When I stepped onto my college campus at 17, I was young, full of energy, and confident I knew all the answers. I was sure God had called me to my chosen school, and I was excited to start the journey. But as my dad pulled out of the parking lot and left me to get settled, I suddenly realized I was 10 hours from home, and I was completely alone. Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for that time in my life. I learned to trust God, to trust myself, and to lean on the people he provided around me. But it wasn’t an easy transition.
Fast forward a few years, and my husband and I have raised three little girls. The youngest is now in her second year of college, and it is honestly unreal to me that she is that young adult, far from home on a college campus, alone.
As parents, letting go and allowing our kids to transition to adulthood is hard.
As the wife of a Next Gen Ministry Pastor, I have had the opportunity to watch hundreds of parents send their teens off to college. Each time, there was a necessary change in the relationship between the students and the parents. I thought that seeing the transition over and over would prepare me for the inevitable shift in my parenting role. I knew for certain that a significant change was healthy and that the change was necessary.
As we started that transition with each of our daughters, I realized that no matter how prepared for the change I might have thought I was, it was hard to let go. The actual practice of stepping back to allow my daughters to make their own choices, even if they were the wrong ones, went against the grain. Still, I didn't want them to miss the experience that shaped me: The time to grow closer to God and grow stronger as their own person by working through the daily struggles of life as a young adult.
We must encourage their spiritual growth instead of controlling their choices.
As I have grappled with the dilemma over the last couple of years of letting go and allowing my daughters to transition to young adulthood, God has helped me learn that it is more important to encourage their spiritual growth without trying to control their choices. I want to share some ways that I have seen God spark their spiritual growth to encourage you as you navigate this season with your student as well.
1. Share your own faith journey with your student.
I have learned over the years that no matter who I am talking to about spiritual disciplines, discussing personal faith experiences sparks conversations so much more than any other technique I have tried. Authentic faith is contagious. I can tell someone repeatedly that they should read their Bible every day. I can repeat over and over that it will help them grow closer to God. I can buy them books that tell them I am right. But the odds are good that it will go in one ear and out the other. But, if I share with my daughters or one of the teens in our youth group how my time spent reading the Bible directly impacted my day or prepared me for a specific hard decision, that experience speaks volumes to them.
Instead of constantly buying them new devotional books, I share what I am specifically reading and how it impacted my day. I share a Bible verse that I read and explain how I am praying the words of that Bible verse for them on that day. I live out my faith without forcing them to do the same. For instance, I might text them to say, "Hey, I was reading Philippians 4:4-9 this morning, and I felt like God was telling me to pray that he will help us both think about praiseworthy things today to feel his peace." Or suppose I am encouraged because those same verses helped me focus when something happened to derail my day. In that case, I might text them how thankful I am that God had me read those words because they gave me a specific reminder to remain reasonable when I could have gotten upset.
Sharing how God is working in my life makes the point much better than me just dictating an action.
I had to come to the realization that students are struggling, and they need to see me working out my faith. If I pretend I have it all together and never have questions, they will be afraid to share theirs. I never want them to stop asking questions; I want them to embrace their doubts, dig in, and find answers. Allowing them to see that I do the same thing encourages them to do it. So, I don’t try to provide the perfect book that is going to answer every question for them; I don’t try to teach them the 10 essential principles of Christianity on a regular rotation; I just focus on my own walk with God, and I give them honest access to my journey. Don’t get me wrong, I do occasionally give them new devotional books to read or suggest Bible study plans from YouVersion. I just don’t count on them to read them.
2. Send your student real mail - cards or letters.
Students love mail. The old-fashioned paper and pen with a stamp kind of mail. Honestly, it is a novelty to them! They also need encouragement. Over the years of volunteering with youth and having our daughters at school, I've learned that letters and cards are always received with enthusiasm. I love that writing a letter allows me to give them encouragement that they can read repeatedly. I find ways to praise their use of godly character traits (honesty, kindness, hard work, caring for others, diligence, building community). I encourage you to do the same! Share what the Bible says about specific character traits and praise your student for growing in that area of their walk with God. Try to help them connect the dots between the lessons they learned about spiritual disciplines growing up and the choices they are making as an adult. Share specific ways you are praying for them. Oh . . . and always throw a little gift card in that envelope; they are college students and always appreciate the extra treat!
3. Ask your student to share their own experiences with God and how they see him working around them.
Simple truth: God is working in your student’s life, and they may or may not be paying attention. Whether they are aware or not doesn’t change his presence. So, when you get the chance to ask them about their day, ask them how they saw God working around them and through them. If they can’t tell you anything at first, that’s okay.
When they share stories about things happening in their lives, celebrate how God is orchestrating the details.
Help share how you see God working through their situations. And when they do share ways that they think God is working, listen to them and ask questions.
