Tammy—a girl who loved music, running, Dostoevsky, and Jesus—attended a Sunday school class in which I taught her and other high-school students the essential theological foundations on which they might build a thoughtful Christian life.
Then she left for college.
Soon, hard questions came my way: “Why do we trust the Bible?” “How can we claim it was from God?” Her questions puzzled me since I had spent significant time in class answering such questions. I tried at a distance to rebuild a case for her, but I was too far removed to be a ready resource. She drifted away and, eventually, we lost touch.
Tammy was exceptional in many ways, but not in this.
Melinda Lundquist Denton (who with Christian Smith authored Soul Searching, the influential 2009 study of the religious beliefs of American teenagers) and Richard Flory recently reported that most emerging adults cannot clearly articulate what they believe. We work hard to teach our soon-to-be college students, and we might imagine they would be different. They often are not.
Denton and Flory note that many raised in conservative Protestant churches still lack basic religious literacy and have difficulty “expressing what they know about their religion—including their own religious beliefs.” They tend to embrace broad, generalized ideas about all people going to heaven and life serving up just enough karma to make it feel fair.
Though once well taught, when confronted with challenges from a world tilted against their faith, students can falter. Feeling intellectually and socially marginalized, their sudden uncertainties open them to more broadly acceptable belief systems. As James K. A. Smith notes, we all are powerfully wooed by alternative visions of the good life.
When confronted with challenges from a world tilted against their faith, students can falter.
For newly independent students, that good life depends heavily on some measure of social or intellectual acceptance. Thus the temptation to drift away from their inherited faith will be strong, and it can leave them in a pseudo-religious muddle.
College Students Need Mentors
Looking back, I don’t see an obvious lack in what I taught Tammy, or even how. The problem, I later realized, was that I had been answering questions she had not yet fully asked. When those questions did become real for her, she needed others to enter her life and build on the foundation I had given.
College can be a lonely place. Students may give the impression they have it all together, but often they do not. College confronts them with ambiguity, confuses their identity, and destabilizes their beliefs. This leaves them hungering for others they can trust who can help them navigate this new stage of life.
I had been answering questions she had not yet fully asked.
Tammy needed an older Christian to take her to lunch occasionally, to listen to her questions and concerns, to offer an anchor for her faith. When a student finds such a mentor, one with whom she feels safe to express her doubts and questions, the results can be transforming—particularly if the two of them are well guided.
It is here that a good catechism, like the Westminster Shorter Catechism of my tradition, can be so useful.
Catechism Is for College Kids
Catechisms are succinct and yet comprehensive summaries of the essential elements of the Christian faith. Their question-and-answer format encourages memorization, and their brevity promises accessibility.
Catechisms have been used as teaching tools since before the Protestant Reformation. When the reformers broke with the Roman Catholic Church, they brought the practice of catechesis with them. Martin Luther wrote a catechism for the use of his followers, and other reformers did the same.
Though the use of catechisms is often associated with children, it can benefit us all. No one ever outgrows the need to be taught or reminded of the truths of God. And catechisms are especially helpful for those whose faith has grown cold or whose questions have set them adrift.
It is the glory of a catechism to keep us centered.
I’m not suggesting that a mentor-student relationship become a class on theology. Such relationships grow organically in their own unique way. But if a student is expressing theological confusion, a catechism can be a useful guide to provide not only the necessary pointers to essential truths, but also the necessary discipline to stay off unhelpful byways.
A student struggling with the notion of God or the nature of Scripture doesn’t need to unpack the latest concerns over gender or to properly place the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Both mentors and students can eagerly dive into the hot topics of the moment—but neither is typically served well by these wanderings. But whereas rabbit trails often obscure the essential story of Scripture, catechisms allow it to shine brightly. It is the glory of a catechism to keep us centered.
Catechisms Aim for the Heart
Catechisms also aim for the heart. They remind us that the gospel is a story of love and purpose, not just of truth and duty. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, for example, teaches us that our chief purpose is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Enjoying God requires engaging one’s affections.
The Heidelberg Catechism begins by reminding us that God “watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven.” If students are looking for something worth loving (as Smith would contend), a catechism can be a rich pointer to the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love with which Christ has loved them (Eph. 3:14–19).
When Tammy stepped into the powerful winds of skepticism that characterized her college experience, she didn’t need another class to add to her already heavy schedule. She needed an older Christian to love her. She needed someone to model Christian faithfulness to her. She needed someone to help her wrestle with her newly relevant questions.
Every college student I encounter today needs the same kind of intentional, godly person in their life. And when such a person comes bearing a catechism, so much the better.