From December 18, 2017
How Christian students form and foster their faith at secular universities.
“Guys, this is my friend Sarah, and she goes to church!” my friend says drunkenly, gesturing to me in the middle of a clammy basement. I stumble over to the group, lift up my hands, both which are clutching water bottles of liquor, and scream “HEY! I love Jesus!” My cleavage spills out over my shirt and I eye up the guy leaning on the wall, all while I slur my confession of faith to girls that will never remember it.
The next morning, I wake up in someone else’s house with a pounding headache and insurmountable regret. The world says yes; Christianity says no. I trudge home and shower, thinking that it will wash away my guilt like the beer that was spilled in my hair the night before. I mumble, “Sorry, God,” turn on my Spotify worship music playlist, and lift my hands in praise. It is Sunday, after all.
I often wonder if I’m the only college student that’s living what seems like a double life, and feeling guilty about it. This begs the question, how are other Christian students forming and fostering their identities at secular universities? I interviewed a diverse bunch of Christian Temple University students to discuss their experiences as people of faith on a secular campus.
Temple is located in the epicenter of Philadelphia, one of the most church-filled cities in the nation, but students still feel a lack of resources on-campus to deepen their faith.
“I think the hardest part about being a Christian at Temple is that there aren’t a ton of opportunities on campus,” says junior Jacqui Fricke. “I know at other secular universities there are huge Christian organizations, but I never felt that way here. It is really hard when you have to rely on yourself to keep forging ahead.”
Christian organizations such as Cru, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and Temple Gospel Ministries have cult-like followings on campus, but don’t often actively seek out and welcome new students. Having experienced the same treatment from those organizations, I, along with many other students, turned away from on-campus fellowship. However, students that do attend these organizations say that it has helped their spiritual walk immensely.
“I attend Cru on Thursday nights,” says Seth Frankenfield, a junior. “It’s a spirit-filled time that I really value. I’m getting a lot out of it just getting away, hearing a message, and spending time in the Word. Something I’ve learned to really value is spending time in fellowship with other believers.”
Most of the other students I interviewed were all discouraged by the lack of on-campus options, and they either used that as fuel to look for services elsewhere or as a sign to just stop attending church altogether.
“Where I go, church just feels like hanging out with friends,” explains Alex Schmied, a senior that regularly attends Epic Church in Fairmount. “I think having a support system is super helpful in my balancing act since I always have people to go to.”
“Church is important, because it’s about community,” says Scott Benner, a former Associate Pastor of Zion Mennonite Church. “It is having a group of people that can support you, challenge you, and help you to continue to grow.”
Senior George Basile attends the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City every Sunday, where he is a Eucharistic Minister. He describes it as a part of his weekly routine; something that refreshes him for the week ahead.
“I go home every Saturday night and go to church back home on Sundays,” says Seth. “As opposed to last year when I wouldn’t go to church some weekends and would some others, I was able to see the difference it had on my spiritual life and just how I felt overall throughout the week.”
Jacob Kurtz, a sophomore, doesn’t attend church on Sundays. “The hardest part of being a Christian student in college is balancing church, because it’s just difficult to go and be there for an hour and at the same time be like “Oh, I’m missing out on studying, classwork, being with friends, or even partying the night before, because I know I’m not going to go to church hungover.’”
Instead, Jacob, like many other practicing Christians, believes church doesn’t have to be a formal service. He practices what he calls “quiet Christianity,” where he is actively a Christian, but he’s not actively evangelizing the Gospel. “I’m there; I’m serving as a role model, and I’m always trying to act in a way that honors and respects God,” he explains.
The Temple environment
They may have varying opinions about the importance of a weekly church habit, but all of the interviewees agreed on one thing: their peers at Temple are accepting of their beliefs.
“I’ve never felt at one point at Temple that my religious beliefs were under attack or that I was being targeted unfairly by a professor or peer,” says Jacob. “So I don’t see anything holding me back from embracing my faith.”
He explains that at Temple, if you love others and are open-minded towards their beliefs, you’ll be respected. The environment at Temple is inclusive of most belief systems, unless they are rooted in inequality or other dividing factors. Jacob observes that the majority of outwardly Christian students at Temple are socially liberal and non-judgmental, which is why he believes their faith is accepted, as opposed to the radical preachers that occasionally appear with picket signs and are met with an abundance of anti-hate rhetoric from students.
