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How to help your child succeed spiritually while at university

Nov 15, 2017 | Brad Thomspon, Sylvia Thomspon

How can you help your child?

After a day of university campus tours, my friend and her Grade 12 children were tired and ready for a break. Their faces were a mixture of excitement and uncertainty as they started to process the things they had seen and heard. Seeing them reminded me of the times we helped our own children prepare for university: this little step was part of many before the BIG MOVE.

There are many ways you can help your child prepare for university: from campus visits to life skills training. But one of the most important is often overlooked, and yet can be most worrying for you as a parent: helping your child take responsibility for their faith.

By the time your child is ready for university, whether you realize it or not, you have already been helping them prepare to succeed spiritually. They have watched you live out (and sometimes, not) your faith: in family devotions, saying grace at meals, going to church, and volunteering in different ministries.

You may have encouraged them to participate in meaningful traditions: baptism, communion, and weekly church services. From early on, they observed your inconsistencies and if you’re honest with them, they had to forgive you just as much as you forgave them. You’ve nurtured their foundation of faith. The coming years will be critical for them to make their faith their own, which may involve taking what they know of yours and leaving some of it behind.

You’ve invested so much in your child’s spiritual growth. We know you are concerned with their continued growth. So how can you help your child succeed spiritually while at university? We gathered the collective wisdom of several parents whose children had successfully graduated from university with their faith intact, and continue to grow in their faith into their careers.

Pray with your child  

Keep a prayer journal together with your child, so that they can see that God answers your prayers. Show them that prayer is developing their trust in God, getting to know His heart.

At every step of your child’s journey towards university, pray for God’s direction for you and your child. As they do their assignments, tests, and exams, pray over these with them. A favorite prayer of Brad’s for exams is, “Lord, bring to my mind everything I have studied and read. Calm me, and may I do my best for you.” As they are willing, pray with them about every concern that they share with you.

Pray for your child

C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, humorous as it is at times, suggests that Satan’s desire is to see that no one becomes a Christ follower but if they do, that they be dissuaded from being active in their faith.  Paul, in Ephesians 6, says that there is a spiritual battle going on for the heart of your child. He goes on to say that, “we need to be praying at all times in the Spirit.” Your child needs to be surrounded in your prayers.

Help them know God’s voice  

Help them cultivate a relationship with Jesus.  Help them identify their own spiritual pathway, so they can connect with God personally.  Help them learn to read the Bible in a way that they can receive instruction from it personally.  Help them understand the need to apply what they are reading to their own lives (i.e. this is understanding God’s will for them).  A great start to having a daily quiet time is Dick Purnell’s 31-day experiment.  You can download a sample here:

Be active in growing your own faith  

We both were strongly influenced by getting up early in the morning to find our fathers already up and on their knees praying for their families.  Let your growing up children see you continue to grow spiritually and make what you are learning from Jesus a regular part of your conversation.

Define “success at university” with your child  

Every parent we talked with began with this point. It’s important for you and your child to define what success means for each of you, clarifying expectations in ongoing discussion. Interestingly, the parents we spoke with downplayed the importance of academic grades in comparison to their children’s growth spiritually, emotionally, and socially.

These conversations are opportunities for you to bring up challenging scenarios they might not have thought of.  For example, if they live in residence or room with friends, how will they navigate the party scene, inconsiderate roommates, or porn everywhere?  How will they deal with the pressure to conform? How will they ensure that they are eating properly and having clean clothes (there has even been a reported case of scurvy because the student only ate pizza!)?  Bring these issues out into the open in frank discussions. Let them wrestle with these questions: the point is not that they answer the questions to your satisfaction but learn to think critically for themselves.

Help your child find a church and/or Christian fellowship   

If your child is moving to a new city for school, it is wise to visit church options together with your child. Help them think through what criteria they are looking for.  Share with them how you made your decision about which churches you have belonged to. For example, when I (Brad) first started at university, I looked for a church in my denomination. When that did not satisfy, I looked at the denomination of the Christian camp I went to in the summers.

The parents we interviewed strongly recommended that their children be part of a Christian fellowship as well as a church. The Christian groups they were involved with supported them, taught them skills they could not find elsewhere, and gave them a peer group that had the same values they did.

Some criteria your child may want to prayerfully consider in choosing a church:

  • Distance to your child’s residence/transportation. Considering late nights and inclement weather, distance can be a deciding factor in how often your child may make it to church. It is also wise to consider what transportation options are available for your child to get to church. The more difficult it is for them to get to church, the more they will have to motivate themselves to get there.
  • Does this church attract students? Does the church have other university students who can understand the unique faith challenges that your child will face as a university student? Can members of the church walk alongside your child and give them the support and encouragement they need?
  • Your child’s needs and desires. Help your child think through what their needs and desires are for a faith community. If your child is feeling lonely and wants support they will have a different criteria for church than if your child wants to be theologically challenged or wants to be involved in reaching the poor of the community.

I (Sylvia) was a young single woman looking for a church in a city in which I knew no one. I looked up churches in the area and chose the one with the most interesting sermon title. I then prayed: “Lord, I dread going to church alone, where I know no one.  If the church I visit today is the one you want me to attend, please help me connect with people in a meaningful way.” I sat by myself at the back, enjoyed the worship and the sermon. I was overjoyed when several people introduced themselves to me and connected with me meaningfully. That church became my spiritual home, my peer group, my place of worship, growth, and friendship.

  • Can your child serve in this community? Is there a place for your child to serve on the worship team or teach Sunday school?  Will they be able to use their talents, skills and gifts? How do the volunteers feel about their involvement?
  • Character of the church. Is the teaching Biblically sound? Does the emphasis of the church resonate with your child?  How do members show they care about your child? How welcoming is the church? How long does it take to feel accepted?

Remember that you are undergoing major changes as a family while your child transitions into adulthood. Your child will do much better if they know you have their back and that you will be there for them no matter what. Let them know that you are rooting for them and that you are excited by the life God is providing for them, even if they flounder a bit at first.  Support their efforts to grow, even if you are worried for them. Support their new confidence, no matter your own anxieties. Trust God with your child, after all, He first entrusted them to you.

Read more about NEXT, Power to Change’s initiative to help Grade 12s connect to a faith based community in college or university. 

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About the Authors

Brad Thomspon

Brad Thompson is on staff with FamilyLife Canada.  He and his wife, Sylvia, have two grown children, 3 adorable grandsons and a Ukrainian cat.  They have worked in student ministries 32 years and have been in Family Life the past 5 years.

Sylvia Thomspon

Sylvia has served on the staff of Power to Change (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for over 35 years. She and her husband, Brad, served in the campus ministry for most of that time, including ministry in the Ukraine for seven years and seminary in the US. Recently, they switched from the student ministry to Family Life, a division of Power to Change, in which they help couples and families, as marriage and parent educators, as counselors, and as relationship mentors. Sylvia loves Jesus, people and the Bible, as well as her daughters and grandsons, who provide her with regular play therapy.

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