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A matter of taste

What's student life like at theologically conservative Christian colleges?

A matter of taste

Kristin Chapman reports from Beaver Falls, Pa.; while Jamie Dean is in Lynchburg, Va.; and Lynde Langdon is in Bartlesville, Okla.

On a Friday night at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., dozens of students form long lines at a half dozen food stations in Reber Dining Hall, sizing up dinner selections and filling up trays with eclectic combinations like pizza, Cherry Coke, and Lucky Charms. The longest line forms at the spaghetti bar, while another crowd waits for hot subs. For perpetually hungry college students, there's something for everyone-and it's like that with college choices as well.

As college-bound high-school students and their parents size up Christian colleges this fall, they'll find as many selections as they would in a well-stocked dining hall-and each school has a different flavor. That's why rankings of colleges are not all that useful: One student's trash can be another's treasure.

Amelia Wigton, a senior at Liberty University, says a taste for biblically grounded professors first attracted her to the 9,000-student Christian school in central Virginia. Exasperated with hostility toward Christianity at state schools in her native California, Ms. Wigton left the palm trees of Mission Viejo for the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains: "The first time I heard a professor here open the class with prayer, I was literally in tears."

Ms. Wigton is a resident assistant (R.A.) in Campus East, a set of recently built apartment-style dorms across the highway from the main campus. Four bedrooms open to a tidy living area that is filled on Thursday nights with energetic girls from the first two floors of the dorm. They gather for prayer and fellowship, a practice that is mandatory across campus each week, and one of the best ways for students to form meaningful friendships, according to Ms. Wigton.

Before enrolling at Liberty, she had heard the common generalizations about the school founded in 1971 by Jerry Falwell: All the professors are fundamentalists, and conduct codes are strict. She found truth and exaggeration in the reports. A conduct code called the "Liberty Way" does dictate a dress code on weekdays in academic buildings: Women may wear pants, but not shorts, and skirts must be knee-length, while men must wear collared shirts and pants or neat jeans. R.A.s enforce a midnight curfew during the week and perform room checks three times a week to make sure students keep rooms neat and clean. That's one of the more unpopular sections of the code among students, along with the prohibition of watching R-rated movies on or off campus.

One generalization Ms. Wigton found untrue was that all Liberty professors have the same theological perspective. While professors do sign a broadly evangelical statement of faith at the nondenominational school, Ms. Wigton says instructors' views vary on doctrinal particulars. The bustling campus bookstore boasts a wide range of thought, from Joel Osteen to John Calvin, and from Tim LaHaye to Jonathan Edwards.

Donald Small, a student in Liberty's seminary and a 2002 graduate of the university, says most students are committed to their faith and to following the rules, including prohibitions against drinking and smoking, but that students still often struggle. As a prayer leader during his senior year, Mr. Small said he counseled young men struggling with purity in dating relationships, and even pornography. A built-in accountability system provides a network of support for students who need help, he says.

When describing the dating scene on campus, Mr. Small strikes the same note as many other students, saying professors and administrators put a "huge emphasis on finding your spouse at Liberty." The leadership's marital push is a running joke among the student body, though Mr. Small says many students do get married. As for Mr. Small, he hasn't found a wife during his seven years on campus: "I'm thinking of asking for a partial refund."

Mr. Small says Liberty does a good job of organizing voluntary service projects for students every Saturday, but says some do confine themselves to the "Liberty Bubble," secluding themselves in a Christian environment without engaging the outside world.

Matt Gallant, a commuter student, spends most weekends trying to burst the bubble. In a small classroom on a Friday afternoon, Mr. Gallant, sporting gelled hair and a Dukes of Hazzard T-shirt, encourages 40-plus students to find ways to share their faith: "The only way we can fail is if we let our fears keep us from telling others about Christ." At the end of the evangelism study Mr. Gallant encourages students to join him in traveling to nearby Radford University that evening to evangelize at the secular school after a basketball game: "If you want to go, I'll cover gas."

(Liberty's emphasis on outreach extends beyond the borders of Virginia. The school recently announced that it will offer free tuition for the fall 2005 semester to any college student displaced by Hurricane Katrina.)

