God on Campus

God on Campus

Link, The College Magazine, October/November 1997
By Abby Ellin

A revolution is afoot, and its messengers come singing hymns and bearing pamphlets. Link explores the recent resurgence of religious zeal on America’s college campuses.

Valentine’s Day, 1997. At colleges throughout the country, couples are waltzing across campus clutching long-stemmed roses, cherry-filled chocolates, backpacks brimming with Trojans.

But inside the ivied walls of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, more than 50 students have gathered for a different kind of amorous encounter.

They’re here for an evening symposium entitled “God’s Perspective on Love, Sex and Marriage” sponsored by Real Life, a ministry of the nationwide evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ . The goal? To introduce students to God’s Word on dating, mating and cohabitating. “They brought in couples who’d waited to get married to have sex and couples who were dating but not having sex, just to show people the alternatives,” says Wellesley senior Adriana Alba. “It was very based on love — love of God.”

It’s a strange scenario. After all, this is Wellesley, where just a few short years ago students protested the selection of Barbara Bush as commencement speaker because she was not enough of a role model for fledgling feminists. A school which sponsors events like “Flower Sunday,” where representatives from disparate cultures educate others on the various aspects of their respective religions.

It’s an unlikely scene, but one that’s becoming increasingly more common on college campuses. Indeed, while students are clearly still interested in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, it seems that more and more are turning to religion for guidance, community, companionship and yes, even God.

“The last part of the ’90s has been incredible,” says Reverend Robert Watts Thornburg, dean of Boston University ‘s Marsh Chapel . “I think we’ll look back on it and see a rebirth or re-awakening. Religion is alive and well on campus.”

“There’s definitely a revival going on among undergraduates today,” agrees Dr. Conrad Cherry , director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University , in Indianapolis. “Students are saying that life is empty without some spiritual meaning. The utilitarianism of the culture is not satisfying their needs.”

For the past few years, Cherry has been exploring the presence of religion at four U.S. colleges, both secular and non-secular. He found a “religious revival” taking place at each school. “Religion is very vital all over the map at these four institutions,” he says. “And we think it’s a reflection of what’s going on nationwide.”

Dr. Martin Marty , a professor of the history of American religion at the University of Chicago , looks at the current movement on campus from a historical perspective. “In the ’50s and early ’60s you’d have the typical rebellion against nuns in school, but you knew where to come back to after you were married,” he says. “In the late ’60s, most mainline Protestants were active in social movements , Civil Rights , Vietnam protests . They got into action and worship fell to the side. There was a slight spiritual revival in the ’70s and ’80s, an interest in Eastern religions, but [nothing like today]. …Young collegiates have learned to take seriously the sacred in a world where that gets trashed.”

But why did the College Student — that iconoclastic figure of American myth, the hedonistic rebel without any particular cause — get religion now?

Why here? Why now? Traditionally, college has been the very place where all kinds of explorations take place: intellectual, sexual, political, psychological. Why not spiritual? To be sure, the human need for community can’t be overlooked, especially among first-year students who have recently departed the warm safe havens of their homes. Students are finding that religion provides them with similar feelings of security.

It offers something to those feeling disconnected, disenchanted and confused with their place in the world — many of whom are wandering through the ivory tower, in quest of a spiritual makeover. College is a time for re-examination and re-evaluation, a time to question yourself and your values, to separate yourself from your family and create — or, more precisely, find — your own identity.

Campuses are also microcosms of the larger culture, a culture that has recently witnessed a much-publicized, much-debated religious revolution. According to a study in U.S. News and World Report , over 95 percent of Americans profess religious beliefs; Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God: Book 1 has spent 44 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list; and Flood, an album by the Christian rock band Jars of Clay, went platinum. And then, of course, there’s the immense popularity of the Promise Keepers, the organization started by a former football coach at the University of Colorado. All this considered, is it any wonder that a spiritual uplift would trickle down to America’s colleges?

“We don’t know whether students would have responded 20 years ago, but it could be that young people are asking, ‘Is this it?'” says Donald G. Shockley, author of “Campus Ministry: The Church Beyond Itself”. “There’s a total commercialization of life right now. Kids are looking for values and faith.”

