Last fall, I penned a set of essays for Boundless on the perils of being a Christian inside a Christian university.

The anxiety that the young’uns are going to go off to the secular institutions and leave us all behind has fostered something of a boomlet in attendance at Christian colleges.  But as is so often the case, the more subtle temptations are those which are closer to home, the vices that masquerade as virtues and the contempt that familiarity sometimes breeds.

(Drew Dyck, author of this book, has been kicking around this problem at B&C this week.)

The closing excerpt, then:

I eventually wearied of the environment and longed to get beyond “the bubble.” Chapel went from welcome refreshment as a freshman to dreary drudgery as a senior. By the end, I was no longer grateful for the opportunity (of a lifetime!) to worship communally multiple times a week and to be fed by the preaching of God’s Word. I was required to go, so I went. And if the sermon or the worship didn’t meet my standards, well, I had both barrels of biblical information (thanks, Bible classes!) loaded to critique and dismiss the speaker.

But my irritation had nothing to do with the godly frustration of being inside a cocoon for too long. Instead, I nursed a subtle and pernicious cynicism about the people around me. By the time I was a senior, I had no desire to go to chapel and hear one more bad sermon. I couldn’t deign to sing another theologically trite worship song. And everywhere I went, I began to distinguish between the real Christians (who, like me, managed to be unremittingly depressing in their authenticity) and those who were just playing the game.

Cynicism of that sort isn’t simply a lie about the world or the people around us. In my case, it was grounded in a false view of my own spiritual maturity that was quickly exposed when I left the Christian college environment. As I entered the “real world,” it became clear that I had failed those four years to build the disciplines and habits of the spiritual life in the way that I would have had to do in a secular environment. But rather than appreciating the environment and maximizing it through cultivating personal holiness, I sneered at the simplicity of it all and mocked those who didn’t “get it.”

Comments appreciated after reading the whole thing.

I would be interested to hear from those who went to Christian universities about whether the essay strikes a chord.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Matt, I think you’re right on. I too attended evangelical Christian universities for undergrad, and had an experience much like this. I especially identified with the attitude you identify in which one distinguishes between “real” Christians and the unwashed masses. Ouch. That hit very close to home.

    Now that you have made explicit the spiritual dangers of a Christian college, and James K.A. Smith’s book “Desiring the Kingdom” has critiqued their structure as partaking too heavily in secular liturgies, all of us with a stake in Christian education need to be considering how we can help make them places which do a better job of living up to their goals–or if that’s even possible. I cherish my education and think I got a number of benefits from it that I wouldn’t have in a secular environment, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to get around the fact that something needs to change.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad to hear it resonated. Believe me, coming to the insight wasn’t easy, either.

      I totally agree that the reformation of Christian education needs to go forward, but that there are benefits there that simply can’t be attained elsewhere. The benefits of staying for a time inside “the bubble” are many–in some ways, I think of my time at Biola as a type of Rivendell experience, a moment along the journey to refresh and prepare for the long, hard road ahead. At its best, that’s what happens. But in reality, the dangers are just as real there as anywhere else–they simply come wearing very different clothing.

      My only big thought on reforming Christian education right now is that we need to somehow collapse the separation between adults/students. But I have no idea how to do that responsibly.

      matt

  • Matt –

    I believe this post (and part II) will resonate with anyone who is attending a Christian University, and even more so with those who have already graduated from one. I graduated from Master’s (just up the road from Biola) in 2008 and I’m still “recovering” in many ways from my experience there.

    Don’t get me wrong – I loved the school and I’m so thankful for my time at TMC. I was provided with opportunities to study abroad and do missions work overseas (as well as in our local community). I made friendships that I believe will last a lifetime. I developed great relationships with professors and enjoyed my education. I met the person who would eventually introduce me to my husband. All good things.

    But my spiritual journey was taken on a strange path, in the exact ways you described in this post. (It’s ironic that the one negative takeaway from my time at a Christian school is my spiritual experience.) Freshman year, everything was so exciting. My journals were filled with records of spiritual awakening and growth. I was aware of the blessing of an environment that collectively strived to love and follow Christ. By senior year, however, my attitude toward it all had soured. I ceased to rely on Christ personally in my daily disciplines. The line between Bible homework and personal time in God’s Word blurred and eventually disappeared. The drudgery of fulfilling requirements squelched the desire to enjoy Christ purely for the sake of my relationship with Him. A real sense of community dwindled as we all learned how to be fake in order to avoid confrontation and took on a negative attitude in attempts to avoid cliché “spiritual” conversation.

    None of these problems were the school’s fault (in that their motives and intentions were good). My apathy was simply a result of nothing other than me allowing myself to become apathetic. I chose to see the requirements and constant reminders and encouragements as annoying. I chose to have a negative attitude (like the one you described in your post: picking apart chapel speakers and looking down on people who didn’t really seem like genuine Christians to me…). This makes me wonder, though, if this type of experience/reaction to Christian school is common, should the system continue as it is? Or a different question: would I encourage my own kids to apply to Christian universities?

    When I graduated and entered back into the “real world,” I was slapped in the face with the reality that my Christianity was sour. It was something I’d learned to outwardly display without any inner movement. As I mentioned earlier, I’m still “recovering.” I’m learning all over again the simplicity of being God’s child, and the rippling, REAL repercussions that that fact produces in every aspect of my life.

    Thanks again for this post. Sorry if my reply was a bit long. :)

    Katy

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Katy,

      Thanks MUCH for the reply. You nailed many of the exact reasons why I wrote the piece in the first place. I didn’t want to blame the school, because you’re right on the money about our freedom in the matter.

      That said, I wouldn’t change the system (I don’t think) if I was running it. Maybe someday I’ll write an essay on the virtues of the sort of moral codes taht places like Biola, Masters, etc. have and require their students to keep. And mandatory chapels, too. There’s lots of good stuff in there, even if it’s not the paradise those going into it think it will or should be.

      In other words, we should be careful to “find the good and praise it” with respect to our alma maters as much as we come to a healthy recognition of their limitations and deficiencies. : )

      Thanks again for the excellent comment. Really appreciated.

      Matt