I grew up as a Christian; my family was Baptist for several years then Missionary. It seemed only natural that after graduation, I’d attend a fairly small, evangelical Christian college. Throughout my freshman and into my sophomore year, I was highly involved in campus events, community projects and extracurricular activities. I met some of my very best friends. My college community became a kind of second home.
I’d say it was halfway through my sophomore year that I began to seriously question my religious identity and, consequently, my identity within the Christian community. The crisis was entirely personal, and outlining my personal journey would take too long for the purpose of this article. Suffice it to say that I found it necessary to lay aside many of the religious disciplines I had spent my life clinging to, and that through the stripping of these practices I found freedom from guilt, depression and anxiety.
However, as my personal journey began to take shape, I found my social life waning. I began to experience feelings of estrangement from a community that I had once enjoyed, and those feelings surprised me. At first, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. Had I taken the questions too far? Was I shutting myself out from the community that had once been my home? Was I wrong to search for a life of equality and love?
As I struggled to untangle my own beliefs, I found that staying true to myself often collided with the pressures of my community. I became more and more a private person. I felt pressured to choose between conformity and honesty, and though I chose the latter, I struggled to share the immensely personal nature of my journey with a community that no longer regarded me as one of their own. When I would, very intentionally and carefully, share my opinions in class or open up to an acquaintance, I found that my opinions were politely disregarded.
For a while, I assumed that I was the exception to the rule. I didn’t battle the feelings of isolation, and in many ways, I isolated myself. After all, I was the one unwilling to conform to the beliefs of the community around me, and they couldn’t be blamed for my decisions. I assumed that my struggles were my own fault, and I longed to escape the community where I felt ignored.
Then an interesting thing started happening.
As I withdrew from the larger community at my school, I started to encounter a kind of sub-community: People who resonated with my feelings as an “outsider.” As I listened to their stories, I started to wonder if my feelings of isolation might not be such an anomaly.
Here, I feel I ought to enter a disclaimer. Christian discipleship is written into the fabric of my school, and it is not my intention to blame or bash my college community. I was completely aware of my school's rules, guidelines and faith-based principles when I enrolled, and I can’t very well choose to attend a Christian school and then complain about being surrounded by Christians.
Just like anyone, I didn’t foresee the places that my journey of faith would take me, and today, I find myself in a very different place than the one I was in as a freshman.
Thankfully, I’ve had several close friends and incredible mentors who have lent me their judgement-free ears, perspectives and advice. I still struggle with reconciling the often opposing extremes of connecting to my college community and staying true to myself. Toward this end, I interviewed several students about their experiences within a Christian college community. Here are their stories:
(From a senior transfer student)
"I think I had sort of a unique perspective because I didn't come into this college as a freshman but instead transferred in my sophomore year from a large public university. I had only become a christian at 18 and was largely in the dark about many aspects of Christian culture; for instance, I never saw an episode of "Veggie Tales" until I was 19. It was a difficult adjustment to me, not because I disagreed or resented the more common beliefs of the Bethel community, but because at my previous school, I was exposed to so many diverse beliefs and cultures. I was able to ask any questions I wanted. Even within the Christian organization I joined on campus, there were some very diverse ideas among us, and many fruitful conversations came from this. People were excited to talk to others with differing opinions, but here, I've never felt that same phenomenon, religiously or politically. Ironically, I feel that it was much easier for me to be a Christian at a large, secular university."
(From a soon-to-be graduate)
"I came into college with a stereotypical cookie cutter version of homeschooled Christianity. I was a right-wing Republican, pro-lifer who thought that I was a good person because I never missed church, and I have a Bible verse tattoo. After a year, I began realizing that so much more exists in the world aside from a close-minded branch of Christianity. I questioned what I was hearing in class and in chapel, and my peers made me feel like because of it I wasn't a good Christian. It wasn't until senior year when I met some like-minded people and a couple professors that I actually felt like I belonged for the first time. I think that my college claims to accept a broad spectrum of perspectives, but in my personal experience, I don't think that is true. I think that if I could change one aspect of my college, it would be to encourage students to think for themselves, really think for themselves and accept that not everyone will have the same views. That doesn't make them a lesser Christian or a rebellious student."
