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Students face loss of faith despite attending Christian universities

Nov. 19, 1997

A minister wrote a guest column earlier this year for the newspaper in a city that contains a Christian, church-affiliated university. His words were aimed at students, and he offered advice about how to remain a Christian despite attending a Christian university.

Despite? You bet. The minister, who has worked with students at his church for 14 years, discussed how difficult it is to keep faith strong while attending a Christian school.

The words might have been published in any town about any church-affiliated school -- in Dallas about Southern Methodist University; in South Bend, Ind., about Notre Dame; in Shawnee, Okla., about Oklahoma Baptist University.

The column also could have been published in Waco about Baylor.

State universities and other secular institutions are said to be harmful, the minister said. Sometimes parents think a Christian university will nourish students' faith, while a secular environment will steal their faith away. But appearances are deceptive, he said, and the environment assumed to encourage faith the most can be its worst enemy.

Why? Because surrounded by all the trappings of a Christian university, students' fervency can become sluggish and their faith can become weak.

At a non-religious school, students might meet more resistance to their faith, the minister said -- but when it meets resistance, true faith will strengthen, not dissolve.

Instead, at a Christian university, that faith often goes unchallenged -- Christianity is accepted and expected, assumed and taken for granted.

'It's almost as if when everyone is a Christian, no one is a Christian,' the minister wrote. 'Instead of light and dark, we have many nuances of gray.'

Students can get along at a Christian school by learning a few key Bible verses, throwing around some familiar phrases about their faith and attaching Christian symbols or bumper stickers to their cars. They might attend church services or Bible studies with their friends and wear T-shirts with Christian sayings on them. And they fit in -- no one is going to test them or even question them about their faith. Christianity is mainstream, so there's no challenge, no resistance -- and resistance builds strength, the minister said. At a Christian university, students can leave with a faith no stronger than it was when they arrived.

'Lots of religious language,' the minister said he sees in some students. 'Lots of religious activity. Just not a lot of gospel-shaped faith.'

The environment of a Christian university can create other problems. The minister's column mentioned the ways students can let honesty diminish and holiness weaken.

'(Holiness) weakens because people feel like they can't confess their struggles around all their hyperspiritual friends,' he wrote. 'In another environment, you might feel free to confess your sin and ask for help. But how can you admit -- to all these people who seem like Chapel Poster Children -- that you're addicted to Internet pornography?'

This encourages hypocrisy and leads students to develop a false sense of piety. Instead of being honest about their struggles and their doubts, the Christian university atmosphere can make students feel they need to hide those struggles and doubts in order to meet the common expectations.

'Being on a Christian campus doesn't make a person a Christian,' the minister wrote. But that expectation coupled can water down faith and make it weak.

The minister also said students at Christian schools can develop a myopic view of the world and start complaining about insignificant problems and minor differences.

'Since they're not out in 'the world,' they spend way too much energy criticizing one another,' the minister wrote. 'Just listen: you'll hear people this year become bent out of shape over the most unbelievably small stuff. Get a life.'

His point is well taken. Perhaps an evaluation of Baylor or any other Christian school should question whether the environment offers more benefits than problems. Even so, the minister's observations are valid.

By the way, to satisfy curiosity, the column ran in the Abilene Reporter-News about Abilene Christian University, a school affiliated with the Church of Christ with an enrollment of about 5,000. But the message is important for all of us at Christian schools across the nation. A Christian environment can feed and condition a Christian faith. But the same environment has the ability to weaken that faith, sending it in the opposite direction.

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