Shockley’s finger is on the pulse of collective desires that extend beyond community-building and existential dread, and into something far more elusive. There’s no Vietnam in 1997, but there is an overabundance of freedom and a dearth of meaning.

“Early in the century, students were treated as kids by the university — dorm hours, chaperones — now they’re treated as adults, so they have more personal freedom,” says Dr. Dean Hoge , professor of sociology at Catholic University , in Washington, D.C. “Kids are more worldly today. There’s been a reaction to this freedom of behavior. People are saying, ‘Maybe we should go back to the way we were before.'”

This hardly means that students are revisiting traditional values Ozzie and Harriet – style. Instead, today’s religion takes a form that’s specific to the college environment. Religion may not provide church suppers and bingo, but that’s not necessarily what students are looking for. What they are looking for is a safe place to ask questions, to toss around ideas in an intellectual capacity, to “talk God” with peers who can relate to their lives better than their family pastor.

Not surprisingly, religion on campus often incorporates traditions from a number of different faiths and cultures, reinterpreting antiquated rites and rituals along the way. And students are going about it deliberately: They are less inclined to accept a doctrine blindly rather than to question, discuss and explore. In other words, they worship a postmodern God — a composite deity that combines the most useful aspects of any religion at hand.

At Boston University , which has 38 registered religious groups on campus — including Muslims , Sikhs and Baha’is — “experimentation is the name of the game,” says Thornburg. “A lot of religions have become so stale that kids want something more vital. My gospel choir has ten kids in it, black and white; it’s a lively, enthusiastic, thoughtful Christianity, and not just mindless ‘Praise Jesus!'”

Are you there God?

There are as many definitions of God as there are students defining Him. Or Her. Or It. Some atheists discover a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalism when they get to college; some fundamentalists decide that organized religion is oppressive. Others enter school uncertain and leave equally unsure.

Farhana Huq was born Muslim but belonged to the Christian youth group Young Life when she was in high school. Currently a student at Syracuse University , in New York, Huq says she is “spiritually confused” and often considers all the religious options available. “I’m really not sure where my heart is,” she told Seriously , a Syracuse student publication. “It’s easy to let your brain take over and your practical side take over, but I know there’s something spiritual that’s in me that needs to break out and I haven’t been able to find it yet.”

Brian Lundberg, a grad student at Aurora University outside Chicago, was involved with Campus Crusade for Christ during his first and second years at the University of South Carolina. He joined, he says, because he liked the camaraderie and wanted to surround himself with like-minded individuals.

“I wanted to find friends, and some of my best friends came out of it,” he recalls. “Why be fanatical about sports, or stay at home in front of the computer playing Doom? It’s all the same, all about fulfillment, and in the church there’s a sense of belonging. All you have to do is appear every Sunday, wave your hands right and you have a bunch of friends.”

“Religion is a commonality that brings people together,” says Wellesley’s Alba. “For some, it’s drinking at a frat party ; for others, it’s sports. Here in Boston, you have all these kids going to school, and what brings them together? Religion.”

Grinnell College (Iowa) senior, Chris Pallas, attended church as a child, but he had, as he puts it, a ‘one-sided relationship’ with the Almighty. The son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, he “grew up fearing God and understanding Him as being very distant, being someone to fear and not someone loving and caring,” he recalls. “That posed some problems in my life, because the heart of Christian living is committing your entire life to following Jesus. But it’s hard to commit your life to a God who you don’t believe is loving and caring and wants the best for you.”

Pallas never expected to become involved with a religious group at college, yet when he first arrived at Grinnell he found himself craving spiritual nourishment, and he attended an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship service. He was hooked, moved by the singing and the clapping and the student testimonials. “The presence of God is really there and you can feel it moving inside you,” says Pallas, who eventually became president of the Grinnell Christian Fellowship and a bible-study leader. “It’s knowing that you can wake up in the morning and receive the spiritual equivalent of a warm bowl of oatmeal and a kiss on your way to school.” He plans to do full-time ministry when he graduates.

