Today’s Christian University Students

I’m launching this blog as a means of exploring issues within the realm of higher education and the popular culture that directly impact how we think and act as Christian educators. Over the course of my more than 30 years in Christian Colleges and Universities, I have seen a marked shift in my students. This has been true since roughly the beginning of the 21st Century.

In my experience, Christian Universities have been slow to respond to these shifts. Many have gone out of their way to reinforce messages from 40 years ago and take pride in “holding the line“. In the process, they run the risk of making Christian Higher Ed increasingly irrelevant to larger and larger numbers of young people.

I began focusing on this question more academically over the course of the last two years. Jeffery Jensen Arnett‘s work on Emerging Adults is particularly interesting in terms of what is happening with the current generation of 18-30 year olds. I’m currently working on a book for freshmen entering a Christian University that builds upon some of his work.

In September, I made a presentation at Spring Arbor University (where I now teach) summarizing the challenge this postmodern generation brings to Christian Higher Ed. Some of it relates specifically to life at Spring Arbor (the reference to the Concept and the Clock Tower) but most of it can be generalized to other Christian Universities. Here’s the link to the video. If the PowerPoint goes too fast, here’s another version.Community of Learners 9-21-12.

This fall, I had the joy of listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’s wonderful book, Evolving In Monkey Town. Rachel is a popular blogger in young evangelical circles (including some readers like me who are no longer young!). She grew up around Christian apologetics, Christian high schools, and Christian Colleges. But in her early twenties, she began asking herself hard cultural and intellectual questions that her safe Christian mental models really couldn’t reconcile. She’s not new in that regard — the same has happened to bright, reflective evangelical students over the years.

Many Christian students who face deep questions take one of two tracks: either they compartmentalize their reality so that they just hold to their prior position (“God’s ways are not our ways“) or they junk the Christian presuppositions altogether. Rachel describes interactions with friends in both camps.

What makes her book so important is that she models what it means to embrace the tension. It makes life much more complicated but also more authentic. My presentation to the Spring Arbor Community summarized some research findings from the Barna group on the disaffection of young adults in the evangelical church. There are several themes David Kinnaman and his colleagues uncovered, but central to them is the idea that the evangelical church doesn’t deal with complexity.

As I interact with today’s Christian College students, I find some who compartmentalize and some who abandon. But there seem to be significant numbers of  students attempting to follow Rachel’s more demanding path.

This bodes well for the Christian University. If we can be the places where students begin to work through their challenges, we can provide models and supportive environments where questions are welcomed because we have nothing to fear.

On the other hand, if we insist that our Christian universities can only be places for people who hold the party line we will miss larger and larger sectors of the young adult population. This is not only bad for the universities, it’s damaging to the greater culture.

17 thoughts on “Today’s Christian University Students

  1. Thanks John for continuing this conversation! I completely agree with you that we are in a critical moment (oh well maybe it always is a critical moment) and it is up to us in higher education to grab the opportunity. Hope you are to a great start of the new year, greetings David

  2. John, so encouraging for you to challenge us in our thinking about higher education and the role of the Christian university in providing a a framework for the the formation of a faith among students. Do you think that one of the great issues is the challenge for students to embrace critical thinking as a constant in their journey of faith and learning?

  3. Thanks David! Allen, I think that states the issue very well. What we need is for students to see that critical thinking is needed in faith as well as the classroom. Critical thinking is key to navigating an unfolding world.

  4. John, I’m glad to see someone blogging about these topics! I’m a first-year professor at a christian college, so I am very interested, and also have perhaps a slightly different perspective and therefore much to learn from you. You’ve been added to my RSS reader!
    I do want to suggest that you look at some of the work on topics around christian education coming out of Calvin College, my alma mater. I found the Calvin perspective (informed by the Kuyperian reformed tradition) helped a lot with some of the challenges Rachel and others describe: in my college experience, faculty and staff modeled the kind of critical engagement you commend. My current employer, Trinity Christian College, takes a similar perspective that I’ve found really helpful as a professor and as I begin some tentative mentoring-type relationships.

