Are faith-based dorms just another Christian bubble?

Shiao Chong

August 30, 2013

Interestingly enough, your comments apply rather well to the issue of faith-based dorms (or "pods") in prisons, too. Often the motivations for Christians to join these groups are the same: a safe place in the midst of what is a genuinely hostile, even deadly, environment for practicing genuine Christian discipleship. Ministries establish these places as "safe havens" within the prison for growing Christians in their faith--especially those trying to make a clean break with a former life who are relatively new to what it means to be Christians. Unfortunately, the very nature of these pods makes them attractive to those who prefer the relative safety of Christian fellowship to the dangerous exposure of being in general population with all the gang-bangers and other undesirables. Christians, at least, tend to respect one another; they don't take each other's stuff or get into nearly as many petty fistfights, etc.

One of the arguments against so-called "God pods" is that they become more like monastic retreats FROM the prison population rather than missional engines for engagement WITH the prison population. Some ministries are now developing these into training grounds for developing new believers, only to send them back into the general population to be salt and light where both are seriously needed--and where both require tremendous courage.

I think the fear you mention takes place in daily life, too. We listen to our Christian music stations, hang out with our church MOPS groups, go to Christian coffeehouses and bookstores, meet up for Bible study and choir mid-week, and get together for social engagements with our Christian BFFs. Not that this is the case for everyone...or that there isn't secular engagement at other points in our lives (i.e., soccer games for the kids, retail stores, work, etc.). But I do suspect at least a latent motivation for spending so much time with other believers might be our fear of engagement with those who are different from us. Christian fellowship always has that danger of making us want to retreat FROM the world rather than engage WITH it.

Shiao Chong
August 30, 2013

Excellent points JKana. Thanks for bringing out the tension I identified into the wider Christian experience.

It's a tension that Christians continually struggle with.

Branson Parler
August 30, 2013

This piece helpfully highlights both the importance of Christian community and of the need to be missional in our focus. It's important to try to hit the same dynamic as the biblical narrative: God's people are both set apart FROM the nations and set apart FOR the nations. In our individualistic culture, it might actually be more meaningful to see that being a Christian entails being part of a Christian community (the church). After all, God doesn't call set-apart individuals, but a set-apart people, a kingdom. So emphasizing the communal nature of Christianity might actually be an antidote to the way we've individualized and privatized the Christian faith. On the other hand, as you point out, it could also turn into a support group for individual Christians that allows them to avoid both the call to Christian community and the call to engage their non-Christian neighbors. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

ThisWomanWrites -- Carolyn Henderson
August 30, 2013

I wholeheartedly agree that, as Christians, we need to stop insulating ourselves in our Christian world of Christian literature, Christian music, Christian art (ever since Thomas Kinkade passed away, what can people put on their walls?), Christian movies -- it goes on and on and on. At some point, we need to engage in the real world.

A college dorm, however, is not a real world, by any definition. More than 30 years later, I remember that 10 x 12 room shared with one other person. The community bathroom -- sometimes with opposite gender people slipping in while you're putting on your make up. Massive amounts of drinking -- by underage people, while authorities look the other way. In many ways, it mimics the prison community mentioned above -- so I can see why people would want something different.

As opposed to a religious based dorm -- which seems to rely heavily upon group activities, as opposed to inner spirituality, as the factor in deciding who gets to live there -- how about an alcohol-free, drug-free, loud party-free dorm for people of any persuasion? That way, quiet people of faith could live and interact with similar quiet people; and noisy people of faith could jump right into Animal House -- introverts and extroverts could find their dorm "home" of choice and live happily in an environment that suits their inner being.

Shiao Chong
August 30, 2013

You are welcome. You nicely captured the tension in the article between community and missional engagement.

Shiao Chong
August 30, 2013

Thanks Carolyn for your comments. I like your suggested alternative. But I can see it might be difficult for university officials to "sell" the idea of a "party dorm" to nervous parents of potential students! Just imagine an admissions officer telling the parents, "Your daughter can choose to stay at our quite residences for studious kids, or the party animal house dorms for those who want to party!" Not sure if that will go so well.

