WASHINGTON – At the Word Up! Bible Study in The George Washington University’s student center, dozens of students surrender their Thursday nights – the biggest “party night” of the GW week – to worship God.
The members are a tight-knit group, counting each other as close friends in this large university. Like many evangelical groups on secular college campuses, Word Up! has blossomed in recent years, attracting new members – but mostly among black students.
There are some white and Asian students at the weekly meetings, and Word Up! is trying to attract even more. But since its formation in 1997, Word Up! has catered mostly to GW’s African-American population, and a recent growth spurt hasn’t changed that.
“As people, we tend to float to people who we’re like,” said LeeAnn Willis, president of Word Up! “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but the problem comes when you only go to that one group. We know that in God’s community he doesn’t want it to be like that… .”
The group is part of a nationwide phenomenon that has students drifting away from large, homogenous Christian fellowships and gravitating toward new “niche” groups catering to their interests, age or ethnicity.
Christianity gets update
It’s only the latest outgrowth of the expanding “evangelical movement” on American college campuses. There are Bible studies for the football team, for sorority sisters and fraternity brothers, and for different racial and ethnic groups. Some of the largest national Christian organizations are reaching out to these different groups in an effort to modernize and coordinate Christianity with the diverse lives of today’s God-seeking students.
“Until you focus on a specific market, you never really have success there. It’s all the more specific groups on campus,” said Andy Dalton, director of Greek Ministry for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. “Whether it be ethnic groups or graduate students, there’s a strong push toward putting a high value on community instead of a strong individual.”
Greeks felt left out
The Intervarsity Greek Ministry is active on more than 40 campuses, with many new chapters. Dalton said it started because Greek students felt stigmatized and unwelcome in mainstream Christian fellowships, so they – like many other “minority” Christian groups – decided to form their own.
Most students agree that such diversity is leading to attempts at unity between groups instead of divisiveness. But some professors say that enabling students to make all their social connections through tailored religious groups may be problematic at secular universities, where students run a risk of appearing too exclusive – reinforcing stereotypes that Christian groups are cultish or extremist in a time when evangelicals should be fighting for greater integration into university life.
“(As) evangelical students are getting toward a majority of college students, and they’re having their worldview shaped and friendships made outside the classroom, it won’t be too long before they won’t be granting the faculty or classroom much authority at all,” said Stephen Webb, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College in Indiana.
“You’ll lose a large percentage of the student body who will have their primary sense of learning and loyalty outside the college. How strong of alumni are they going to be? And what about the social cohesiveness of the university, or creating a campus environment where everyone belongs? We need to have more open dialogue with evangelical students.”
Webb said colleges are choosing to ignore the burgeoning evangelical population because most faculty are traditionally liberal, and consider Christianity “anti-intellectual.” He said Christian college life was once dominated by more mainline Protestant groups – Methodists, Presbyterians – and university chaplain boards reflected that.
Schools turn blind eye
But mainline denominations are losing allegiance among students as evangelicals grow, and schools are turning a blind eye.
Willis said part of the problem is that schools have a misguided view of Christianity, leaving evangelical students marginalized by students and faculty.
“People are very scared of the whole evangelical movement. They think we’re Bible-thumpers. We do get a bad reputation,” she said. “But we don’t try to be fake or make you do anything you don’t want to do. I see it as something people are maybe afraid of, and they’re operating on stereotypes.”
And Christians, by limiting their friendships and extracurricular activities to specialized religious circles, may share some of the blame.
“There’s lots of suspicion of evanglelicals, that they’re manipulative and sneaky. Some (Christians) probably don’t know how to articulate their message in a pluralistic way,” said John Schmalzbauer, professor of sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “Evangelicals are getting better at this, but they need to understand how to have a conversation with, say, a Buddhist.”
Ultimately, said Webb, secular schools will have to include evangelicals in their definition of diversity – or watch one of the largest sectors of the college population be ostracized and disengaged from university life.
“There’s real tension there – faculty need to retool and rethink. Their understanding of Christianity is so out of sync with what’s going on in America it’s appalling. We need to be able to understand what’s going on on our campuses. We can learn about these students, and it’s going to be a huge missed opportunity if that doesn’t happen,” Webb said. “Ten years ago, when evangelicals started to grow, people said ‘it won’t last.’ It’s not a trend anymore – now it’s reality. Let’s face it.”