Thursday, October 13, 2011
Belonging Before Believing
This semester, our Christian campus student movements followed a familiar pattern. At the start of the school year, we stage lots of fun activities and opportunities for new students to meet us and check out our groups. Virtually every campus organization participates in these activities, and it is often a lot of fun. Students who attend our events have opportunity to consider their own faith views and hear ours, but also have a chance to make friends and get into the swing of non-destructive behavior: fun parties, but without the binge drinking or drugs. They meet fellow, experienced students who are holding onto solid values while navigating the ups and downs of the university's social and academic life.
Now, these are weeks when student groups grow, taking in new members, because new students want to find places to belong.
Many of our campus movements hold getaway Fall Retreat weekends the end of September or early in October. This is a great opportunity for newer students to choose to "belong", to make a time investment in building relationships and joining more fully into the organization's activities. Speakers and activities at the Retreat help them examine their own spiritual life and goals. Many will get more involved after the Retreat, joining more regularly into small groups for Bible study and discussion.
All this is normal and part of campus life for us. However, in recent years, we've seen an interesting trend at our Fall Retreats. Groups of students have actually been coming to the retreats as non-believers and returning back to campus with new commitments to faith in Christ. Now, this may seem "normal" for a Christian outreach organization, but the numbers have increased significantly. Students are choosing to belong before they believe. They have become welcomed and comfortable in our activities and with their fellow students, even though they understand, and often explicitly state: "I am not a Christian". In many cases, they have asserted that the Christians are the best people for them to hang out with because their values and behavior are attractive and safe.
While this tracks a trend in the behavior of 18year old students, it is a principle that has always been meant to be true in Christianity, for our faith communities to actually be safe places for learners and questioners. I, for one, hope to continue to nurture this trend.