From High School to College: Book Recommendations

As CCO workers, we sometimes minister to high school-age students. Some staff even recruit college-age students to work with high school kids, or link some of our leaders to Young Life or other sorts of youth groups. And, of course, we partner with church camps. At the very least, we surely encourage our home churches to pay attention to students going off to college.

Increasingly, church leaders are paying attention to the transition from high school to college. Churches should offer pastoral support for young adults in this time of transition, and we, of course, are always eager to have students who are mature in Christ (or at least eager to grow) hit our campus. Recently, a writer for the Center for Parent and Youth Understanding (directed by CCO-alum and youth culture author Walt Mueller) asked me to develop a brief bibliography for those interested in that key window of opportunity.

Here are some suggestions — a few are general categories of books and a call for churches to attend to this kind of ministry (that is, reading together with more mature high school students and helping young Christians be proactive about their upcoming college career).  Besides three general sorts of books I suggest, I highlight a few specific choices.  Fell free to pass this on to folks at your own church, helping them prepare high schoolers for the transition to college and mentoring them into habits of Christian reading.

1. Firstly, every church kid going off to college, it would seem to me, ought to have read a bit in the basic nature of the Christian faith, and maybe owning a good study Bible or having a Bible handbook or biblical overview. Of course, most high school kids don’t read that much, let alone books from the Christian bookstore or church library. Their exposure to Christian books are mostly likely limited to an inspiration book sent their way by Aunt Tillie upon graduation (and it may be just as good that they most likely ignored it) or something recommended by a youth pastor or Young Life leader or such. Could be cool, maybe not. 

Either way, most haven’t been well-grounded in the basic Christian convictions, what we believe and why. I don’t think they have to have read C.S. Lewis or Augustine, but something to assure that they have the basics down and have begun to develop the habits of devotional and informational reading about the faith. Paul Little’s little books, Know What You Believe and Know Why You Believe are ideal for just this purpose. I recommend the Life Application Study Bible (which comes in a variety of translations) because the thematic overviews of each book of the Bible are clear, the practical study notes are usable and helpful, and the character studies and charts are designed to maximize practical application. I think it best shows why a study Bible is useful with notes that are usable, interesting and edifying.

Depending on the seriousness, level of Biblical literacy and the denominational connections of the student, we could, of course, suggest lots of very useful and colorful guides to Christianity 101 and/or intro to the Bible. Feel free to call us. I wish more parents, youth workers or volunteers would pursue this. I think it is a shame that too few youth have been mentored into the habits of reading books together and, except for the most rigorous of churches, have not been systematically taught (and enculturated) into basic Christian doctrine.

It is further my sense that this is one of the great strengths and attractions of campus ministry — young 18-year-olds are exposed often to a level of biblical study, introduction to Christian teaching and an experience of vibrant spirituality (often contemplative or charismatic) that they haven’t often gotten in their own home churches. Add to that the sense of adventure, radical discipleship and missional vision that campus ministries often share, and it is no wonder that many churched kids find themselves wondering if their home church is even preaching the same gospel. It would be great if churched kids, in other words, were discipled a bit better in the intellectual foundations of the faith so they don’t have to be in remedial programs with para-church groups their whole first year of college. Even a brief little book like John Stott’s classic Your Mind Matters  would be a great tool.

By the way, for a semi-scholarly look at the role of the local church in youth ministry, written by solid mainline denominational folks, see the new and very significant  Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens by Carol Lytch (Westminster/John Knox, $24.95) and Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church by Kendra Creasy Dean (Eerdmans, $20.00). She is the author, of course, of the seminal God-Bearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry.

2.  Next, I think that it is urgent that perhaps their senior year of high school and especially over the summer before college, as youth are making that transition developmentally and seeing themselves as entering a new phase in life, that we "exploit" that window of opportunity and capitalize on this natural eagerness to see themselves as more mature by preparing them for more intentionally Christian discernment of life and times, offering resources that would help build into their worldviews not only an imagination of what God may do in their lifetimes, but just how important it is to "think Christianly" and be intentional about developing a Christian world and life view. 

