Involvement in seemingly innocent “non-denominational” small-group Bible

studies or big outreach gatherings becomes a substitute “Church”.

5) The fear that one’s studies are so demanding that one or two hours of weekly

church involvement isn’t possible.

6) Fear of attending Divine Services on Sunday alone.

7) The campus ministry just isn’t the same as church at home.


So what does involvement in a Lutheran campus ministry bring to four years of college life? Namely, preaching and teaching that doesn’t blur God’s law and Gospel, and the receiving of life, salvation and the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. It brings sound Biblical teaching, usually from someone thoroughly trained and holding a degree that included Biblical studies and languages (as opposed to the “grab bag” of teaching in non-denominational campus groups that almost always contradicts what Lutherans have learned in their Small Catechisms). It brings confession and absolution for the sins that weigh heavily upon a student’s conscience.

It also brings many “intangibles”, such as Christian friends to support and encourage you in the ups and downs of campus life, an oasis of sanity and clarity in the midst of philosophical, social, or scientific confusion. Campus ministry provides a place to pursue your vocation grounded in God’s Word, using your gifts in arts and letters, science, or athletics to communicate your witness to the world. You can sing in the choir, play an instrument, or put what you’re learning in accounting class to use as the financial secretary.

Does going to college automatically mean losing your faith? Absolutely not! I receive much welcomed affirmation of this in e-mails from students spread across the world. They most often end with a thought similar to Melissa, who attended college here where I am a Campus Pastor: “Going to University Lutheran was the best thing I ever did in college. What I learned was better than any class I ever took, better than any book I read.”


The Rev. Rich Woelmer serves as campus pastor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. He attended a state university as well as an evangelical Christian college. 

Created: June 3rd, 2008