FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Growing Spiritually on the College Campus

with John Bryson, Robert Lewis | February 26, 2010
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The research is clear – a large percentage of students are spiritual drop outs once they get to college. Will you be one of them? Pastors Robert Lewis and John Bryson tell students how they can stay spiritually strong and still enjoy all college has to offer by joining other growing believers in a vibrant, active college ministry.

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  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • The research is clear – a large percentage of students are spiritual drop outs once they get to college. Will you be one of them? Pastors Robert Lewis and John Bryson tell students how they can stay spiritually strong and still enjoy all college has to offer by joining other growing believers in a vibrant, active college ministry.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

The research is clear – a large percentage of students are spiritual drop outs once they get to college.

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Growing Spiritually on the College Campus

With John Bryson, Robert Lewis
February 26, 2010
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Bob:   This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, February 26. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I am Bob Lepine.  When you send a son or a daughter off to college, what do you hope for at the end of four years?  Well you hope for a degree, a good education, but more than that you hope your son or daughter has a more vibrant faith, a more passionate love for Jesus than when he or she got started.


Female #1:  The first couple of years of college I wasn't really in church and it was devastating looking back because of the decisions I made not being in church.  So I learned I've got to find a good church and thankfully I was invited to this wonderful Bible-teaching church and I went and started to get really involved and that was just the pinnacle for me of my spiritual walk with the Lord.

Male #1:  During the years I was in college my faith really did stay in neutral. The systems of accountability had been lifted.  There was no one else really pushing to step into that place. I wasn't seeking it so I really felt like I began to regress spiritually

Male #2:  Spiritually in college I was numb. It was probably the darkest time in life.

Female #2:  I had grown up in youth group and had loved the Lord in high school. I recognized that I hadn't done a lot of Bible study on my own or really developed that relationship with Him on my own.  I think that's one reason I prayed for friends that would encourage me and challenge me in that area because I recognized that was sort of the time to choose which way I would go with it. 

Male #3:  I'm glad that the guy invited me to a campus organization I went.  I'm glad when the invite was given to come to a Bible study and I went because that really helped me along the way of making my relationship, making my religion, my own and not just something I grew up in but understanding that commitment to Christ was something that I wanted to pursue.

Bob:  And welcome to FamilyLife Today.  Thanks for joining us.  You know when you listen to those voices it just confirms a lot of what we are hearing. Statistics say that, what is it? 

Seventy Five percent of the kids who grow up in the youth group today are going to head to college and drop out of church. That's a scary number for moms and dads to hear as they think about launching a son or daughter onto the college campus.  You hear that and you think “Well they're not going to college if that's going to happen to them.”

Dennis:  And only about a third will take an advantage of the church playing a significant role in their life after they leave home and so you wonder whose influence are they under?

The other evening I had dinner with a former chancellor of an historic Christian university.  One that was founded upon Christian principles and even to this day would espouse that it's a Christian university.  As I interacted with him I found out that after 10 years he was fired because he was purposefully going about hiring Christian professors.

Now as I sat there and listened to that story I thought, what must parents think as they drop their children off at either Christian colleges or secular universities today and what they must expect is going to happen to their children spiritually?  Because we all know that the college years are formative years in terms of either developing your faith or having a faith that dies.

Well, we have a couple of guys with us here who have developed a resource for moms and dads and youth groups.  It's a series of videos called College Ready.   It's designed to equip graduating high school seniors to have a purpose and a vision for collegeto have a spiritual mission.  And today we are going to talk about how young men and women can grow spiritually on the college campus.  Dr. Robert Lewis and John Bryson join us again on FamilyLife Today.  John, Robert, welcome back.

John and Robert:  Thanks, it's great to be back.

Dennis:  You both are pastors.  You both have done extensive work with young people over your lifetimes.  This subject of growing spiritually is really important and I have to ask both of you, did both of you enter the college campus as Christians ... growing spiritually?

John:  I came to Christ in my freshman year of college.  I had two godly parents who modeled Christianity to me.  I would have been in the youth group and the model student but it really took this dividing line which I think is what college is spiritually specifically that first semester to help me understand I didn't have a relationship with God.

I remember going on a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat, those same kind of parachurch ministries, and hearing that Christianity is a relationship.  It's like the light bulbs go off and everything in my rearview mirror aligned all of a sudden and I really took off spiritually.

Dennis: So your upbringing really set the stage for you to make the spiritual commitment to Christ in college.

John:  It did.  And we know that we cannot manufacture spirituality in our kids. We know God doesn't have any grandkids.  As much as we all wish and hope that we can do that it really did help align things when God chose to kind of open up my heart, eyes, and ears that first couple of weeks of college.

Dennis:  Robert, what about you?