4. Encourage your student to find a local church where they can get plugged in.
Whether your student goes to a public college, private college, or stays at home for college, their need for an intergenerational church community is imperative to their faith walk. There are a lot of great campus ministries out there, and involvement is wonderful, but it is not the same as going to church on Sunday and worshiping and serving alongside a body of believers. Encourage your student to try different churches at first. Then, encourage them to find the one God is calling them to join and stick with that church.
As our daughters began their search for a church at school, we asked them to allow us to check the theology of the church, but other than being biblically based, our preferences didn’t matter in this search. Remember, your student doesn't have to choose a church that you, as their parents, want to attend. They must choose a church where they can hear the Bible preached, use their gifts, and grow. Let them pray and make their own decision, but encourage them to get involved. God doesn’t call us to sit in a church seat every Sunday; he calls us to use our gifts and serve one another. When we serve in a church, we get more attached, and it becomes something we care about and not something we can skip when something else comes up on Sunday.
5. Allow your student the space to make decisions and learn to depend on God for provision and wisdom.
“Life is filled with glorious opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems" (Falwell, 1997). I cannot tell you how many times I heard that statement when I was a student, and college provides a plethora of those brilliantly disguised problems. As I read posts on the parent Facebook pages for the universities where my daughters each attend, it seems like students are calling home with all sorts of different problems. Some seem inconsequential, while others feel catastrophic.
As parents, we can pick up a phone or send an email and solve most of our student's problems. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
This has been the hardest part of parenting a college student for me personally, but learning this lesson is part of that healthy transition that I watched over and over in families that I wanted to imitate. College students (and their parents) quickly learn that professors, resident directors, advisors, and bosses do not want to talk to a parent; they want the students to advocate for themselves. As students navigate their issues, they must learn to trust God to guide them. They need to learn that they can make adult choices and that they are the ones who have to live with the consequences. This process starts by solving small problems with God's help and experiencing the consequences when they make the wrong choice.
So, when our daughters call to share the struggles that they are facing, I am learning to ask four questions: 1) How do you think you can solve it? 2) Have you stopped to pray and ask God to help you? 3) What resources are available to help you if you can’t solve it on your own? 4) What can you learn from this to help you avoid the same issue later? Then, if necessary, we brainstorm options together. Honestly, sometimes their dad and I are the resources they need to use to solve the problem, but we are learning that we shouldn’t be their first resource, and sometimes we are absolutely the wrong one.
I add this to my list of ways to encourage your student’s spiritual growth because it teaches them dependence on God instead of reliance on us.
Instead of solving their problems, we must teach them that the Bible has answers to help them.
We need to teach them to stop, pray, be quiet, and listen for the Holy Spirit’s leading in their situations. However, if we never help them navigate the process, they will stop calling to ask, and that is not our goal either. There is an important balance that we are learning to navigate prayerfully.
6. Use social media, music, and videos.
The last thing that came to mind as I was writing this was our use of social media to share songs, videos, memes, and other things that express how we are feeling and how God is encouraging us. We create playlists on Apple Music and share our favorite worship songs. My daughters send me links to books or movies they love. Although I am admittedly not on the app, they send me TikTok videos that encourage them. Thankfully, I can watch those videos without actually having an account. What it boils down to is that I love how I can let them know I am thinking about them through a quick text, a direct message on Instagram, or a Bible verse. It is a good use of resources they are already using.
At Berean, we would love to walk alongside you on your journey.
The transition from parenting teens to young adults is surprisingly complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to help them grow closer to God during the transition. There are so many things you can do to encourage your college student's faith. I actually Googled ways to help your students grow in their faith before I sat down to write this blog and got upwards of 150 million hits. Needless to say, you will find lots of resources out there. I hope some things that have helped me will help you, too.
I just want to encourage you that the best thing you can do for your student’s faith is to pray for them constantly and live out your own authentic faith in front of them. Also, please know that the staff and volunteers of the Next Gen Ministry here at Berean are excited to walk alongside you as you encourage your college student during this pivotal transformation in their lives.
Falwell, Jerry. Falwell: An Autobiography. Liberty House Publishers, 1997.
Berean helps the younger generation get a solid foundation:
We understand that life in this crazy world can feel awesome, exciting, overwhelming, and confusing for your teen all at the same time. That’s why Berean Youth is here to walk alongside them! Berean Youth is a dynamic ministry for students in grades 6 to 12 to connect, have fun, and grow in their faith while experiencing the God who loves them and wants to do this life with them. Whether they are planning to go off to college or join the workforce after they graduate, Berean Youth will help them navigate their teen years and prepare them for the transition to young adulthood ahead.
At Berean, we also have a thriving Young Adults Ministry. This is a place for ages 18-29 to build authentic relationships with others who can relate to their same stage of life. Whether you're a young adult in college or the workforce, you're welcome here! You will find opportunities to grow in your faith, serve others, make lasting friendships, and have a whole lot of fun along the way!
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