I think stuff as diverse as Camplos’ little youth book — four very good sermons entitled, You Can Make a Difference to the newly re-issued Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s fun How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig, or Os Guinness’s oh-so-important, serious classic, The Call, would be useful. There is even a little Jabez-sized small hardback which lifts three chapters from this, with a one page new introduction for younger folks in times of transition (read: graduates) that would be a very user-friendly little give away; it is called Rising to The Call: Discovering the Ultimate Purpose of Your Life.  Although it isn’t pitched at all to a teen audience, Paul Marshall’s handbook for living out the Lordship of Christ in every zone of life is a fabulous and very readable resource to consider a Christian perspecti
ve in everything from work to play, learning to the arts, technology to politics. I can’t say enough about it’s rare and fun articulation of a fully reformational worldview, creatively called Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation. I believe it is still the best introduction to a lived-out, distinctively Christian worldview. 

Specifically written for teens, I really like the wonderful collection of varied pieces, each co-written by a teenager, called Way To Live: Christian Practices for Teens edited by Dorothy Bass and Don Richter. It collects various lifestyle habits and practices showing how a God-centered view shapes and forms the very ways we do ordinary stuff. There are chapters on everything from work to play, food to clothing to speaking, dating, truth-telling, each construed and given new meaning out of a broadly-based Christian vision of life. (I think the chapter on work, for instance, is very, very useful for those thinking about choosing a school and/or major! Or those with summer jobs, of course.)

Heck, even some of the pop culture studies get at this in a way that is so refreshing for most teens that they are eager to check out books like Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture; The Gospel According to the Simpsons or The Gospel According to Tolkein or perhaps How the Movies Helped Save My Soul. That these enter their world of media and offer a uniquely Christian evaluation is new and amazingly helpful for a student who previously saw little connection between Sunday and the real world. Maybe my vote for the best great book of this sort that would fill this need is the nicely done, and not difficult New Way To Be Human: A Provocative Look at What It Means to Follow Jesus by Charlie Peacock.  With a forward by Jon Foreman from Switchfoot, it is a very cool choice these days.&nb

I really think that someone within the CCO orbit — current or alumni staff, co-operative pastors or student leaders — should consider writing an introduction to a Christian worldview for teens — you know, Al Wolters with hip illustrations. Or, Transforming Vision Junior. In the meantime, we go in through the back door with these kind of books on cultural engagement, whole-life discipleship and developing an integrated Christian perspective (rather than just having faith be a compartmentalized part of life). 

 I know there are not many resources on doing Christian career counseling for youth — I recommend Career and Calling: A Guide for Counselors, Youth and Young Adults by Ginny Ward Holderness (Geneva) which gives programmatic ideas for youth workers or others. At the very least — and the summer before college may be a bit too late to start — it is essential to have them even consider that God cares about their vocations and that their major ought not to be picked simply on the question of job availability or status, but should be asked theologically in terms of discerning God’s call.

So helping students begin to think about a Christian take on life itself — a broader worldview and sense of purpose — is the second kind of book. Some of the chapters from Your Work Matters to God by Doug Sherman & William Hendricks (NavPress) would certainly be fruitful, too. 

3. Thirdly, at last, I do think that it would be really important to help a student who has under her belt some of these kind of ideas (the basics of the Christian faith and the biblical story and the beginnings of a whole-life Christian worldview, and hopefully owns a couple of books to show that reading this kind of material is truly important) to next read a book or two or three in preparation for leaving home and entering the college experience. If churches or parents do offer these kinds of books to their high school graduates, they should offer them as Christmas gifts when they come back to visit over the holidays of their first year. (Few churches take seriously the need to follow up their young members who are away at school, tacitly accepting as normal the expectations that young adults leave the church for a season or to. Ugh.)  

Here are a few of those kind of books. I know that for many families, this may be the only Christian book the student will read that summer, so I have picked some that don’t necessarily presume much advanced knowledge of the faith, but that offer more than a devotional aimed at students. I think that  these could be read easily by a student in the high school to college transition.

A Heart for Truth: Taking Your Faith to College by Greg Spencer  (Baker, $11.99). I highly recommend this often — and think it is a gem! It has some funny cartoons (although the cover is pretty drab) and the chapter titles are mature yet clever. I think this is a gem of a book, richly written, thoughtful, caring and very good on a variety of aspects of the college experience. It brings an awareness of literature and film, so it has that coolness factor, but the substance is solid, if nuanced, including quotes from diverse authors like Buechner, Chesterton or L’Engle. The ending chapters on faith in the classroom, writing papers for professors who may be hostile to the faith and such are very strong. 

