Culture At Large

Are faith-based dorms just another Christian bubble?

Shiao Chong

Religiously active students at Alabama's Troy University will have a new residence to choose from this fall semester.

The Newman Center housing complex gives preference to students who are actively spiritual and actively engaged in a faith-based campus organization. According to Troy’s website, students applying to stay at Newman Center can be of any faith, must “be respectful of diversity,” refrain from alcohol and illegal drugs in the complex and be engaged in some type of community service or service learning project at least semi-annually.

Is faith-based student housing going to be a new trend in public universities? Many universities already group students in similar academic disciplines, e.g. law, business and arts, and some even have ethnic or culture-based residences. Faith-based housing seems to be a logical next step. According to university officials, the idea behind Troy’s faith-based residence is to help students live their faith, encourage community service and foster interfaith dialogue. 

I must confess that I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I find this exciting and refreshing, but on the other hand, I am wary of how this might go wrong.

Having been a campus minister for 12 years at a public, secular university, I find it extremely refreshing to see a public university recognizing, rather than ignoring, the importance of faith and spirituality in students’ lives. This, in my mind, is definitely a move in the right direction.

Christian enclaves are rarely good soil for growing missional Christians.

However, I do wonder how much real diversity there will be in Troy’s Newman Center, which has a Catholic campus ministry space, along with three Catholic and three Baptist resident advisers on site. It seems that the expected reality is a residence dominated by Catholic and Protestant Christians. In that case, the dialogues will be more of an inter-denominational flavor rather than an inter-faith one.

Having an all-Christian residence is not bad for the Christian students living there. Such an environment will definitely be more conducive to the organic creations of prayer groups, devotion groups and Bible-study groups with dorm-mates and friends that truly help students grow in their spiritual lives, especially aided by the on-site campus ministries.

There is, however, a potential danger for such residences to degenerate into Christian ghettos where Christians gather to “do their thing” and ignore the rest of the campus. Troy’s new facility is already located near other Christian campus ministries and students apparently are already calling that area “church row.”

Christian ghettos or enclaves are rarely good soil for growing missional Christians. It is hard to be ambassadors of Christ’s reconciliation if you live in a Christian bubble. Granted, these students will still interact in multi-faith classrooms on the rest of campus, but my experience tells me that very little faith-based discussions occur in classroom settings.

And what are students’ motivations for choosing Newman Center? I suspect that for most, it is the safety of being with the like-minded and same-behaved. I deeply understand students’ desire for such a safe space in the midst of what can be a hostile secular environment. But I also know that the best way to ultimately deal with such challenges is to face them, rather than avoid them by staying in our comfort zones.

I wonder if a better compromise might be to ensure faith-based roommates in regular open residences. Living with a fellow Christian is helpful for spiritual growth, but living in a Christian ghetto might be less so. In the meantime, I will be following the Troy experiment, hoping that it turns out well.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Education