Judith M. Dinsmore
In the film God’s Not Dead, an articulate Christian student spectacularly defends his faith in front of a disbelieving class and a hostile professor. It is no secret that secular colleges and universities, and sometimes even their Christian counterparts, are leading the cultural movement away from faith.
But for some college students, standing against the cultural norm and defending their faith is much less about fireworks in the classroom and much more about quiet persistence in building and maintaining relationships.
Benjamin Van Dyke, a student at Michigan State University who grew up in the OPC, was a senior last year, but still lived in a freshman-filled dorm. A member of Spartan Christian Fellowship (SCF) for all four years, Ben has a passion for sharing the gospel. He explained that the dorms facilitate friendships, which lead to conversations: “The reason [SCF] wants students to live on campus is that then you immediately have relational capital with other students. We try to share the gospel, but also share our lives.”
Sharing lives is perhaps easier in college than anywhere else, as students live, study, and eat in close proximity. And students, especially freshmen, are often ready to talk. “College is definitely a unique time,” Ben said. “People start asking real questions like who am I? and what am I all about? That gives you a huge ‘in,’ because people are ready to ask questions.” Every week he prays together with a group from his dorm.
For junior Laura Dowds, however, engagement hasn’t always been attainable. A student at the University of Illinois at Springfield and daughter of OPC pastor Terry Dowds, Laura finds most other students accepting, but not engaging. “It’s a really liberal school, so they’re really open-minded; they’re like, ‘You can believe that; I don’t really care whether you’re a Christian or not.’”
Her professors run the gamut from accepting of her faith to, yes, hostile. “In my very first class ever,” Laura shared, “my professor made us go around and say the three things that are most important to us, so of course I had to say, my faith [and] God are most important to me. Immediately, the room changed.” After that, the professor would do things like curse in class and then look at Laura “to see what my reaction was.”
On the other hand, she had another professor, who taught her literature classes, whose consideration impressed Laura. “Anytime something came up regarding Christianity, he would ask my opinion on it, and ask my opinion on the discussion in class.”
In fact, Laura said, thanks to the postmodern ideology on campus, which always tolerates, if it doesn’t engage, she sometimes feels more comfortable with the non-Christians she interacts with than with those in her on-campus Christian group.
“It’s kind of sad when nonbelievers are more accepting of your views than other Christians,” she reflected. Although she stressed her appreciation for the Christian group and the friends it brought her, Laura finds it frustrating when fellow believers cannot get along. “How are we going to reach out to other people if all we’re doing is arguing? It might not actually be fighting, but that’s what it looks like to other people when we’re always debating.” These debates often appear on the Internet, especially Facebook, and make Christians look “rude and obnoxious.”
Tanner Beebe, a recent graduate from Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, had noticed a similar dynamic on his Christian college campus. “Sometimes the class discussions were unnecessarily heated. Sometimes that’s because even Christian students have difficulty differentiating between critiquing thought and critiquing people.” In other words, when a belief was questioned, the student would take it as an insult.
When holding Christian-to-Christian dialogue, Tanner has found a few things to be hugely unhelpful: “to not hear their full perspective, to interrupt and interject before they’re finished speaking, to not ever open up the Bible, and to take the Bible out of context.”
Respectful conversation is much needed, because, similar to Laura’s Christian campus group, there is considerable diversity of faith on Kuyper’s campus. Even at a small, confessionally Reformed college, differences of opinion abound. In addition to “students who grew up in Reformed settings,” there were “students from a charismatic, an evangelical, or a Baptist background in all of my classes,” she said. And others had come to Kuyper just to play basketball.
When there’s discord, the classroom might not be the best place to hash it out, says Tanner, especially when your problem is with the professor. “If there’s something you disagree with, maybe talk to the professor after class, one-on-one. The classroom is not your place to hijack a discussion.”
Like Ben, Tanner likes to bring the conversation back to living together—literally. “It’s important that you do other things with the people you disagree with than just talk about your disagreement. Maybe you enjoy watching basketball together or TV. Just enjoy each other’s company.” Although talking is important, Tanner stressed that what’s most important is a heart condition that sees the other person as a brother.
Ben, Laura, and Tanner all emphasized that regardless of where you’re going to school, a church family can make a world of difference.
In fact, for Tanner, it was an OPC elder at Kuyper that brought him into the OPC. Tanner attended a state college for two years before transferring to Kuyper because of a growing interest in the Reformed faith. “And then, my favorite professor at Kuyper knew his Bible so well, and he loved people super well.” When Tanner found out that this professor had been a church planter in the OPC, he decided that he might as well check it out, and he has been at an Orthodox Presbyterian church ever since. “I was so encouraged by the people I met there,” said Tanner. “They seemed to know their Bibles really well, to know that they were sinners saved by grace, and to know how to love people.”
His church, New City Fellowship, and the elders and pastors he knew over his four years at college, were “tremendously helpful” for his walk with Christ. Constantly hanging out with college students is like a nonstop party, but when something goes wrong, you need others around you as well, Tanner explained. “If the oldest person able to give you advice is only three years older than you, then there’s a real lack of perspective!”
Can you keep the faith even if you don’t go to a Christian school? Yes, says Laura Dowds, especially when you attend a good church. In fact, it may be easier to be part of a Christian community at a state school than at a Christian college. “The biggest positive about going to a state school is that you know the Christians are solid Christians, because they wouldn’t make the effort to come to [extra activities] if they weren’t.”
Ben Van Dyke would agree—he chose Michigan State for almost exactly that reason. “My thought was going to a secular school would be better, because then if you find Christians, they’d actually care about what they believe.” And interacting with those Christians in an evangelism-focused fellowship has changed his life. “After sharing the gospel with random people, [I realized] that’s what makes me happiest—and that’s been true all four years. I also feel capable of doing it, which is kind of weird because I feel like I’m not a great public speaker, but it’s really a testament to God’s grace.”
Tanner Beebe, on the other hand, wouldn’t change his experience at Kuyper College because of how it prepared him for the future. As he explained it, “Christian college lays the foundation for twenty, thirty, or forty years of vocational ministry, whether that’s in the local church or around the world, working as a carpenter, or businessman, or banker.” Incidentally, that future ministry, for Tanner, hopefully includes seminary.
A high schooler may feel overwhelmed while trying to decide where to go—or even whether to go! A freshman walking onto campus for the first time may feel nervous about making friends—let alone sharing the gospel. A jaded senior may just want to graduate and get out into the real world. But Ben, Laura, and Tanner offer an alternative mind-set to the notoriously “me-focused” environment of higher education. As students, they served; they built relationships; and by so doing, they turned their college experience into another battleground for Christ.
The author is a member of Bethel OPC in Carson, N. Dak. New Horizons, July 2015.