There is a movement afoot on the secular university campus.
Increasingly Christian students who spend four years or more training in a field of study have a resource to help them think deeply and biblically about the big questions of life, study Christian theology and history, and explore a Christian understanding of vocation.
In turn, more and more universities find a winsome voice offering a Christian perspective in their conversation about life’s meaning.
Providing these resources to students and universities are Christian study centers.
Dr. Drew Trotter, a PCA teaching elder, spent 22 years leading the Christian study center at the University of Virginia, simply called the Center for Christian Study. Since 2009 he has directed the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (CCSC), a group of nondenominational, nonprofit study centers committed to promoting the life of the mind and the richness of the Christian tradition.
Tools for Shaping the Christian Mind
While there are different types of study centers, Trotter and the CCSC focus on the university-based model. Trotter estimates there are 30 such Christian study centers around the country, with another 10 to 12 in the works.
Study centers exist to affirm the life of the mind as essential to Christian growth and Christian service. “We want to think well about life and bring all of life under the Lordship of Christ,” Trotter said.
Through guest lectures, classes, and seminars, students learn what it means to be Christian students, not just Christians. Trotter sees that distinction as very important.
A lot of campus ministries distract students from studying, Trotter said. They take up too much of students’ time with evangelism, discipleship, and Bible study. As a result students make mediocre grades. “We think it’s a mistake,” he said.
While at school, students should focus primarily on their studies, according to Trotter. “We want them to do that well. When they graduate we want them to do their work—as Christians, yes—and with excellence.”
The CCSC opened membership in 2011 with the goal of enrolling 10 study centers. Not only has CCSC met that goal, but Trotter expects to enroll two to four more centers before the end of the year. The group held its first annual meeting in November 2011.
While the CCSC does not create study centers, it promotes collaboration, provides resources, supports new study center development, and raises awareness about study centers.
Finding an “Ecological Niche”
Trotter believes that for the past 50 years, the American culture has exalted emotions as the final arbiter of truth, and that now people have a deep hunger for discovering objective, absolute truth. Christians, too, have succumbed to the false notion that feelings dictate reality.
“We too often teach our people that all you have to do is feel it to really believe and know. It’s all about feeling,” Trotter said. “Feelings are an important part of true knowledge, but knowledge begins with the truth, and there is everywhere on the college campus a hunger for that truth.”
Dr. Karl Johnson, a PCA ruling elder at New Life Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, N.Y., serves on the board of directors at the CCSC and directs Chesterton House, a Christian study center at his alma mater, Cornell University. He sees Chesterton House as filling a gap inherent at research universities such as Cornell.
“There is something akin to an ecological niche on the research university campus that is screaming to be filled,” he said. “There is a hunger [for] connecting academic and religious life, the life of the mind with the care of the soul. For the most part, neither universities nor churches are filling this gap.”
Chesterton House began operating in 2000 at a crucial turning point in Christian thought. Johnson said that, among other factors, the founding of Christian journals such as First Things, Books and Culture, and Mars Hill Audio Journal highlighted quality Christian scholarship and made the concept of “providing resources at a local level more viable.”
While there are several denominations involved in study centers, the centers clearly align with the Presbyterian tradition of cultural engagement.
“Presbyterianism has a long heritage of engaging the culture, especially in America with the advent of Reformed Presbyterian seminaries like Westminster and Christian apologists like Francis Schaeffer,” Trotter said.
Being a University Resource
Dr. Richard Horner, a PCA teaching elder who serves as director of the Christian Study Center of Gainesville (CSCG), believes his study center offers a resource not only to students, but also to the University of Florida.
“We see ourselves [at CSCG] as wanting to contribute to the intellectual life of the university, and in making that contribution, to work at the intersection of contemporary scholarship and Christian reflection,” he said. “As we do that, there are a whole bunch of students who take note and love what we’re doing at the university.”
Though many professors and students refuse to take seriously an organization as unabashedly Christian as the CSCG, Horner said that in the 11 years the study center has existed it has built strong relationships with many professors and academic departments.
Not only do the study centers take learning seriously, but their leaders have academic credentials that a university can recognize. The fact that Trotter, Johnson, and Horner have all earned doctorates is no coincidence. “We are trying to survive and flourish and serve an institution that has as its bottom line for service a Ph.D.,” Trotter said.
For Horner, his doctorate in intellectual history from the University of Virginia lends him credibility with skeptical professors, and through the years he has offered himself as a resource to the university by teaching classes on religion, Christianity, history, and non-profit work.
“It is indicative of the good relations that we have [that I am asked to speak in classes], but it has taken time and continues to take time,” he said.
In 2009, Chesterton House invited evangelical scholars Mark Noll and Alvin Plantinga to speak at campus events in addition to giving lectures at Chesterton House. Johnson said the campus lectures were well received and well attended.
There are a number of fine Christian historians and philosophers we would be happy to bring on campus, Johnson says. But there’s particular value in bringing men like Noll and Plantinga—scholars with stellar name recognition, matchless credentials, and solid publication records. “That puts us squarely in the mission of Cornell to bring some of the biggest and brightest scholars in the world to campus,” he said.
At Cornell, Plantinga gave a public lecture sponsored by Chesterton House and an additional lecture to his colleagues in the Philosophy Department. Johnson said finding speakers who can deftly straddle both worlds lies at the heart of Chesterton House’s mission.
But study centers offer Christians more than just intellectual stimulation. For some students, the classes, discussions, and lectures are not only credible, but comforting.
Johnson shared the remarks of one student. Even without attending many Chesterton House events or making use of its library, the student said that these resources brought “existential comfort.”
“It’s interesting because it gets at the issue that students on a campus like this sometimes feel like their faith is being assaulted—maybe not directly, but subtly and implicitly,” he said.
“When events and a library create a thoughtful and faithful Christian presence on campus, students see that it is okay to believe and practice the faith. Simply put, it renders faith more plausible. That’s a meaningful contribution that study centers make to campus culture.”
To learn more about the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (CCSC), visit studycentersonline.org.