Lisa Foss also found God at school. A former Division I basketball star at Northern Illinois University (who almost played with the WNBA), Foss was brought up Catholic, but in college played basketball under a Christian coach who “sort of discipled me through school,” says Foss, who now plays basketball with Athletes in Action . (See sidebar.) “I admired her and became a Christian in college. … For me, it was more important to play and grow spiritually and to share my faith than to play professionally.”

Foss enjoyed herself so much that in the fall of 1995 she founded Adventures Zo‰ (Greek for “eternal life”) with two women she met on an Athletes in Action exhibition basketball team. Adventures Zo‰ travels around the country giving spiritual and motivational talks to Christian youth groups, clubs and detention centers, and runs Christian basketball tours. “People get really into it,” she says of the audience response. “Sometimes you can hear a pin drop.”

Of course, not all students’ experiences culminate in such epiphanies. “Campus Crusade and InterVarsity have overall good missions, if only they carried through their mission with God,” says Andrea Browne (a pseudonym), who briefly attended meetings at the University of South Carolina . “So many of them think they’re holier-than-thou, but they’re hypocrites. They stand firm about not drinking or having sex because it’s sinning, yet I found them to be very judgmental, which is just as much of a sin.” Today, she considers herself a “spiritual person,” but says she doesn’t “need to go to a meeting to feel God. I can feel Him when I’m sitting on a bench outside when the wind blows through my hair.”

Ultimately, Brian Lundberg also dropped out of Campus Crusade, because he disliked its “Amway approach to religion.”

Campus Crusade takes an in-your-face approach to recruitment: New students are greeted with Welcome boxes (which look like a cross between a Happy Meal and Dunkin’ Munchkins box) filled with CDs of popular Christian music, a groovy new bible and a chance to win a “really, really expensive mountain bike.”

“They have this recruitment policy that they call ‘Pyramid Discipleship.’ So, I’d be discipling five people who’d be discipling five people, and so on. You’d meet regularly and keep them ‘accountable’ — which means that you’ve got to keep your nose deep into the privacy of someone else….It’s supposed to be a support, but it always focuses on the negative. One guy was always trying to get the guys to stop masturbating . You’d have these marathons where you’d try to do without, but I never understood why.”

Selling Salvation

By all accounts, groups like Campus Crusade and InterVarsity are on the up and up, though, as Lundberg cautions, “They can have ‘ cultish tendencies ‘ depending on the campus and the regional leader.” But for many of the same reasons college students crave religion, they can also be susceptible to the call of less-than-savory religious groups — groups that seem to offer only goodwill, good times and the good word, but often use manipulative recruiting tactics. Though campus administrators and chaplains are no longer wary about students being unduly influenced by, say, The “Moonies”, est, or the Hare Krishnas, they do worry about aggressively evangelical Christian organizations.

One group creating great concern is the International Churches of Christ, (ICC) which uses heavy recruiting drives and allegedly preys on young, confused students. ICC has about 120,000 members internationally, and takes evangelism to the extreme: It believes that to be a true disciples one must bring God’s word to everyone one encounters — and it does this, seemingly, with a vengeance.

“They try to pull students and young people in with a sort of family type appeal,” says Everett Shropshire, president of TruthQuest, an organization based in Sacramento, Calif., which educates Christian groups on the distinctions between evangelizing and brainwashing, and identifies which sects are abusive. “A lot of times students are far away from their parents, and these guys come along and have something to offer them, a place where they can be accepted and loved. Many times these groups target people who are going through some kind of crisis — and a lot of students are in some kind of crisis.”

The line between “cult” and “legitimate” religious organization isn’t always clear . After all, a group that insists you dress like them, celebrate with them, give them money and go through a painful initiation could be a fraternity or sorority. Yet Shropshire feels ICC unquestionably falls on the dubious side of this line.

“[They are] very concerned with the details of your life,” says Shropshire. “They want control of your relationships, your time, your money.” Reportedly, members give 10 percent of their income to the church, without knowing specifically where the money goes.