“Most faiths, if not all, are binding by the same principle: loving your neighbor,” George adds. “I found that Temple may not be the most faith-based school, but it has that sense of doing right to your neighbor. I think that helped foster my faith, because if you can lean on people like that, who may or may not be of faith, you can easily slip into being a faith-based person at a secular university.”
“It’s all about just sharing your faith with others and letting God do the rest. We are just the vessels,” says Seth.
Balancing faith with the typical college lifestyle
But, if there’s one thing that makes attending a secular university as a Christian particularly taxing, it’s the rampant perpetuation of party culture.
Having grown up in a Christian household and attending Mennonite schools until college, I was well-versed in the do’s and don’ts of so-called “Christian living”. No sex before marriage, no drinking, no drugs, no cursing, no masturbation, no lustful thoughts, no homosexual tendencies, no envy, no greed, no selfish desires, and the list goes on. I assumed all of these were Biblical truths because I was berated with them repeatedly, despite the fact that many of those “rules” don’t even appear in the Bible itself.
Coming to Temple, I began to indulge in behaviors of the flesh. Imbibing “cocktails” (if you can call a diabetes-inducing concoction of Kool-Aid, Mountain Dew, and bottom shelf vodka a cocktail), vying for the attention of sleazy male partygoers, and regularly using the word “fuck” became routine. For many students, attending parties is a rite of passage into college life. For Christians, it can feel like our rite of passage to hell.
The interviewees expressed different concerns with the typical college student lifestyle and the guilt that can come along with it as Christians.
“I think I gave into peer pressure a lot, especially in things like partying or dating because I thought everyone was doing it, so I just went along with it,” says Alex. “It’s hard to party and go crazy on a Saturday when you’re supposed to be in church the next morning, and it’s hard to find someone who takes dating seriously in the hook-up culture that is often associated with college.”
None of the students said that they stopped going out. Instead, they all learned to reconcile their habits with their faith. Jacqui found solace in cliché, but foundational advice she received: always stay true to yourself.
“Whenever I go out, everyone is always kind and I never feel pressured,” she says. “I don’t think you have to stay home every weekend as a Christian. The balance, for me, is knowing who I am wherever I go. Everyone struggles with different things, so I find it important to rely on God to give me strength when I don’t have enough on my own.”
George expressed a similar sentiment, stressing the importance of knowing who you are and being respectful wherever the wild Friday night takes you.
“I’ve had my fun in college,” he says. “And whether that be one night stands or crazy nights drinking, as long as you’re staying true to yourself and treating everyone with respect, I think it’s okay. The faith I abide by allows me to have that fun, because I believe that God gave people free will and the ability to make decisions on their own. As long as you confess to sins that you’ve made, I believe you can always find reconciliation with the Lord.”
Jacob agrees, and points out that the true Biblical commandment came with the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Old hat rules from Leviticus were decimated, and followers were met with one simple commandment: to love others.
“I think there are things that a lot of Christians want me to feel guilty about that I just don’t feel guilty about, like my sexuality and premarital sex,” he says. “I just don’t feel bad about it.”
Seth adds, “We shouldn’t feel guilty if we have a relationship with God, because it’s just sin and it happens to all of us. I don’t feel guilty of things anymore because I know that I am forgiven.”
Diversity as a stronghold
All of the students concurred that Temple’s diversity is what makes it such a unique place to foster their Christian beliefs. There is a diversity of race and course of study, but also a diversity of religion and thought.
“I believe this is one of the smartest, if not the smartest university in the country,” says George. “People scoff at that, because we’re a public university in North Philadelphia. But I don’t measure intelligence entirely by average SAT score, but rather by emotional intelligence—being able to rationalize other ideas and outside perspectives, and thinking outside of the box. Those are things Temple students do better than any university I could ever think of.”
Christianity can be difficult to foster at secular universities. But, many students choose these universities because of the test of faith that comes with them. James 1:2-4 reads, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Colleen Byrne, a junior, says, “I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that at the end of the day, your beliefs and your faith are your own and there’s no right or wrong way to go about having beliefs or practicing your faith.”
Attending a secular university has been one of the most difficult choices I’ve made in a spiritual sense. I am tested each day, and each day I fail. But I know that I’m at Temple for a reason. I love this university more than I ever imagined; God has blessed me with so much through this school. My faith has been stretched and challenged. It is evolving every day. My beliefs are not the same as they were in high school, when I was around the same 80 people (with relatively the same beliefs) every day, and that’s okay.
The world says yes; Christianity says no. But maybe, just maybe, they can agree.