(From a recent graduate)
"Coming in as a freshman, I really wasn’t sure what I believed. I thought that I was conservative because my parents were conservative. The more I was surrounded by classic Christian conservatism, though, the less I believed it. These thoughts were kept to myself. I was absolutely afraid of being ostracized, especially as I was starting to make friends and be a “cool guy” in college. This started a cycle of keeping things close to the vest, not just holding back my opinions, but not letting people know who I really was or what I was really going through. Was this created by the atmosphere around me? Were there signs that if I showed my true self I would be socially punished? Or was this attitude self-created? Did I just think I didn’t fit what a “Christian college kid” should be? I don’t really know the answer to that. All I know is that, for most of my college career, and still today, most people at my school have no idea what I’m really like.
All of this came to a head in my junior year, when my parents got divorced, my dad moved out of state, and I moved out of the house that I had always thought would be there for me to come home to. I had so few people who I was even capable of being honest with, and I struggled to deal with it. Through that experience, I grew tremendously; I had to. I realized that I couldn’t care what people thought anymore. It was just too much. As I began to speak my mind more, inside class and out of it, I realized there were plenty of people who felt the same way I did. There were plenty of kids who had been through similar experiences. I began to feel like I really was part of a community of people. I could share my opinions, and I could share the struggles I was having. Still, though, my community was often at odds with the predominant community of my Christian college."
(From a senior art major)
"My Christian college reinforced my beliefs as an Atheist. Being here has been a struggle for me, even though I knew it was going to be and I am the one that chose to go here. After being here four years, I have seen so much hate against other people’s beliefs that I don’t think I could ever relate to a religion like that. I try to be accepting of everyone that I meet, but it is so hard to do when I feel as though I am not being accepted for who I am. Throughout the four years that I have been here, I have sat through Chapels and classes of people who degrade others because the other person’s lifestyle choices don’t agree with what they believe in. It is really hard to see something like that when I have constantly heard that everyone is “God’s” child.
"My beliefs really affected my ability to connect with the community. I feel as though everyone that I meet goes to church, can quote the Bible, or is involved in some sort of ministry. I never had that growing up. So coming here was really a culture shock for me. I struggled understanding where people were coming from, especially in classes. I think that people have to remember that there are students who come here that aren’t Christians and don’t know anything about the Bible. So, when people reference the Bible, these students feel as though they have no idea what is going on.
"I really struggled connecting with people because everyone seemed to be a Christian and I wasn't. I felt as though I had to keep, me being an Atheist, a secret from everyone and that I had to go along with what people said. It was really hard on me because I felt I couldn’t be who I really was. I accepted people for who they were and what they believed but I quickly learned that people who didn’t believe in God, were looked down upon by students and faculty. People kept saying how they needed to pray for these people, when really they didn’t need that. They needed someone to see that these people were open to their religion but might have thought a little differently. I didn’t really open up to people until I was a senior in college, and once I did I began to enjoy my college experience more. I was able to find students who related to me and felt the same way that I did about the college.
"It is sad to say but I really haven’t enjoyed my undergraduate experience because no one really tries to connect with people who are not Christians. Everyone just assumes that you are but never takes the time to learn, without shoving the religion down your throat, as to why you believe what you do."
It is often assumed that Christian school student = Christian individual. But I don't think it's that simple. Something dangerous happens when we make these kinds of assumptions. I’ve come to believe that community develops through relationship, and exclusivity develops when we associate only with the kinds of people who share our beliefs.
And I'm as guilty of this as anyone. But, in order for relationship to succeed, there must be a desire (on both sides!) to listen for the purpose of understanding, to recognize the humanity and value of the other person, and to be willing to learn from a perspective that might not be the same as one’s own.