Incredible Four-Year Adventure by John & Chris Yates (Baker, $12.99). The subtitle captures the casual mood of this solid book written by two very handsome, smart young men who recently graduated from prestigious schools: "finding real faith, fun and friendship at college." So, more than the Spencer title, this is practical, clearly helpful about specific details — getting along with your roommate, choosing a fellowship group, budgeting your money and such. I think this is a bit more chatty, written by former students (rather than Spencer, who is a professor). And the faith perspective is unabashedly evangelical, practical and clear. With blurbs from the likes of John Stott and Steve Garber, this is squarely in the best of the evangelical tradition and it is surely very accessible.

How To Stay Christian in College by  J. Budzieszewski (think, $13.99). It doesn’t get much hipper than this very cool new edition. Although postmodern in format, it is anything but — Bud is a very rigorous thinker and heavy in his warnings against relativism and such. Charles Colsen regularly promotes this and it is considered a "must-have" sort of resource for many. Although he equips students to think discerningly (critically) about the ethos of the liberal university, he nicely talks of routine stuff like dating, devotional habits, roommate issues and daily stuff, too.  

Chris Chrisman Goes to College by James Sire (IVP, $12.00). I love listing this although not everyone is quite ready for a book like this. It is written mostly as a novel. Chris (raised in a fairly sheltered church in a fairly ordinary middle-American small town) goes off to college and meets some folks that he is surprised to meet — some kids who smoke pot and some kids who are not Christians, even an international student.  Hmmm. He is confronted with a lived experience of new beliefs, pluralism, relativism. The first day of class, he meets professors who hold forth on viewpoints and philosophies that run counter to his previous beliefs.

After the first chapter or two, Sire, ever the teacher, enters with a non-fiction explanation of what is happening to Chris, walking the reader through the lessons to be learned. The novel picks up for a few more chapters — Chris goes to an evangelical fellowship group, meets other kinds of believers and such — and then again Sire has a chapter narrating and unpacking the experience. Although this is written for first-year students to help them reflect worldviewishly on the "relativism, individualism and pluralism" that they necessarily will face at college, and although the novel is clever and largely accurate, it still may be a bit much for those without an interest in these kind of deeper evaluations of the collegiate experience and the philosophical challenges to the faith that may exist.  If a student hasn’t read or been taught to think about faith in this kind of whole-life way, and hasn’t heard that Romans 12:1-2 requires a ment
al transformation in order to be culturally non-conformed, then this call to stand firm may just not resonate much. Still, for the philosophically-minded student, this book could be a life-line. How many titles look at Christian worldview and critique the philosophical culture of our times, all written in an easy-to-read novella about a kid with a name like Chris Chrisman? Wooo-hooo!

Okay, now I’m on a roll. Forgive my pride that wants everyone to know we have cool stuff, but I can’t not tell you of this: some very sharp youth worker friends at what seems to be nearly a mega-church felt like they didn’t like any of the books available to college-age students leaving their fold. (They never called me for the above suggestions, though.) They wanted something with even more graphic appeal, sophisticated and not the least bit corny. Since one was a graphic designer, they wrote a book that they self-published. Not known really anywhere outside of their church, I’ve got hold of a few and it is, while rare, very, very nicely done. I would love to help them promote this content-rich collection. 

It is called, Gameplan: Practical Wisdom for the College Experience written by Nicola Bigson & Gyler Thomas (Christ Church Lake Forest). For those youth workers or teachers who are collecting resources along these lines and want even the obscure stuff, this is a very chatty and yet theologically mature call for students to hang on to their faith, grapple with issues — from sexual temptation to postmodern relativism — and relate the faith to their call to study well. Very nicely done, written by guys who obviously care about their young friends.  

How To Keep Your Faith in College by  Abbie Smith (VMI Publishing, $12.95). Abbie visited a CCO staff seminar a while back (in fact, while touring various colleges in the northeast, she even made a pilgrimage to Hearts & Minds). Even if she hadn’t, though, I’d surely want to tell folks about this — it is a collection of interviews she did with a variety of folks at college (including several prestigious, large universities). She chatted with folks who blossomed and grew in their faith during their college years, who took their faith seriously and stood their ground. She highlights stories from fraternities, sports teams, academic clubs, residence halls. She tells of students and their struggles with everything from anti-Christian professors to roommate difficulties; she holds up Christian practices of on campus worship and racial reconciliation. In other words, these are examples and wisdom from st
udents who have been there, living out their faith in the campus setting. It is a nice resource to use.