So you are about to graduate High School and head off to college. Your college experience may be the first time you interact with the broader evangelical world. You’ve heard us talk at church about how the evangelical church is broken. Now you are about to experience some of that brokenness. It can be shocking, disturbing, and disappointing. Consider a couple of things to prepare you for your interaction with Christians from evangelical churches.
First, The College Christian Experience
When kids go off to college, they discover questions about faith, life, and destiny. You will encounter college kids that were raised in evangelical churches but not catechized in the faith. These kids tend to look for college ministries that are experimental and emotional. This is the only way they know how to feel close to God and they hope it will satisfy their spiritual hunger. They clamor for “authenticity,” point out the hypocrisy of the institutional church, and hope the result of their search will be a deeper purpose.
They are searching for something spiritual. Their definition of spiritual is “a spontaneous and emotional act unhitched from history or tradition.” They are comfortable with worship that is sponsored by the latest cultural innovation. This is “relevant” faith, they think.
Don’t be too judgmental. These kids, by and large, don’t have a healthy church framework. The church they grew up in tried to copy the style of the world. But it was lame and they knew it. That’s why they think the church produces bad art and the world produces good art. Showing them a few clips of Sharknado IX should disabuse them of this notion. But it won’t. Be patient. They have no concrete concept of the Christian life because they’ve never read the Bible or heard it preached. All they know to do is imagine what it is like to be a Christian.
Even though this language isn’t in the Bible, they will talk a lot about how their “identity” is in Christ. What do they mean by this? This means they have an affinity for Jesus. “Identity in Christ” is an empty bucket waiting to be filled with whatever accommodation the student pastor comes up with next. Why doesn’t “identity in Christ” work? Because to imagine is not to be. Since you’ve grown up as a member of the covenant community, you know that a person cannot properly imagine what it is like to be a Christian outside of life in the local church, preferably one that hasn’t signed a truce with Rosemary Radford Ruether.
Since they don’t know how to live as a Christian, the college ministry jargon and programs start to fill the identity-in-Christ bucket. Bible studies led by seniors. Worship events with spotlights. Admiration for Kamala Harris. An annual conference that models what a fierce and fervent worship experience feels like. To be on fire for Jesus. To be radical for Jesus. To have crazy love for Jesus on the mission field rather than marriage, kids, and bills to pay.
But radical Christianity is exhausting. Many of these kids will grow up and grow out of “identity” in Jesus. They will stop chasing the emotional high of campus ministry. They will sleep with their girlfriends and boyfriends and then turn to full-blown wokeness to try and relieve the guilt. They will get the same feeling of “on fire for Jesus” at a Taylor Swift concert. The same high just by another name. You will see this play out in the next few years of your life. It shouldn’t cause your faith to waver. It should remind you that the sign of saving faith is perseverance and repentance, not a temporary high.
By growing up in the church, you have almost two decades of experiencing joyful fellowship and the endurance of trials. Not everything has been perfect in your family or church. And this fact has shown you the truth of the gospel rather than pushed you away. You have grown in knowledge of the faith, the history of the church, and how to serve selflessly. On Sunday mornings there has been meat cut into a size that children can eat. There has been bread and wine that you ate and drank as early as you could say prayers to Jesus. Don’t forget these foundations. Continue developing these healthy and deep roots. Without them, the most ordinary thunderstorm will blow your fruit off the tree.
Second, The Move From Responsibility to Victimhood
Evangelicals often account for evil differently than you do. What has gone wrong with the world? There has been a shift in how evangelicals talk about this—from sin to sickness. This difference is to construe human sickness as a therapeutic problem rather than a spiritual problem. So, sin isn’t talked about on a moral register, but on a therapeutic spectrum. The move is from responsibility to victimhood.
What’s wrong with me? Evangelicals think a disease has overtaken them for which they are not responsible. Healing comes from therapeutic exercises rather than conversion and repentance. If someone is depressed, the default assumption is that they need to take drugs rather than repent of pornography, complaining, countless hours on social media, and other self-indulgent sins. There is no hint that they are in any way responsible for their actions. Rather they are victims of the technological age.
Of course, you know that the gospel is more than a one-time experience. You know it is the power of Christ (Rom. 1:16) that brings divine order to disordered love. By faith in Christ, you are forgiven of your sins and declared righteous (Rom. 4:1-8). To submit yourself to the righteous declarations of God is for the Spirit to re-habituate your life to acts of kindness, service, love, prayer, patience, rejoicing, reading God’s Word, testing everything, and abstaining from evil (1 Thess. 5:12-22). Or as Paul said, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). You’ve learned from the example of your mom and dad that when faithful people live in the righteousness of God, there isn’t much time or energy left for social media and pornography.
It’s not that Christians have no feelings of dis-ease. When the God of heaven reaches into the human soul, he tends to stir things up. God’s grace creates unease in the human soul, but not unease with the demands of faith (1 Jn. 5:3). God creates an unease with the demands of the modern world (1 Jn. 2:15-17) which has swapped submission to the priest for submission to the scientist. So, you may experience tension in your soul (Mk. 9:24). There will always be dilemmas and conflicts. The question is, what will you do with it?
The evangelical is taught to submit their crippling guilt to the ethos of authenticity. Sermons encourage them to be “true to oneself.” For modern evangelicals, authenticity equals transparency. And since evangelical theology emphasizes brokenness rather than victory—“none of us are perfect” rather than “be holy because I am holy”—transparency means revealing sin. In other words, since ongoing sin is the evangelical reality more real than others, the squalid side of life is thought to be more genuine than the holy side.
If you live in habituated righteousness and self-control, you will be accused of rejecting authenticity. The authenticity ethos teaches that the way to heal is to embrace the victim scenario. It says that since Christ was an innocent victim, Christ-followers must become innocent victims. Marx encouraged people to find their victim status in societal structures. Freud encouraged people to find their victim status in biochemistry and environment. Either way, evangelicals find it hard to confess responsibility for their sin.
When you go off to college, don’t forget to confess your sins to the Lord regularly. Don’t play the victim card. Don’t seek out a diagnosis. Receive God’s forgiveness for your sin. This pattern is best established if you have a church that leads you to confess sin during the service on the Lord’s Day. Not to fit some warped definition of transparency. But to seek the grace of God. This is the healing you need.
When you encounter classmates from the broader evangelical world, your instinct will be to fix them. You will want to show them that theology doesn’t have to be so puny, that Christians should live as victors rather than victims, and that worship doesn’t require a fog machine. If you want to win them over to a fuller version of Christianity, remember that the disposition of the arguer is as important as the arguments made.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Belknap, 2007 (618 – 684)
 A typical example is the book by Jonathan Cruse, The Christian’s True Identity: What it Means to be in Christ (Reformation Heritage Books, 2022).