I agree with where you are coming from, just don't see how realistically it can be implemented. It's probably either all residences will be alcohol-free, drug-free (most probably are in this case), etc, or nothing. Maybe under the radar? But maybe I am not creative enough!

Karen Swallow Prior
August 30, 2013

I am a college professor and have taught in various types of institutions. I have different concerns. At many if not most secular colleges and universities it is common for students to smoke pot in the dorms, have sex in their rooms (whether or not any roommates are present), and so on. One college student I know could not believe how when she arrived on campus as a freshman how much free time she had. Not needing to work (thanks to daddy and Uncle Sam) she soon filled it up with these sorts of activities.

Since room and board account for a good chunk of the cost of college, we the taxpayers are subsidizing such lifestyles in the form of government student loans. And I object.

If faith-based housing helps ensure that I'm not paying for a four-year long party, then more power to it.

August 30, 2013

I'm ambivalent too.

This is at a public university in the Bible belt. There are plenty of Christians around -- but this means to wall off what I suppose are the "serious" religious types, or at least the non-drinking ones. And leave everyone else to fend for themselves. Let's be clear, a student can attend Bible studies and church services all they want anyway, but this means that 24/7, they are to be surrounded by like minded people. Why not go all the way and attend a religious school?

Public universities now have dorms for those of different ethnic groups, (a different conversation, but still) academic interests, foreign language competencies -- when, if not in college, does one have a chance to live cheek by jowl with people who are really quite different, and form the coping skills necessary for life? Would it be terrible to have an atheist roommate?

I actually like the "Christian pairs" idea in a dormitory even less. Friends have always elected to live together when possible, and that might be fine, but do we really want our message to be, "if we live with people different from us, that will just drag us down." And that is the message if a roommate is chosen solely for their religion.

Aron Reppmann
August 31, 2013

Shiao, thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. Like you and several previous commenters, I also am ambivalent about the Troy University Newman Center project. Here's another dimension to that ambivalence.

This project seems to accept a dichotomy: either people of faith are an outpost in a hostile environment, or they are an enclave from that hostile environment. But there is a third way, if we have the imagination and courage for it. As a professor and former college honors program director, I've learned a lot from the residential college movement (ably described and championed by Robert O'Hara at collegiateway.org). The main idea is that the best way to address the ills of collegiate residence life as we know it is not to retreat into homogeneous enclaves ("theme dorms") but to transform all (or at least many) dorms into stable, cross-sectional human communities, anchored by the caring and attentive presence of faculty who live among the students. Those faculty members partner with student-development professionals rather than offloading all their responsibility for students onto those professionals.

I would love to see the Troy University Newman Center's goals of fostering dialogue worked out by integrating spiritually engaged people (students, staff, and faculty) into such stable, supportive communities, rather than settling for the dichotomy of outpost or enclave.

Shiao Chong
September 3, 2013

Karen, Paula and Aron - thanks to your comments and thoughts.
Great points all!
Karen, if all dorms could be "cleaned up" so to speak, I will say amen to that. I think that would be healthier for students in the long run.

Paula, you are right that we should not only choose room-mates based solely on religion - but if we are going to make faith/spirituality a criteria, then I don't see why it shouldn't be a criteria for someone who wants that? I agree that we probably should not make it mandatory but I think it should be an option. And my thought was certainly not that "people who are different will drag us down" but I can see how it might be interpreted that way. I was thinking more along the lines that if a student wants some safety with a like-minded and same-behaved, one's own room should probably be that space rather than a whole residence complex. By analogy, you would expect that your own private room will be a place you can relax and let your guard down so to speak. I can understand that if you are stuck with a room-mate who smokes pot, have sex and parties with loud music when you are not into any of those things, and similarly, if you are atheist and stuck with a roommate who holds prayer meetings and bible studies in your room, that is not going to make your college life easy.

Aron, I think your suggestion is the best thus far! I like the cross-sectional residences idea. Much better than the segregated themed dorms! It reminds me of a city planning idea I came across somewhere - where urban planners are thinking of deliberately mixing up income classes in neighborhoods as they believe it creates better community, thus building subsidized housing next to upper class houses - thus not creating ghettos of rich, middle class and poor but mixing them all up cross-sectional in every part of town.

Add your comment to join the discussion!