Robert:  Well, I actually grew up in a home that was not very religious.  We very rarely went to church and there was a lot of turmoil in my family.  So when I went off to college I was actually glad to get out of my house.  I wasn't really seeking Christ, but thankfully there were some guys who took the time to present Christ to me and it was a new adventure.

College actually ended up for me a very exciting spiritual adventure.  I appreciate that because it ignited my faith.  Where so many go to college and find that college dulls or ends their faith, mine was a great adventure there.  So I am glad for the fact that the college campus can be an opportunity to find an authentic faith with Jesus Christ.

Bob:  Let me ask you, as a pastor, about the statistics that I just mentioned.  You work hard overseeing a church where there's a youth department that is really working with studentshigh school, junior high studentsbuilding a spiritual foundation under their lives, getting them ready for that launch.  To hear that a bunch of those kids are just going out and just washing out spiritually, what does that cause you to do and think as a pastor? What can we be doing to try to turn that around?

Robert:  Well, I think, Bob, that is a great question.  I think it is one that every pastor needs to take a hard look at.  It makes me question whether the parents are oftentimes living out what they profess and so the kids are getting a mixed message there.  I think it also signals that in a number of churches we may not be really equipping our kids for real spiritual life.

We may be keeping them busy and that kind of thing but really grounding them in an authentic faith in their high school years.  I think we may need to take a much harder look at that.  But regardless, even if I have a faith when I go off to college, it's a totally different experience.  I am out on my own for the first time.  I have these new freedoms.

I think most high school students are not prepared for the white water that can suddenly push them way down the stream bed.  They wake up one day and spiritual life has totally dissipated.  That little bit, or even the great bit that they took to college can be washed away in an instant.  They don't understand how powerful that it.

Dennis:  The classes I recall as a college student were Philosophy and going in and hearing about all of these worldviews.  I am glad that I took that course as a junior, not as a freshman.  That was because I transferred from a junior college to the University of Arkansas, but I had the beginnings of the defense for my faith.  As I listened to these professors wax eloquently about a worldview that left God out, I could easily see how a young person who didn't have a defense for the faith could be caught up in the white water as you described it, and be washed away.

Robert:  Well, I talked to a parent just the other day and they came to me and they are going to a "Christian college."  And their son, who grew up in our youth group is there and at the end of his freshman year said, “There is no God this is all a fantasy.”  It all came from the instruction of a professor that he admired who had a totally anti-Christian worldview.

Dennis:  At a Christian college?

Bob:  At a Christian college?

Robert:  At a Christian college.

Bob:  Well, let just think for a moment that a high school senior is still at a place where they are thinking, "I want to maintain some kind of a spiritual emphasis in my life as I head off to college.  They haven’t hit the white water yet so their goal or their objective is to try to keep a spiritual balance in their life.

When they go through the College Ready series, which is six DVDs designed for use in a youth group or in a Christian school or in a home, one of the subjects, John that you address with the students is the subject of how they have a spiritual purpose over the next four years.  What kind of things do you talk with them about?

John: Yes, we definitely come right out of the chute because this is their opportunity to make their faith their own.  At the end of the day as many well wishes as a pastor might have, as a parent is going to have, as a grandparent is are going to have, it is ultimately, "Well we'll see if this is legit or not."

So college is an opportunity for people to really own their faith and to grow in that faith and really ask that question “Am I going to seek first the kingdom of God or am I not?” Is the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross sufficient for my salvation or isn’t it?  Am I trusting in that or not?  Does God have a plan for my life or not.

Although those are scary and hard questions, we would hope we could answer them for them and hope that our youth groups could prepare them for the right answers.  The reality is until the rubber meets the road and they are in that white water themselves, we'll know the answer to that as they engage that in college.  That freshman year kind of exposes what is and then you will know what you are dealing with.

Dennis:  When we launched our kids to college, and our listeners have heard me quote this passage more than once on this broadcast.  This became the standard charge right before we said goodbye.  Philippians 2:12-16. 

If you are a parent of a junior or a senior in high school, write this verse down: Philippians 2:12-16. Because this provides a mandate for their spiritual lives for how they should go away to college.

 "Therefore my beloved as you have always obeyed so now, not only as in my presence, but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it's God who works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure. 

Do all things without grumbling or questioning that you may be blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation among whom you shine as lights in the world holding fast the word of life so that in the day of Christ your [Mom] and [I] may be proud that we did not run in vain nor labor in vain."

Bob:  You inserted "your Mom and I" into the original language, didn't you?

Dennis:  I think that was intended by Paul. I really do because parents, here they are they have labored for 18 years, and they go drop their child off at this big, bad university that has got this system that seems to prey on them.  It's like; you’re not going to fix it all by reading a verse at the end.  But you know what, those young people need to realize it's game time.

