Last Sunday was "Youth Sunday" at JPBC. Our youth led in various elements of the service, including, I thought most impressively, playing piano to accompany our singing and worship (thanks Hannah R., Kelli, Niki, Elijah, Hannah O., and Rachel). This year we also asked one of our UVA graduate students, Chris Eller, to offer a testimony. Below is an abridged text of what Chris shared. I am emailing an extended version to Brian to post on our website. As with most things I have heard from Chris, his words were thoughtful and timely:
I was asked to share a brief testimony today as part of Youth Sunday. Since this is Youth Sunday, I will focus on the journey from high school to college (and medical school), and my relationship with the Lord during that time. As I thought about this transition, I realized that it has in fact been seven years since I graduated from high school, and indeed that time seems to pass quickly. I also was asked to share advice to our youth who will soon be experiencing this time of transition in their lives. I quickly realized that any advice that I could offer would be of little value relative to what we have in God’s word, and so I hope that today I share principles from God’s word that have impacted my walk with Him.
Some 7 years ago now, I began my college career as a freshman at the University of Delaware. The transition to life as a college student certainly represents a change from life as a high school student. One thing that I think that you realize only after graduating from college is that college affords one perhaps the most free time that one will ever have in their lives. With respect to our walk with Christ, this can lead to one of two alternatives. One option, unfortunately chosen by many in college, is to waste this time in succumbing to peer pressure, making choices to engage in activities that do not honor Christ. I went to a large public university, and regularly saw classmates that engaged in alcohol consumption, made poor decisions with respect to guy-girl relationships, and spent their time "partying." When I look back, there were certainly many opportunities for me to make these sorts of poor decisions while in college. When I think about why I chose not to engage in these activities, it certainly is not a testament of any great strength of my own, but more a testimony of how the Lord was at work in my life. While the believer attending college may choose to join many of their classmates in wasting their free time engaging in unproductive activities that ultimately hinder their walk with Christ, the believer may also choose a second option, choosing to utilize their abundant free time to serve the Lord and grow in their walk with Christ. While I certainly failed on occasion, throughout college I aimed to order my life in such a way that I honored Christ in how I behaved and utilized my time.
As I think about how I avoided yielding to the pressure from my peers to join in activities that would not be pleasing to God, I can identify three principles that I would present as advice to our youth. Firstly, and most importantly, is to set aside time each day for the study of God’s word and prayer. In college, there are many things that will compete for a student’s abundant free time, and it is not hard to neglect the study of the Word in favor of athletics, clubs, or contemporary technological time wasters such as instant messaging and surfing the internet. In the face of these seemingly benign activities which compete for the student’s time, as a college student, one also will experience challenges to the Biblical worldview, face choices with significant short and long-term ramifications, and encounter students every day who lack knowledge of Christ. For these reasons, it is absolutely essential to devote time each day to the study of the Word and prayer. Also consider what God’s Word says about itself, considering the words of Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.
"But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Paul’s exhortation there to Timothy was not that he look distantly back on those things that he was taught as a child from God’s Word, but to CONTINUE in those things. He then recognizes that God’s word is indeed useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction. And so as one transitions to college it is most important that one set aside that time each day to dig deep into God’s word and spend time communicating with him in prayer.
Secondly, I would emphasize the importance of fellowship with other believers. It is certainly easy as a college student, away from home for the first time, to drop out of involvement with a local church. One of the first things that I did upon choosing the University of Virginia for medical school was to begin searching the internet for churches in Charlottesville. I found Jefferson Park’s website, and was able to read some of the sermons posted online, and learn a bit about the ministries of the church, all the while continuing to pray that the Lord would direct me to a church as I moved to Charlottesville. I visited Jefferson Park on my first Sunday in Charlottesville, ultimately never visited another church, and joined this body as a member just over a year later. I would encourage our youth who may head away for college to find an intergenerational church where believers of all ages join together for worship and the study of God’s word. It can be tempting to rely solely on a campus ministry or to join a church composed of entirely University students, but one misses out on the chance to interact with believers of other ages. In facing many of the challenges of serving Christ while in college and medical school, and facing important decisions in life, I have found the wise counsel of older, more mature believers to be incredibly important. For that reason, I would strongly encourage the new college student to seek out a church where there are believers of all ages.