Students opting to stay in Lynchburg on Friday nights often wind up at the frequently sold-out dollar movie theater or the Drowsey Poets coffee shop with its oversized couches and funky decor. On campus, dozens pack the LaHaye Student Center, where they work out, shoot hoops, and organize PlayStation tournaments. Others opt to get homework done early in computer labs.

On Sundays, several hundred students attend campus church in the 10,000-seat Vine Center, the school's basketball and special events arena. The rest of the students typically go to churches in town. Campus pastor Johnnie Moore is popular among students, who sleepily take their seats on Sunday mornings, many wearing jeans and sweatshirts. The service resembles the thrice-weekly mandatory convocations, where Mr. Falwell often speaks and where students sing up-beat praise choruses.

Some 400 miles north of Lynchburg, chapel services at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., have a distinctly different feel. The 157-year-old Christian college nestled in the hills of western Pennsylvania retains the doctrine and practice of its founding denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). For chapel services, that means exclusively singing psalms with no accompaniment, and a Reformed style of worship and preaching.

Students from other traditions sometimes grumble about the RPCNA worship style in the mid-week, mandatory services, but students are free to attend any church they choose on Sundays, and church attendance then is not required. Geneva does not offer a campus church, instead encouraging its 2,100 students to become involved in one of many local congregations from many denominations.

In Geneva's classrooms, clinging to Reformed traditions means inculcating a biblical worldview that saturates all disciplines and their applications. Professor John Stahl says biblical principles undergird his chemistry classes, where he tells students that science and faith are not mutually exclusive: "I work hard to show that we're talking about God's world-if He made it, there should not be any contradiction and no need to fear it."

Says senior Rachel Cypher: "The professors are wonderful. They'd do anything for you." Faculty members invite students to their homes for dinner, host holiday parties, and sometimes even take students on hunting trips. Senior Josh Guthrie says when he once considered leaving Geneva, the quality of professors convinced him to stay.

Students describe the course work in the 28 major programs as academically rigorous and say it includes plenty of homework. A quiet library with nearly 400,000 catalogued items provides ample resources for research and study.

Some 1,000 students live on campus at Geneva in eight dorms, ranging from traditional double-occupancy rooms with hall bathrooms to four-bedroom apartments. Students choose where they live, with different dorms attracting different personalities. High-energy students tend to flock together, while low-key students often live in quieter dorms with study-friendly environments. Each dorm features lounges, fully equipped kitchens, and laundry rooms with free washers and dryers.

Resident assistants perform weekly room inspections to check for safety and cleanliness, and students sign a code of conduct that prohibits drinking alcohol on or off campus. The code also prohibits on-campus dancing, except for square, line, or traditional folk styles, but the school places no restrictions on off-campus dancing. The code also requires observance of the Sabbath, interpreted as meaning no vacuuming, doing laundry, or participating in organized sports on Sundays. The school has no dress code or curfew.

Though Geneva has no curfew, students tend to stay close to campus on weekends. The town of Beaver Falls, population 10,000, offers little in the way of nightlife, but on-campus activity coordinators plan concerts, coffee-house evenings, games, and movie nights in a cozy lounge with a large fireplace and wall-size windows overlooking Beaver Valley. Sporting events at Geneva are also big draws, with one dedicated group of students known as the "Super Fans" showing up at every event, sporting red and gold face paint, clown wigs, plaid pants, and yellow caution-tape belts.

Students often say they choose Geneva because of the opportunity for Christian fellowship, but Terry Thomas, professor of biblical studies, hopes students quickly discover more: "They come for the cultural aspect of a Christian school atmosphere. They have to discover a Christian world/life view while they are here, which is one of the great things Geneva has to offer."

(Geneva recently announced it will offer something else: half-price tuition, room, and board for the fall semester for up to 10 college students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.)

Nearly 1,000 miles southwest of the stately brick buildings of Geneva College, Spanish-style stucco and terra cotta roofs form the architectural landscape of Oklahoma Wesleyan University (OWU), a 400-student Christian school in Bartlesville, a small town on the vast plain of northeast Oklahoma.