Robert:  Using this series to look at their son or daughter and say, "I can't do it for you anymore.  Either you do it for yourself or game over.  That's good to hear because we are talking adult now and this is the transition to that adulthood.

John:  Even your example of the Philosophy class is to take the opportunity to equip your kid and tell them, “You are going to be sitting in a Philosophy class and you will have a professor, probably, articulate this godless plan for life and it might resonate and you might be scared to think, ‘Man that might be a path.  That might be the right path.’” It's the same thing you are equipping them for life, not trying to subculture them for as long as you are alive.

Bob:  Well, I remember doing the college visits with my kids.  I remember being with one of my children at a college that is a very prestigious school if our son or daughter had gone to this school... well, it would have been nice on their résumé at some point.  I remember looking around as we were touring the dorms and going in the student union just looking for any indication. Posters on the wall that said, "Bible study on Wednesday night," a church over here, anything.

I saw nothing.  I thought, There can’t be nothing.  So I went to the website.  Looked it up on the website: What does this have?  Well, there was a chapter of a college ministry so I called the number and I got the student and I said, “Tell me about the ministry.”  She said, "Well, there are only about three of us that meet."  This is a big university.  I said, “Are there good churches in the area?”  She said, "Well, my dad's a pastor in the town about 40 minutes away and so I go to his church."

I'm thinking, I don't care how good this college is. I don't care how good it is on the résumé what should it profit a man if he gains a degree from a prestigious university and loses his faith in the process?

By like token we went to another secular university and in this case I thought, Is this really a secular university?  There were posters everywhere. BSFs meeting her and college ministry over here and Campus Crusade.  There was plenty going on and that was the school that one of my kids wound up going to and I remember looking back thinking That's the most Christian public university I know of in America.  It was a great spiritual environment and a great education.  At the end of the day whether the degree comes from School A or School B is less significant that then spiritual condition of the student.

John: And I would say, too, I went to a traditional Christian college.  In my mind, and this may be controversial, those terms don't mean anything now.  Christian college or non-Christian college.  To me there is a point bigger than that.  I point them and pray and hope that they will fall in love with Jesus and pursue Jesus regardless of the tradition of the school or who's there or what's there.  But your point is well made.

I had the privilege of working with Tommy Nelson and watching 30 or 40 of these guys right out of college come to Denton.  Watching their life, and the number one indicator of the guys I was most impressed with wasn't the size school, whether it was a Christian or non-Christian school, but that they were in a vibrant active college ministry that took them somewhere spiritually.

And that by far, I remember leaving that decade going, if I can do anything I'm going to find a vibrant campus ministry whether it's Campus Crusade for Christ or a church that has it and then the institution is almost secondary.  That in my mind is the difference maker.  That's the game changer.

Dennis:  You know, we are all talking about an interesting combination that Robert and I experienced when we went to the University of Arkansas.  It's a Christian organization like Fellowship for Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ.  For folks who want to find out where Campus Crusade is located, they can go to a website called and they could look it up under their state and find out where the campus ministry meets and who the leader is there.

But what Robert and I experienced at the University of Arkansas was a combination between an incredibly strong student organization coupled with a relevant church.  We went to a church called University Baptist. H.D. McCarty had all kinds of chalk talks after school for students.  I'd go over there a of couple times a week and he'd have a whiteboard and he'd be drawing a worldview.  I didn't realize that he was pouring all kinds of biblical truth into my life.

And one-fourth of the student body came to that church every year.  It wasn't that big of church.  My arms are longer I think today because I carried chairs that we set in the aisles.

Robert:  We packed it out, didn't we?

Dennis:  It's a combination, Robert.  You're a pastor.  It's both a relevant student ministry but also a church.

John:  That's exactly the story of Denton Bible Church.  That's their history.  North Texas is probably one of the most liberal universities you could have.  I would send my daughter there to be involved with that church and that college ministry with the most pagan professors possible, and feel better than at some typical Christian colleges that don't have that vibrancy or don't that healthy church. Absolutely.

Robert:  One of the things in this College Ready series on growing spiritually is you set this vision about making your faith your own.  John does a great job of setting that as the vision.  And then he begins to break down ways that you can connect spiritually starting with what you just said Dennis, checking out websites and things like that before you get to the campus.  Then when you get go the campus, testing out these different campus organization and churches.  Going and finding kids that you can form a small group with to begin growing deeper.

John has a great moment in there where he talks about finding mentors.  He talks about that you can find a mentor.  You’ve got to be somebody who initiates this, but going into these healthy environmentswhether it is church or campus ministry, because that's where mentors usually hang out and then you take the initiative to approach that mentor and say "Would you help me with my spiritual life?  Would you teach me to have a devotional life?"