Thirdly, it is important not only to be a name on the roll of a church or an attendee of a church, but to be involved in service. With all of the free time afforded in college, one can serve in their areas of giftedness in the local church perhaps unlike any other time in life. I had the opportunity to participate in multiple areas of ministry as a college student at my former church in Conowingo, as I designed and maintained our church’s internet site, taught a Wednesday evening children’s Bible study and missions class, and assisted with running our church’s sound system during worship services. In addition, I had the privilege of being a part of the missions committee at my former church in Conowingo as we adopted an unreached people group in West Africa, the Fulakunda, who had less than ten known believers and no evangelical witness among a population of approximately two million across five countries back in 2001. Over the subsequent 3 years, I traveled to Guinea-Bissau to serve among the Fulakunda on three occasions, initially going to prayerwalk in advance of the first career missionaries to the Fulakunda, and subsequently going to begin to map villages and visit with village chiefs to seek out locations in which villages were open to the gospel, as churchplanting began among the Fulakunda. Today indeed I can bear testimony that the Fulakunda church is active and growing, a testimony to the awesome power of our Lord, and all that He is doing around the world even in places of great spiritual darkness. If I were told seven years ago at my high school graduation that I would travel to Africa on four occasions as a volunteer missionary over the next years of college and medical school, I would likely have laughed. If I had been told that I would be mountain biking to distant villages in Zambia and Guinea-Bissau, working through malaria and all sorts of intestinal infections, I would have said, "I could never do that." Indeed, my strength was not sufficient to accomplish any of those things. The fact that the Lord was able to use even someone such as myself with many weaknesses testifies to his awesome strength. I would share with you the words of Colossians 1:28-29, words which served as a great encouragement to me as I prepared for a 6 hour bike trip through the mountains of southern Zambia in search of a village named Kafwambila where there was no church. At a time where I was physically and emotionally spent, the Lord used these words to encourage me, as I systematically studied through Paul’s letters during that mission trip.
"Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end also I labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily."
Just as it says there that we labor with His energy, I was reminded that as I served in Zambia, it was not by my strength that many were coming to know Christ, rather it was in spite of my many weaknesses and only by God’s strength in me that we were accomplishing the task to which God had called us. This principle of total surrender and total reliance on God was the most important thing I learned in Zambia.
In short, college indeed does present one with many opportunities to fall away in their walk with Christ. I am certainly one with many weaknesses, and it is only by the regular study of God’s word, the wise counsel of fellow believers and service as part of the body of Christ that I have remained close in my walk with Christ. Many of you know that the Lord has instilled in my heart a great passion for seeing Christ’s church grow among the many unreached people groups of the earth, and I would emphasize that this desire comes not from my own ambition, but rather out of time spent in the study of the word, in the wise counsel of my fellow believers, and serving as part of the church. These things are no testimony of my strengths, but if anything a testimony of the awesome power of our God that he could use one such as I even in spite of my weaknesses and failings.
Finally, as a word of caution to our youth, I pose the question, How does one who follows these principles of regular study of the Word, active involvement in a local church, and active service of Christ fit in at a large secular university? The answer, although not surprising, certainly did present at least a bit of a culture shock to me. Indeed these values are very counter-cultural in the typical American college or University. One does not "fit-in" at the typical university, but of course as believers we are not called to try to fit-in to the man-centered value system of this world. Still, I can remember numerous classmates in college and medical school, some who even called themselves believers, who looked on in shock when I would decline their invitations to join them in the consumption of alcohol. Others who were shocked that I chose not to involve myself in the serial dating and physical relationships that are prevalent on many campuses. Perhaps most shocking to them was the fact that these things were not out of adherence to a set of rules, but rather out of devotion to serving and glorifying an awesome God. Unfortunately to many of them, God was an invisible abstract concept, rather than a living, active Lord. I would close by asking that you pray regularly for our youth who may soon be heading out into the college and university campuses where they will encounter worldviews very counter to that of God’s word, and pray that they may remain strong by continuing in God’s word, continuing in fellowship with a local church, and continuing in service of our Lord.