At the front of the OWU chapel, a figure of Jesus, etched on a clear two-story window and surrounded by streaks of purple, green, and gold stained glass, looks out on the campus's green lawn encircled by a dozen buildings, while students and teachers make their way to morning chapel services, a requirement for students.

A praise band leads the crowd in singing Third Day's "Your Love Oh Lord" as the words appear on a huge screen above them. In the center of the auditorium, a young man in a button-down shirt and jeans stands up and stretches his arms out in the shape of a cross as he sings. A quarter of the students join him, raising their arms and swaying to the music. As Professor Steve Hughes begins his message, the sound of zippers fills the chapel as students unload Bibles from backpacks to follow the sermon.

OWU, one of four colleges affiliated with the conservative Wesleyan denomination, fosters a tight-knit community with a generous spirit. "It feels so much like a family," says junior Shantrel Van Dyke, vice president of social life for the student government. Ms. Van Dyke recently helped raise $230 from students to pay the travel expenses of a friend who needed to go home but couldn't afford it.

Students take their cues from administrators at OWU. In his house next to campus, President Everett Piper has hosted students who could not go home for the summer or could not afford to live in the dorms. He leaves his back gate open so students can swim in his pool whenever they want.

The campus's family atmosphere is also evident in Wert Hall, a dorm that houses mostly sophomore, junior, and senior males. Residents share big-screen televisions, Sony PlayStations, and spiritual struggles. "If any one of us is having a problem, we'll all get together and pray together," says resident Jess Holmes.

Men and woman live in separate dorms but can visit each other in most of the residence-hall lobbies. Members of the opposite sex must stay in lobbies except during six hours of visitation on Sunday afternoon. In the men's dorms, some students frantically clean their rooms for visitation and invite women to watch movies or football games on their televisions.

The OWU family life extends beyond graduation for many students because at this school, the men and women date to wed. So many students at OWU get married that the college is sometimes called "Oklahoma Wesleyan Shoe Factory: mend their souls and send them out in pairs."

Though OWU sits in a small town, students are experts on cheap, fun things to do around Bartlesville. They play roller hockey and sand volleyball, hang out at coffee houses, watch movies at the dollar theater, and dive off the cliffs at Osage Hills State Park.

The Halton Campus Center is home to Doc Lacy's coffee house, with its purplish-brown walls, cozy armchairs, and low lighting. Students enjoy a menu of espresso and coffee drinks, and others eat toasted sandwiches to get a break from cafeteria food, a mixture of home-style foods like roast beef and student favorites like chicken nuggets.

Students often drive 40 minutes to Tulsa to have dinner and watch movies or go shopping, but students have also been known to go to Tulsa for its clubs, which is against school rules. Social dancing and drinking are forbidden for OWU students, and administrators say they've faced problems with student drinking in the past.

One student at a local bar with friends on a Friday night described himself as a former binge drinker who felt so outcast his freshman year that he considered committing suicide. He resented the dean and other students coming to his room to check on him, sometimes at 2 or 3 a.m. Then he heard one of his teammates give a testimony at the Altar, a student-led worship service on Sunday nights. "That was the first time I prayed, the first time I did anything spiritual at all," he said. "That's one of the things I love about this school. . . . At the most important moment in a person's life, the freshman year of college, we make it tough to be bad."

Students also often find the classroom to be tough. Sophomore Matt Miller said he thought his first test in General Psychology would be easy, but he learned that studying is as much a part of OWU life as Christian fellowship: "This isn't fun and games."

Academic dean Graham Walker, always wearing a bow tie, said he strives to build a curriculum that "pivots on Christ and His revealed truth." Mr. Walker, formerly a philosophy and political science professor, was denied tenure at the University of Pennsylvania after being told his commitment to Christianity did not reflect the college's core values of diversity and freedom.

Walker says it's difficult to find Christian faculty who will teach objective truth, but he refuses to hire a single professor who objects to the pursuit of objective truth or to the high standards placed on faculty, including the expectation that professors follow certain parts of the student code, such as refraining from drinking.

Athletic director Chris Reese says high standards for students and teachers foster integrity and lasting character: "I could really care less about the win/loss record. . . . It's more important that we show Christ on the court."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.