First Step: Coming to a Christian University

"You've taken your first step into a larger world."
“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

It’s the time of year when freshmen are packing the family car and heading off to the new adventure that is college. All the excitement of new friends, new possibilities, and new challenges runs right alongside the anxieties of fitting in socially, keeping up academically, and managing independence.

Yesterday I spent four hours with a group of colleagues who had agreed to give me feedback on the draft of my book. It’s written specifically to freshmen entering a Christian university, hopefully to be used in freshman seminar courses. It was simultaneously an exciting and scary prospect to submit two years of work to others to see if the arguments made sense to anyone besides me. It turned out to be a great experience and I am indebted to each of them for their support and their challenges.

The book reflects my attempt to articulate an approach to Christian higher education that speaks to the postmodern sensibilities of evangelical millennials. Such an approach must begin in a different place than some of the separatist stances of the past. We must find a way of engaging the complexity of the world while working through tested perspectives of faithful learning.

I’ll finish the next set of edits over the next two weeks and then send the manuscript off to my publisher so the real fun can begin.

The book is what has prompted me to react against all those who like to marginalize millennials, labeling them as narcissistic, spoiled, brats who only want their needs met regardless of the broader consequences. I’ve been trying to get into the mindset of 18 year olds ready to start college. I’ll unpack the detailed argument in coming posts.

In general, here’s what I’m trying to say to these students:

If you’re like the students I see regularly, you do see the world through your own lenses, but you know that those images are incomplete. The reason you desire community is because you need your story to fit in with others. But you aren’t willing to hide that story just to fit in. You don’t want a community that pretends to be nice. You want to belong to something. You’ve come to college not for mercenary reasons but because this is your ideal time to sort out your  questions of who you are supposed to as an adult.

Telling your story is only the first step. It’s where you discover than your own view is only a partial view, shaped by your particular experiences and environments. It is necessary to blend those unique views with those of others at college: fellow students, faculty, staff. All of those stories intersect with your story. Your story shapes all of the others — even those of your professors.

In a Christian university, you learn that we are all parts of God’s greater Kingdom. We are all working to be what we were created to be. That’s not narcissism, it’s vocation. The entire process of the college years should be about learning the deep meaning of that vocation. Your intellectual development, social engagement, athletic participation, spiritual practices are all are part of learning how you will play an active role in God’s Kingdom.

A college education, then, is not a roadmap to get to the end goal of a diploma. It’s a unique journey to explore what it means to live in responsible community that reflects Kingdom principles and leaves a changed world in its wake.

A Christian university education isn’t Christian because it requires Bible classes and chapel. It’s not Christian because it retreats from “the world”. It’s Christian because it is empowered by the Holy Spirit as all members of the university community pursue God’s unique call on their lives.

Sure, it’s a big transition from home and family. One filled with adventure, mistakes, lessons to be learned, and obstacles overcome. Like Luke Skywalker, there is a need to trust. The first step is recognizing that true adventure depends upon stepping into the unknown with confidence.

Most of all, it’s about a first step into a larger world.

2 thoughts on “First Step: Coming to a Christian University

  1. John,
    I’m guessing your experience exceeds my 4.5 years at Bethel U. In St. Paul, although in the 14 years prior I worked with some of Kansas City, MO’s better writers and journalists.

    I don’t think the students I knew at Bethel, particularly, knew much if anything about modernism, let alone modernism. So I hope your book provides a tutorial in these thought movements.

    I also don’t think they understand much about millennialism or community. What defines then as millennialism to some extent is their sense of entitlement. I think most young people are narcissists, regardless of generation. But I believe the students today for the most part do not know how to work as hard in the classroom.

    They almost refuse to read. They expect to be entertained more than they expect to be educated. To say they come to college to seek community is, I believe, an exaggerated view. These are children from the bowling alone era.

    Campus shrinks will tell you students today bring more mental disorders to campus than ever before. Their parents often hover like the proverbial helicopter and other students have almost no campus life because they work almost full time to pay tuition or student loans.

    One thing I was surprised to learn at Bethel was that many students didn’t want to be there, that God was not central to their lives, that they attended Bethel because family members had. A bible and theo prof said many students who come from Christian homes are all but biblically illiterate. What faith they have is on loan from mom and dad.

    When they begin to study with real scholars, their faith often falters and there’s not always someone around to help them stabilize.

    I hope your book is filled with examples, with stories of people, so the students can see themselves. And they should be prepared to learn that every sin committed on a secular campus is committed on a Christian university campus, just not in such wide numbers.


    Bill Norton

    1. Bill:

      Thanks for the response.

      Obviously, I couldn’t lay out all of what I’m trying to do in one post. I hope you’ll follow the others as I try to work through the chapters.

      Some reactions to what you wrote.

      First, I agree that students can’t define modernism or postmodernism. But I’m arguing that they reflect a postmodern culture with a focus on personal narrative as opposed to categorical judgment, diversity as opposed to group identity, and general messiness of the culture as opposed to order.

      Second, it’s not that they don’t read. It’s that they’re inured to the education as hoop jumping that they’ve been doing for 12 years. My strategy is to encourage them to own their learning and force connections to their past experience and future dreams.

      Third, all students go through developmental stages of identity formation, although at different paces. That may lead to narcissism in any generation, but that’s a position that could be challenged.

      Fourth, I do try to use lots of stories (both imagined and pseudonymous). It was real work to keep the voicing so that it addresses the students and not the faculty member (but I hope faculty members pay attention).

      Finally, Kendra Dean’s book Almost Christian argues that students are Moral Therapeutic Deists because their parents and churches are. It’s a persuasive argument.

      Thanks again for the comment. Stay tuned for more of the argument. Give my best to folks at Bethel and have a great start to the semester!


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