And then we even illustrate on the video the mentor that actually was the one who built into John a devotional life and discipleship.  You get these practical tools that you load up this high school student with so that they have the right glasses on.  When they go to college, they go, “Okay if I'm going to make my faith my own, here are the key things the wise moves that I need to make to get there.”  That's what's so great about this College Ready series.

Bob:  The six sessions that you do with students I think each one of them will be impactful and helpful for the student.  At the end of it all, when that student walks away with his or her manual that they've been taking notes in, that they've been taking the material and personalizing it.  That's really part of the genius of what I think you guys have done here.

You present the material but then immediately you call upon the student to apply it personally for their circumstances, their personality, who they are.  How are you going to respond to this?  When they walk away with that they are going to pack that in the car to take to college with them and that's going to be a resource that they are going have to help them navigate the first semester of college.

Robert: That's right, and the thing I love about it is the same vision statement they have been recording in their notebook they can download in their computer.  It begins to give them these wise moves in each of these five big win areas of empowering friends and dating right and excelling academically and having fun and growing spiritually.  They have all of these wise moves that they’ve researched and made their own and that becomes their compass for college.

And not only for their first semester in starting right, but these same wise moves keep applying all the way through college so they can finish and look back on college as this rich experience where they grew in all these different areas and set themselves up for a successful next season of life.  That's what I love about this because they are the kinds of things that when you talk to adults like us, you would list the wise moves here.  Everyone around the table here would say, "I wish somebody would have told me that when I went to college."

Dennis: That's just what I was thinking, Robert.  I was thinking maybe I didn't have the ears to hear at that moment, but I would have loved to have heard in all five of these areas.  Because I look at most of the mistake I made early on in college were around those area.

For instance one of them that we had talked about, growing spiritually.  I had to stumble on to the idea of a mentor.  I ended up with a mentor by the time I graduated from college but I wish someone would have told me, “You know what, young man you need to find a couple of older men who can build into your life and into your character and into you spiritual disciples, somebody who will stretch you and grow you so you can become a man of value.”

I just want to say thanks to you, John and Robert, for your work on this.  I think this is going to impact literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of young people over the next five to ten years as we equip them spiritually, academically, dating and all the other areas that we have talked about to be successful as college students and then adults.

Thanks for your work on this.

John and Robert:  Thanks.

Bob:  Well, let me again point our listeners to our website which is where you can get more information about the College Ready curriculum.  You can order copies of the DVDs, get student guides or leader’s guides to go along with it, and you can introduce this to your church, to a Christian school.

Or, just do it in your living room with other students and their parents.  It's something you can do just on a regular basis over on a six-week basis or throughout the rest of the spring.  Again, all of the details are available online at  You can order from us online if you'd like.

While you're on the website there's also information about a graduation gift you may  want to consider giving to your high school senior.  It's called ConGRADulations to the Class of 2010. It's a 20-song music CD with new songs by groups like Relient K and Skillet, Toby Mac, Lecrae, Owl City, Fly leaf, and others. There is also a companion media DVD that features video messages from speakers and authors and music artists.

There’s a gift book that comes along with it and there's a companion CD for mom and dad where Dennis and Barbara Rainey talk about what we need to do as moms and dads is to make sure we've covered the bases with our children before we release them into college or into  whatever is next for them in.

So find out more about the ConGRADulations 2010 music CD package and about the College Ready curriculum when you go to or when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY 1-800-358-6329.  Again that’s 1-800, F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word TODAY.

Now before we wrap things up here this week, do you ever find yourself scratching your head and thinking I wish I could think of something fun for the family to do tonight and I'm just out of ideas.  Something that would’t cost a lot of money.  Well, we have a solution for you. It's called 99 Ways to Entertain Your Family for Free and we want to send it out to you for free, so that you've got some creative ideas on hand.

We're especially hoping to get this in the hands of new FamilyLife Today listeners, those of you who have been tuned in and maybe never contacted us or you don’t know a lot about the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We’d love to introduce ourselves to you.  The book is available upon your request. Just call 1-800-FL-TODAY.  Say, “I’d like a copy of 99 Ways to Entertain Your Family for Free, and we’ll send it to you.

Again our toll free number is 1800-FL-TODAY, 1-800-358-6329.  This is just a thank-you gift for listening to FamilyLife Today.  Glad to have you along and we do look forward to hearing from you.

We hope you have great weekend.  We hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend and we hope you can join us back on Monday when we are going to hear a message, a great message for wives, about being God’s woman in your marriage.  We’ll hear from Karen Loritts on Monday and I hope you can tune in for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Phil Krause, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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