    1. Bethany: I’m glad it was helpful. I know a few people at TCC (Brad Breem and Liz Rudenga). Your Calvin reference is interesting as I spent four weeks there last summer as part of the Communitas Scholars program. I used a lot of material from Calvin’s library in the first five chapters of the book I’m working on. I’ve been particularly drawn to the work of Jamie Smith focusing on how we need to move beyond Worldview language to get to issues of character. It’s where I think the students really want to live. I’m glad you’re having a good first year at Trinity. For all the challenges of Christian Higher Education, the camaraderie of the faculty can’t be beat.

  5. I’m looking forward to your blog. I have an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. In addition, I am the daughter-in-law of SAU’s president. Therefore, I’ve had some experience in Christian Higher Ed, albeit mostly on the receiving end. I am currently reading Rachel’s book A Year of Biblical Womanhood and have Evolving in Monkey Town up next on my night stand. Like she, I have been revisiting some things taught to me that I have taken, perhaps mistakenly, for absolute truths. Always fond of higher eduction, a compulsive thinker, and forever student of the Bible, I look forward to your conversations.

  6. I appreciate the dialogue. As a pastor in the mainline Protestant Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and a 2007 SAU alum, the more open conversation like this we can have, the better. Thanks for opening this up in a meaningful way.

  7. Paul: Were you ELCA while at SAU? I’ve always thought that Christian universities were great places for the kids from mainline churches who were very active in their youth groups.

    BTW, I’m declaring war on all the various labels that divide God’s Church — trying to avoid phrases like “mainline”, “fundamentalist”, “conservative evangelical”, “progressive evangelical” — I worry that it pushes us into political camps to be defended rather than learning from the dialogue.

    1. You are right! The only label that we should need is ‘Christ follower’. I believe that when he ceases to be Lord, then we need other labels to attempt to prove our worthiness and not his.

    2. Yes, I was technically a member of an ELCA congregation while at SAU, but I was still very much discovering my identity as a theologian and person of faith. Dr. Paul Patton was very influential in identifying my gifts for ministry, and helped me to reclaim some of the theology that informed my early development as a Christian. He led me to participate with an ELCA congregation in Jackson, MI, that informed my calling to seminary and ordained ministry. It was not until seminary that I began to be able to articulate the implications of God’s Good News in our midst, and how that informs the imminently important work of active ecumenism. Realizing that I as a leader could be a part of leading the Church through its many flavors, aromas, and colors was a huge part of my pastoral development.

      While I agree with your sentiment regarding divisive labels, there is much to be gained in owning our identities as “Lutheran” or “Free Methodist” or “Anabaptist” or what have you. God’s diversity is found in many places, and the Church reflects that, in my opinion. We get to wade in the water of the saints who have preceded us, and those who will come after us will continue in our footsteps as well, regardless of our denomination or defined creed. Brian McLaren’s “A Generous Orthodoxy” as well as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s messages helped to give me words for this phenomenon that I experienced first during my SAU years, and have been interested in ever since.

      John, I’ll be interested to see where “Christian Education in a Postmodern Age” goes. Thank you for encouraging open and honest dialogue. -Paul Moody

      1. Paul — Thanks for the corrective. I very much believe that theological orientation is important. Part of what I’m working on is to define a distinctly Wesleyan approach to higher education. I was reflecting more on something I’d commented on over the weekend, where I shared a piece I wrote on another blog decrying the idea that evangelical voters only cared about litmus test issues and that evangelical was code for conservative. That got me thinking about how we’ve used the term “mainline” (often quite negatively within evangelical circles). I don’t have to define myself as a progressive evangelical — that denotes a special case or condition. I’m an evangelical — as Allen says, a Christ-follower (or at least try to be).

        I appreciate your story greatly. I like the phrase “discovering my identity as a theologian and person of faith”. This is what Christian Higher Education should do best.


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