Over my nearly six years at Penn State Berks, CSF has always had a diverse group of Christians. We have had, and still have today, students from all kinds of backgrounds and denominations: Methodist and Mennonite, Presbyterian and Pentecostal, Catholic and Calvinist (and now I am at a loss for other doublets I can make with the same letter!). Most of the students who come to CSF on a regular basis fall on the “evangelical” side of the spectrum, though that in itself is a slippery word to define. My point is that from my perspective, unity among Christians is possible.
This is pertinent, because one of the conversations I have noticed coming out of the debate over Rob Bell’s new book is on whether “evangelicalism” itself is dividing. Actually, I have noticed people saying the same thing before, but it seems to have hit a new high now. The two sides that are becoming more polarized are the “young, restless and reformed” and “progressive evangelicals” (or whatever you want to call them). Internet Monk notes a few places this discussion has occurred, though it seems the best article comes from Rachel Held Evans, “The Future of Evangelicalism“. She sees a divide happening and while she thinks the next generation of evangelicals can overcome it, she is not too optimistic.
I can only speak to this from my own context, but I am more optimistic. There is a group of students in CSF this year that are hungry to mature in their faith. Part of this is a desire for a better understanding of the scripture, and they often have a lot of questions on various theological points. I see some of the students moving towards Reformed theology with other students moving more towards a Wesleyan/Arminian theology (perhaps even, to use distinctions from above, a progressive evangelical theology). Yet even in this, they are still working together to do real ministry on campus.
If I wanted to be pessimistic, I would say this is just because they do not yet understand the differences in their theologies. I could blame the students’ home churches, seeing our unity coming more from their lack of a grasp of anything substantial in their understanding of Christian faith when they get to college (but that would be really arrogant of me!). I could assume that if they learn and read more, they will become more hardened in whatever camp they choose.
But I doubt this will happen on campus. The simple reason is, when the majority of people on campus are not supportive of any sort of Christian faith, the Christian students do not have time to spend on too many inter-Christian debates. This is not to say Christians on campus face active opposition (they don’t, at least not on this campus). It is simply to say most students find the Christian students kind of irrelevant. Maybe better to put it, as Kenda Creasy Dean does in Almost Christian, that most see religion as “a very nice thing“: It is good that someone believes, but most of us have more important things to worry about.
With the feeling of being in a minority who desire to take Jesus seriously and live as his disciple, there is no reason to argue about a myriad of issues Christians disagree on. If we can agree that at its heart the gospel is the affirmation that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, then everything else can fall into place after that.
At least, that is my goal on campus. I want to see students who love Jesus and want to join God in his mission of reconciliation lay aside their other differences to serve others.
Of course, I am not naive. I have already had one former student email me to ask what I think of Love Wins, after all, we have used NOOMA videos in the past! These debates will trickle down. Perhaps students will come to see CSF as too open…or not open enough. But I am encouraged my my friendships with pastors and others in the area who have quite a different theological understanding then me (haha, you could say I am a Wesleyan Anabaptist while they are Reformed Calvinists) but we pray with each other as adopted children of God by the grace of Jesus. With God’s grace, such unity can overcome our disagreements. A hurting, broken, suffering world does not need Christians who always argue with each other, they need Christians who go forth in the name of Christ to bring hope, love and faith.