The secular college experience can be a paradox for Christian students: the quest for higher knowledge bound up in the pursuit of a good time. Students make the rugged transition from homes where structure and boundaries are well developed to an anything-goes environment — beer bashes are normal, classmates high on drugs a possibility, boyfriends and girlfriends staying overnight are no big deal.
What may be particularly unnerving for the Christian co-ed is that most of this activity can be found in their homes away from home — the college dormitory.
But alternatives are springing up. Dotting the landscape here and there are places to live where you can continue to grow while maintaining a presence on what may seem a mostly God-free campus.
One of the most notable options to date is a dormitory brought to life by a state college, funded by public money. Maple Hall, on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, is home to nearly 500 students. Most are freshmen, though upperclassmen constitute around 25 percent of the dorm population.
Maple Hall is an experiment, a “beta test site,” to use the words of Randy Alexander, ISU’s director of residence halls. Students arrive knowing there are zero-tolerance rules on drinking and smoking in the dorm. And even though men and women live there, there’s also a curfew — 1 a.m. on weekdays and 3 a.m. on weekends — when the opposite sexes must go their opposite ways.
Last year critics lampooned the university for coming up with such a restrictive housing alternative. “Only Boy Scouts would live there,” students wrote in the college paper. But come this year, the residence life team was vindicated. Nearly 1,200 freshmen asked to live there. They could only take 400.
Maybe Maple Hall’s nearly $16 million makeover had something to do with its popularity — fresh paint, new carpet and furniture, computer labs, kitchens, group study areas, limited access bathrooms vs. the community approach standard in most residence halls. Still, the stiff regulations played a big role in the dorm’s popularity.
“I just felt this was the best dorm for me,” said Katie Van Weelden, a 19-year-old freshman from Pella, Iowa. “Maple just has a good atmosphere for studying without getting diverted by parties. This is better for me, to live in a substance-free environment and not be tempted to get involved with that stuff at all.”
While Van Weelden acknowledges her faith background — born and raised in the Christian Reformed church — her Maple Hall counterparts are a diverse lot, including several who are agnostic. “The people who live here just don’t want to deal with the smoking and alcohol,” she confirmed. “I’m going to apply to live here again next year.”
Such testimonies are now common to Alexander. “Some come to Maple for religious reasons, because they think it will be an environment more compatible with their belief system,” he said. “Some think coming here will help them academically, that they will be more likely to do well. I’ve heard a few say they didn’t want to get in a hole and thought they needed the extra structure.
“I think a lot of freshmen feel that way. Typically they’re coming from homes and communities where they had an extensive support network of parents, neighbors, coaches, ministers, teachers and friends. All of these people helped them for a long time and helped them in ways they didn’t recognize. Then they come here and don’t know anyone. They appreciate a little structure.”
In addition to the substance use rules, Maple Hall residents also agree to keep up their grades and to volunteer with a campus organization of their choosing. Upperclassmen living there are hand-picked because of their good grades and record of campus involvement, so they might serve as role models for the younger students. There are more residence life staff than at other dorms and staff members are supposed to take a more active role in helping students navigate university life.
Students looking for more Christ-centered living arrangements at secular college campuses have at least two viable options. On the west coast there’s Vision 16, a self-described low-key organization which operates a men’s house and women’s house at the University of Washington, Seattle campus. Students who live in the off-campus homes agree to not drink, smoke or have overnight friends of the opposite sex. They also agree to focus on loving God, loving others and loving their community.
Students find out about the Vision 16 homes through friends. There is no formal application process and apparently no particular church supports the faith-based residences.
In the Midwest, students may want to check out the Real Life program, a ministry of 2,500 member Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus, Ohio. Real Life is the Ohio State University-based campus ministry of Xenos. Nearly 250 students are involved with the college program, with about 70 percent living in “ministry houses” located near OSU.
According to Jay Reilly, director of church relations, between six and 10 students live in these homes, contributing money toward common house expenses but still buying their own food. Residents agree to abide by certain rules, like no intoxication or drug use or having opposite sex stay-over guests. But more than this, Xenos expects members of the campus ministry to take college-level Bible and theology courses offered by the church and to be involved in home fellowship groups.
“We place a high value on the priesthood of all believers,” Reilly said. “All of us have an active part to play in ministry, so we emphasize personal evangelism, personal discipleship, both where you are being discipled and discipling others. We also place a high value on everyone having a good working knowledge of the Scriptures. Someone well grounded in the Word is more likely to develop mature Christian character and will be more effective in ministry.”
Reilly explained that the home groups are the heart of the campus ministry, even though Xenos holds a larger college meeting of several hundred students every Thursday, taught by lead pastor Dennis McCallum. “In the home groups people experience close relationships and discipleship naturally occurs from that,” Reilly said. “The ministry house plays a role too because you’re living with people you’re involved in ministry with.”
The Real Life approach can seem different for someone coming in from outside Xenos. Just ask Christy Ehmann. “I went to a secular high school, worked for two years and then went to a secular college for one year,” she explained. “I knew that I wanted to gain some Bible training so I was looking to transfer to a Christian college that would hopefully also have a strong English department, which is what I wanted to go into at the time.”
Ehmann felt confused, however, and a little frustrated at what was available. Then her father, Albert, international director for mission sending organization World Team, told her about Real Life. “It sounded so different and far out from any of these other schools I had looked at that I immediately said I did not want to go there,” she admitted.
She agreed, reluctantly, to visit Xenos and the Real Life program with her parents. “I met so many people and saw so much; I was overwhelmed yet intrigued,” she recalled. “I went to one of the big college meetings and was blown away by the fact that here were about 150 people my age who were actively pursuing God. That night I stayed in a ministry house with three other girls. It was a great experience. This was exactly what I had been looking for.”
Now Christy’s brother David is enrolled at OSU and a member of the Xenos campus ministry. “I have had the chance to build deep, lasting relationships, and see myself growing and changing in ways that would never have been possible otherwise,” Christy said. “My love for God has grown as well as my desire to know Him better and have others know Him.
“I have recommended this program to others. I have already seen the changes in David and thank God for providing this place and structure for both of us. I would recommend this program to anyone who has a desire to grow spiritually in a real, deep, vital, life-changing way.”
Copyright © 1999 Clem Boyd. All rights reserved.