Churches of Christ wouldn’t return phone calls, but in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education , Jack Armstrong, an evangelist for the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ (each city has its own branch — like a sports team), who joined 10 years ago during his first year at the University of Georgia, said he wasn’t surprised that people would consider the church a cult . He also said that campuses were obvious places to seek members.

“If IBM wanted to recruit, they would go to a college campus, because that’s where new, idealistic, educated people are going to come from, and you can take those people and implement their talents,” he said. “We reach out to students because that’s when people have been most prone to be open to new ideas.”

To watchdog groups like TruthQuest, the groups’ fervency and focus on students draws concern. “The [Boston Church of Christ] is based on duplicity, and duplicitous love,” says B.U.’s Thornburg, who’s been monitoring the Church’s activities for decades. “They come at vulnerable and susceptible people….They harass the hell out of kids, put notes under their doors, follow them to class.” As a result of these tactics, B.U. has forbidden all campus organizations from going into residence halls in search of new members. At least 20 other colleges have banned the ICC from their campuses as well.

Controversies: In the name of The Father

It’s not just “cults” who threaten the relative harmony on college campuses. As one might expect, the blossoming of religious zeal has caused a significant amount of conflict. Universities, noted for their protection of free speech, religion and the right to assembly, have been instrumental in facilitating the rise of religious groups on campus. As with most campus groups — from glee clubs to chess clubs — these religious organizations are supported largely by the Student Activities Fees and appreciated for the depth and diversity they add to the campus fabric. However, as groups and individuals espousing traditional or fundamentalist visions have become better established and more influential, they have also begun to challenge the secular status quo. In light of this religious awakening, some campuses are wondering how far they have to bend in order to offer students a “sufficiently” religious environment without compromising the tolerance which has historically allowed students of all religions, beliefs and value systems to flourish.

This past semester, for example, five Orthodox Jewish students at Yale University, in New Haven, Conn., asked to be excused from the school’s requirement that all unmarried first- and second-year students under the age of 21 reside on-campus.

“We cannot, in good conscience, live in a place where women are permitted to stay overnight in men’s rooms, and where visiting men can traipse through the common halls on the women’s floors — in various stages of undress — in the middle of the night,” one of the students, Elisha Dov Hack, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece.

Yale refused to comply with their demands, claiming that the students were aware of university policy when they applied. The students ended up paying for a room, but living off-campus. A lawsuit has been filed .

Then there was the situation last year between Grinnell College and InterVarsity — the latter of which requires all of its student leaders to follow the Scripture word for word. They’re so emphatic on this point that InterVarsity student leaders must sign a waiver expressing their full belief in the Scripture’s authority . This posed a problem when Rebecca Harms, one of five InterVarsity campus leaders, publicly expressed a tolerance for homosexuality, though she herself is straight.

“The bible says explicitly — seven times in the Scripture — that homosexuality is wrong, that anyone who is a homosexual is not living their lives in accordance with the scripture,” says Chris Pallas. “We would no sooner admit the student who was cohabiting with his or her boyfriend, or someone who regularly cheated on tests and didn’t see anything wrong with that. We welcome people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds; we’ve had at various points gay and bisexual members. And though they’re not eligible for leadership, they’re still very valued and loved. … But you can’t lead a biblical community if you’re not totally committed to the authority of the Scripture .”

The group voted on it, and ultimately decided it was best for Harms to step down. Grinnell, however, felt InterVarsity’s decision violated the schools’ non-discrimination policy, and amid pressure from campus organizations — including gay rights activists — Grinnell ended up revoking InterVarsity’s status as a recognized campus organization. (Read: They stopped giving them cash.)

The situation at Grinnell brings into relief the subtext to these and other controversies: Who determines policy in the gray area between a school’s right to enforce its guidelines and a religious organization’s right to adhere to its beliefs.

So what does this all mean? Ultimately, though this religious resurgence may be new, its occurrence makes sense within the college atmosphere. One thing is clear: Students will continue to seek meaning and truth, whether it’s by pledging a fraternity or sorority, volunteering in a soup kitchen, joining a sports team or attending a religious service. As it is said in Proverbs 23: “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction and understanding.” Amen.


Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.