The New College Spirituality
By Mark Weber
Its Friday night. A group of 20 students is in a room at the University at Buffalo student union. A guitarist leads them as they sing I Will Celebrate. Julie Winegardens eyes are closed. Her head is bowed. There are no stained glass windows in sight. No candles or crosses. Just people gathered together singing, some lifting their hands to heaven. Welcome to the new spirituality on college campuses.
Many young people, like Winegarden, find themselves searching for spirituality these days in ways their parents never imagined. Winegarden used to attend a strict, reserved church. She would fidget in her seat while three old church ladies sang an ancient hymn off-key. Several people in the congregation would nap. The sermon was overtly theological in nature. Winegarden was bored.
I found a group called InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University at Buffalo, said Winegarden. I was raised Methodist, but InterVarsity is non-denominational, so I meet lots of people coming from different backgrounds.
InterVarsity is planning a seeker-sensitive meeting this January. Winegarden is thinking about inviting her Hindu classmate. Its a comfortable, casual way to bring friends to a meeting who wouldnt normally go to a church, said Winegarden. We perform skits and sing songs like Michael W. Smiths A Place In This World that have spiritual undertones. Then we break into small groups to talk about spiritual issues to see what our friends think about Christianity.
The University at Buffalos InterVarsity chapter has welcomed spiritual seekers in the past. Winegarden has talked about Jesus with several Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists at past meetings. In her opinion, it seems like many young people today are picking and choosing elements of several religions to form their own individualized spirituality.
According to Princeton sociologist Robert Wunthow, students today are piecing together their faith like a patchwork quilt. Spirituality has become a vastly complex quest in which each person seeks his or her own way, said Wunthow.
In an article published in the Christian Education Journal entitled Spirituality On Campus: Cultural Impacts at Christian Colleges and Universities, Dennis Hollinger, Ph.D., found that spirituality on campus is not tied to particular denominations and traditions. As the Dean of College Ministries and Professor of Christian Ethics at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., Hollinger concluded that students seeking spirituality on college campuses are often seeking emotion-based experiences where they feel a sense of the spiritual. Theology, or head knowledge, is not as important as feelings, or heart knowledge. Hollinger is worried about the way students approach spirituality. Its not pursued in rational fashion and not sustained by coherent rituals that tie it all together, said Hollinger.
Dale Young, an InterVarsity staff worker at The College of New Jersey, has noticed that many of the students he encounters on campus often base their spirituality on what they feel. I meet young people all the time who base their beliefs in God and their relationship with God on what they feel, said Young. They don't actively engage their mind in areas such as basic theology, worship, and devotional times.
Micah White is a student at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, Pa. Its a small, prestigious liberal arts school. I was drawn to Swarthmore because I hoped that there I might find relief from the conservative Christian mind-set I had experienced while attending public high school in Michigan, said White.
White is critical of religion and spirituality in general. He has noticed Swarthmore, despite its Quaker roots, does not give much attention to spiritual matters, though he would like to see that change. Swarthmore is secular in every sense of the word, but it is also a school that allows students to continue holding unsound religious beliefs uncriticallyin part, precisely because there is so little critical dialogue on religion, said White. The absence of religious debate has created an environment where religious students simply are not challenged, and thus never offered the opportunity to put their religious ideas to the test of dialogue.
Minyon Rusher currently attends Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. I went to a Christian undergraduate school in the Midwest, and now I go to a Christian graduate school, said Rusher. I specifically chose to go to these overtly Christian schools because they embraced spirituality rather than avoiding it like most secular schools. Ive been very impressed with the ways my schools have helped me grow spiritually. I think Christian colleges do a good job of ministering to the head and heart.
In a discussion on the campus of Messiah College, Hollinger asked students about their feelings. He discovered most of them did not trust the schools leadership, churches in general or the major institutions of society. A general feeling of distrust among young people, he reasoned, resulted in their quest for an emotion-based spirituality. As a professor, Hollinger noticed the one thing young people are seeking most from spiritual leaders is, simply, sincerity.
For many college and university students, their spirituality has an anti-institutional bent, said Hollinger. Traditional church leaders are often deemed to be insignificant and matters like ordination, degrees, knowledge, or even experience are largely irrelevant. What matters isare the leaders real? said Hollinger.
In his article, Hollinger concluded Christian institutions of higher education should offer students both spiritual head and heart knowledge. We need a spirituality that can truly touch the affections and emotions of our students, said Hollinger.
Matthew Stroia, a divinity student at Regent University, a Christian graduate school in Virginia Beach, Va., doesnt necessarily agree. I don't think its the responsibility of the institution itself to spiritually touch the student body, said Stroia. I believe certain educational institutions like my school facilitate and enable a spiritual atmosphere on the campus. Its up to each student to choose to allow themselves to be spiritually touched.
Winegarden, who keeps busy with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, believes students can find and nurture their spirituality wherever they are. Even at secular schools like mine, there are almost always spiritually-oriented clubs to join, said Winegarden. Spiritual seekers can usually find a group where they feel like they fit in. I did.