Keeping your Faith at Bible College
It’s a bizarre question if you think about it.
How can I keep my faith at Bible college?
Isn’t Bible college where you go to strengthen faith?
Shouldn’t the risk of losing your faith be lower at a place where you and your fellow students live, study the Bible, worship and serve together?
The answer to these two question is “yes” and “kind of.”
To explain those two answers I want to highlight four key ideas. Each of these points gets at something important about the Bible college experience, things we need to embrace if we’re going not only “keep the faith” but strengthen it in the process.
#1. Be Okay with the Big Questions You’re Facing
If you’re a Bible college student, then you’re most likely a young adult. This isn’t always the case, but it tends to be true. At Columbia the average student is somewhere between 20 and 21.
If this is your current stage of life, you’ve likely noticed yourself becoming aware of the world in new ways. As a young adult, you’re gradually recognizing that your experience isn’t the only way to experience things. You’re realizing that other people see things differently. For most of us, young adulthood is a time when we start to see the world of “home” as just one option among many. When a huge part of that home is our childhood faith, it can be destabilizing.
The ground can feel like it’s shifting under your feet.
And while this is happening, you may have also noticed a need to do something with this awareness. A child may know that there are many different cultures and perspectives in the world but doesn’t feel a personal duty to do anything with that insight. If you’re like most young adults, a sense of responsibility is dawning.
Not only is the world a wild, wonderful and bewildering place – it’s also a world that you have to make sense of, a world that you have to find your place in.
Who are you going to be? How are you going to engage with the world?
The truth is, you and your fellow young adults need to grapple with these questions. They’re important. And they don’t go away just because you’re attending Bible college – in fact, they may even intensify.
What does happen at Bible college is that you’ll be offered an alternative way to answer these questions. You’ll be encouraged to see the world through the lens of the Bible, and to find your place in it based on God’s purposes for your life.
So when things start to feel wobbly, know that you’re right where you’re supposed to be as a young adult. Embrace the challenge of discovering how your unique gifts and abilities form a God-given vocation. Ask big questions. Dig into the Bible. Dream big dreams. Take responsibility. There is no one else who can do this for you; but you don’t have to do it alone.
#2. Lean into Christ-centered Community
Doing it alone, though, is our default. We live in a culture that is profoundly isolating and disconnected. Sure, we may be constantly in touch with people on social media, but this superficial “connectedness” often masks a much deeper loneliness and alienation.
What’s more, modern life is highly pluralistic which means that there is no consensus on what we all believe life is for or what we should be aiming at. Instead, the mantra seems to be “whatever you’re into” or “you do you.”
We don’t fully appreciate how odd this is. For most of human history, cultures have been fairly homogenous. People lived and died in communities where everyone more or less believed the same thing. The shape of individual and family life was fairly predictable and there wasn’t a whole lot of value on individuality or personal expression. This wasn’t always a good thing, of course. This kind of a world can (and did) feel quite confining and restrictive to many.
What does all this mean for you? You’re coming of age in a culture that offers very few guideposts beyond the need to find a career, find some connections and pursue personal authenticity. There’s a huge burden on you as an individual to figure things out on your own.
Keeping your faith at Bible college means you have to give up on the idea of figuring things out by yourself. As human beings we are made for each other. We need each other. We need the encouragement of friends. We need the exhortation of teachers and leaders. We need the wisdom and prayers of mentors. We need to worship and pray together. We need love.
No matter how much easier it feels, refuse to process everything you’re absorbing independently. Lean in. Community is not incidental to the Bible college experience. It’s the relational oxygen that our souls need. It’s not easy. It forces us to take risks. But in a culture that leaves so much up to us, it’s a radically necessary risk. We need the body of Christ to encounter the person of Christ.
#3. Approach God’s Word with Patience and Humility
Bible college is a place where we study the Bible because we believe that God has spoken (and speaks) through its pages. So there is no more important textbook to be read. But we don’t just get together in small groups and read through all 66 books in sequence. The Bible, after all, needs to be interpreted. It was written in a very different time to very different people in very different cultures. As one scholar has put it: “The Bible was written for us, but it wasn’t written to us.”
This means we have work to do. We need to dig into the history of the Bible and the contexts within which it was written. We have to do the work of connecting that to contemporary questions. And then we have to figure out how to live that out in the midst of the practical challenges of life.
But this inevitably brings complexity. Studying the Bible can feel a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole. The more you study, the more questions pop up and the more confusing it can feel. And this is disorienting, especially at the beginning. It can make us wish for a time when things seemed simpler or clearer, even as we realize that there’s no going back. A wise friend of mine described this process as moving from a world of black and white to a world, not of grey, but of increasingly vivid colour.
If you’re feeling disoriented and confused, keeping the faith is mostly about patience. Stay in the conversation. Try to listen carefully to instructors or fellow students, even when what they are saying seems confusing or unfamiliar. Patience means giving yourself permission to live with unresolved tensions for a while. It means resisting the urge to rush to quick judgments. It means listening charitably to others and believing the best about them, even when you disagree. It means trusting that through the process of studying, God’s Spirit is speaking and leading. And it means admitting there are lessons that can only be learned through time and experience.
#4. Stay Connected to Jesus
One of the dangers of Bible college is forgetting that Bible College isn’t ultimately about the Bible – it’s about Jesus. This is of course an oversimplification because Jesus is revealed to us in the Bible. But it’s still an important reminder.
It would be quite possible to learn some Greek and Hebrew, to take raft of Bible electives and master the content, to get a 4.0 GPA and graduate with distinction and still miss Jesus. Jesus himself warned that it was possible to study the Scriptures diligently and miss the point (John 5:39).
There is something fundamentally personal about faith in Jesus Christ. It’s not a purely mental exercise of getting our theology straight. Nor is it a purely ethical exercise of making sure we are on the right side of all the causes of the day. No, faith is about a personal encounter with the living God. And it’s about being launched into the world from this place of security, purpose, and love.
So the question of how to keep the faith at Bible college is a great question – as long as we understand what faith is and what Bible college can do. Faith is fundamentally a response of submission and trust toward the God who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. It certainly involves our knowledge of the Bible and developing theological categories for making sense of it to ourselves and others. But it also requires a personal response that depends upon, but goes beyond our knowledge of the Bible.
Bible college cannot produce faith. It provides no vaccine against the possibility of faithlessness. What Bible college can do is create the conditions where God can be encountered. It can create a space where we can pay attention to what God has said and together discern the Spirit’s leading as we seek to follow Jesus today.
So take responsibility. Lean in. Be patient. And walk in trust. He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phi 1:6).
Gil Dueck is entering his second year as Academic Dean at Columbia. Prior to this he served as Instructor in Theology at Bethany College for 12 years and for one year as Program Director at MCC Saskatchewan. He and his wife Shelley live with their three daughters in Abbotsford. They are loving the absence of snow, missing the view of horizons and excited to see how God will lead during this new season at Columbia.