By Stephen Rankin

The November gathering of Faith Talks featured the Rev. Stephen Rankin, chaplain at Southern Methodist University, speaking on the university’s role in helping students grow spiritually and live an integrated life. Is education primarily about employability? If not, what can a university do to offer more?

More than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities dot the American landscape. Among that number are hundreds affiliated with various Christian traditions. Some of them adhere closely to that faith; others, especially national research universities, adopt a diffident posture. Many Christian students attend these schools for reasons other than religious affiliation, but also expect to grow spiritually while attending college. What conditions do they find on arrival?

Careerism: Because of identity diversity on campus (and because diversity is pursued as a value), it is easy not to notice shared values that make up an institutional ethos. Ethos is the characteristic spirit of a group or culture or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations. A traditional residential university is a community dominated by careerism that is rooted in a fiercely individualistic view of human nature.

Publications and conference programs of professional associations make constant reference to knowledge and skills needed for success. “Return on investment” is directly tied to the percentage of graduates who land a job in their field of study. This pressure forces schools to assess their educational offerings accordingly. Since students and their parents are paying, they have become increasingly discriminating customers.

Outside the classroom, student affairs staff work to develop students in their personal identities. Developmental psychology, while recognizing the formative influence of social groups, still emphasizes the individual. Students are encouraged (and ostensibly given tools) to think critically and develop their internal voice. There is much to be lauded here, but the commitment to individualism is a concern.

Naturalism: Another worrisome aspect of campus ethos is the assumption of naturalism, which holds that questions about the nature of reality (“metaphysical speculation”) are unproductive and irrelevant in the search for knowledge. The university is dominated by what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame,” which privileges this-world concerns over transcendent ones. Yearnings for God and faith are left to private exploration. This prejudice is almost never named or consciously evaluated. It has become part of an academic “sensibility,” as the late Jean Bethke Elshtain put it, a kind of pre-reflective aspect of our intellectual apparatus.

This detachment from religious faith as a valued means of pursuing truth and the common good is revealed in a 2007 survey by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. It found that 79 percent of professors (religious and nonreligious) do not believe religious faith is necessary to develop good moral character in students. Less than 45 percent of religious faculty believe that faith is necessary for moral formation. These are troubling statistics.

Signs of Hope

While we must recognize the matters of concern, it remains the case that most college students sense a yearning for more than success and material fulfillment. Studies (from the Higher Education and Research Institute, for example) consistently show that students want to explore spiritual questions. They want spaces to ask honest questions without fear of judgment. Once they discover that professors, staff on campus, or mentors and guides in a congregation provide the kind of relationships that encourage such conversations, they participate enthusiastically.

Another hopeful sign is that engaging in gospel conversations with college students is not only for the young and hip. A major prejudice in college ministry is that, in order to relate well to students, you have to be close enough to their age. There is some truth in this view, of course, but letting it dictate who is fit for ministry with college students denies them the opportunity to receive wisdom from experienced Christians.

The social psychologist Jean Twenge (Generation Me, iGen) has shown that young people are increasingly afraid of adult life and want to postpone it for as long as they reasonably can. (Have you heard of “adulting”?) They know that eventually they have to enter adult life but they feel unprepared. Once they realize that older, wise Christians are willing to “do life” with them through relationships and conversation, they often are like sponges, soaking up the Good News from faithful witnesses.

One example from my experience: I facilitate a group for students who participate in something we very uncreatively call “Faith and Learning Scholars.” It started as a 10-week seminar-type experience to explore how students’ Christian faith informs their career interest. At the end of one semester, a young man scheduled an appointment and came with a list of questions. At the end of that hour’s chat, he said, “Could I just come back every week?” We met every week of his final undergraduate semester. It was a holy privilege to journey with him through his questions.

A final hopeful sign is that students are very willing to listen — at length — to good teaching. Let’s stop worrying about shortened attention spans and competing with smart devices. If the topic is one that speaks to human hearts, and if the relationship invites honest soul-searching and, furthermore, if it offers edifying, encouraging, true-to-the-gospel insights, students will sit with you for as long as you are willing to sit with them. Nothing needs to be slick and packaged. It needs to come from people whose transparency and vulnerability shows that they love God and are totally sold out to following Christ.

This last point means that catechesis is vitally important, though perhaps not the forms that we often use with youth. Let us make it more relational, smaller in scale, and less hurried. And let us never forget that sound doctrine is life-giving and crucially connected to our practices.


Response by Seth Oldham
Executive director of student affairs
University of Dallas

As a student affairs professional, I encounter Steve’s matters of concern and signs of hope almost daily. Students are overwhelmed with questions about meaning, career, God, relationships, and the nature of community. Colleges would do well, however, to see his matters of concern as an open door for conversations that can lead to a discussion of the Good News.

In 2000, the Lilly Endowment launched the Programs for Theological Exploration Initiative, which has awarded over $250 million to colleges and universities of varying sizes and creeds to develop programs that encourage students to contemplate faith and vocation. The word vocation may be discouraged on some campuses due to its religious connotation, but I have found that students are quick to embrace the word, especially millennials and iGen students.

These students want to find meaning in their work; they don’t want to work 50-hour weeks just for a paycheck. Conversations about vocation open doors to a variety of important questions such as Calling from what/whom? to Do I have multiple vocations? to Can my vocation change?

People of faith can enter into the conversation about “return on investment” by encouraging college students (and those considering college) to think about what type of person they will become after graduation. What types of values will you have? Will you be a lifelong learner? As people who profess that the good life is grounded, not in a job, but in the Good News of Jesus crucified and risen, we should enter into the conversation and demand colleges and universities do more for our students than simply get them their first job.

Finally, let me echo Steve’s hope about good teaching, especially that which is relational and in community. It can be life-changing for both student and teacher. Look no further than the resurgence of the residential college model on college campuses across the country. These residence halls have faculty living side by side with students, and research shows student and faculty benefit immensely. Some religious schools even have residential chaplains. It does not just create opportunity for conversation, but role models for students to follow. Jesus was the perfect model for this. Why should we be any different?

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