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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Spring 2008
Vol. 35 No. 2


The Developmental Pathways of
Evangelical Christian Students

Alyssa N. Bryant

As an increasingly visible evangelical presence has taken shape in higher education, efforts to understand evangelical Christian students, their subculture, and the contribution they make to the pluralistic college environment are vital in promoting a healthy campus climate for students from multiple backgrounds and traditions. Recent studies of evangelical students and their on-campus religious organizations suggest that these students are “countercultural conservatives” who develop a complex assemblage of political and social perspectives and experience college life in a way that is at once resistant, acclimating, and engaging – depending on the context.1

Evangelical Christian students articulate the challenges they face in navigating “culturally incongruent” environments where antagonism is felt both in the classroom and beyond.2 Although Christians are the religious majority in the United States, and thereby enjoy privileges associated with their majority status, evangelical Christian students emphasize feelings of oppression and marginalization on campus – a paradox that Moran et al. refer to as “social status ambiguity.”3 To relieve the strain of perceived marginalization and the incongruous relationship between students’ religious identity and the college context, campus ministries serve as protective, reinforcing cultural enclaves for many evangelical Christians.4 In addition to providing students with an emotionally- and spiritually-nurturing respite5, these organizations are political entities that embrace clearly established values and mission, actively recruit members, mobilize students to evangelize, and offer diverse forms of meaningful involvement and learning opportunities.6

Beyond addressing the experiences of evangelical Christian students within campus religious organizations and the broader campus, the existing research alludes to the developmental and adjustment issues associated with this population. Moran described the “public identity work” of evangelical Christian students as involving both “identity revelation” and “identity authentication.”7 In revealing the invisible religious dimension of their social identity, students endeavored to both differentiate their religious selves from stereotypical representations of evangelical Christianity and perform or behave in ways that consistently reflected that identity. Identity authentication involved an attempt “to establish the authenticity of the religious identity that they were revealing.”8 In other words, students felt an ongoing “burden of proof….to prove that they were who they said they were.”9 The evident challenge of negotiating if, when, and how to reveal their religious identity may be exacerbated by perceived antagonism on campus; in fact, evangelical Christian students may choose to hide their religious identities to avoid negative interactions with peers and faculty.10 Fear of rejection on the basis of religious identity may, in turn, undermine students’ personal and social adjustment in college.11

In addition to revelation and authentication of identity noted by Moran12 as central to evangelical student development, Holcomb and Nonneman13 identified yet another hallmark in the development of evangelical college students (specifically those attending Christian institutions): “crisis.” Variously defined as “prolonged exposure to diverse ways of thinking, extensive multicultural exposure, and general emotional crisis,”14 the experience of crisis furthers faith development because those “who enter into such a sustained period of self-examination do so out of recognition of conflict or inadequacy in their own values and reasoning. In other words, they experience cognitive dissonance.”15

While the characteristics, challenges, perspectives, and subcultures of evangelical Christian students have received some attention in the recent
literature, we have only begun to assess the developmental patterns and trajectories exhibited by these students, particularly with regard to how identifiable patterns and trajectories reflect traditional student development theories.16

Conceptual Framework

Student development theories provide a framework for understanding identity development,17 cognitive and epistemological structures,18 and moral reasoning,19 often demonstrating how students become increasingly complex over time in their thinking, meaning-making, self-concept, and interpersonal relationships. Pascarella and Terenzini associated developmental theories with a variety of common themes.20 With respect to their substance, many theories emphasize increased awareness or consciousness of the self, the shift from external behavioral controls to internal controls, and greater empathy and/or interdependence. At the highest levels of development, these theories stress self-definition, complexity, congruence, and integration. Furthermore, student development theories have commonalities in their implicit definitions of process. That is, they tend to assume that development is stage-like, continuous, cumulative, and ordered. It is also assumed that cognitive readiness or recognition of complexity serve as conditions for movement from one stage to the next. Typically, “triggers,” either in the environment or within the person, prompt individuals to confront and resolve inconsistencies or crises, likely resulting in positive developmental change (but not always). Finally, many developmental theorists attend more to internal structures and students’ personal epistemologies than to the environmental or community factors that are often the sources stimulating change.21

Despite the range of student development theories, most are virtually silent on matters of faith, spirituality, and religion.22 At the same time, the fact that so many of these theories do address meaning-making, purpose, personal integrity, and concern for others – concepts that are central to a person’s faith or worldview – demonstrates that attention to the spiritual dimensions of student development is imperative, especially as educators claim to value students as whole persons. Several recent studies have attended to the role of religion and spirituality in students’ identity development, thereby recognizing the significance of these dimensions in forming a well-integrated identity.23 However, while many developmental theories offer useful lenses that can be applied to issues of spirituality and religion in students’ lives, spiritual development has rarely been the focus of a given theoretical perspective.24 The theories of Parks25 and Fowler26 are noted exceptions to this general rule. Their work, together with the general propositions about human development advanced by the aforementioned theorists, provide a helpful backdrop for understanding and interpreting the spiritual development of evangelical Christian students.

Although student development theorists have tended not to address spirituality as a specific aspect of development, Fowler27 and later Parks28 each built upon a range of traditional theories to illustrate how faith (or spiritual) development unfolds. Fowler conceptualized faith as a process of deriving coherence in the face of disorder. Two of his seven stages of faith are relevant to the lives of college students, many of whom are at a point of transition from one to the next. Synthetic-conventional faith entails the typical struggles of adolescence: Issues of identity are paramount, worth is strongly tied to approval from others, and beliefs and values that connect the adolescent to significant others remain unexamined. In shifting toward an individuative-reflective faith, worldviews are critically examined and reorganized. Simultaneously, the individual accepts responsibility for her/his own faith and in so doing becomes less reliant on the prescriptions of authority figures. As symbols and myths are subjected to conscious criticism, they become mere conceptual formations and risk losing their sense of mystery.

Parks emphasized the critical period – often the defining moment of young adulthood – between Fowler’s third and fourth stages, and, unlike
Fowler, defined in great detail transitions in forms of knowing, dependence, and community.29 Forms of knowing draw on the work of Perry30 and Fowler31 with their emphasis on the cognitive-structural aspects of faith development. Forms of dependence, which are largely affective in quality, have to do with the ways in which relationships and feelings about authority figures influence faith. Lastly, forms of community, often neglected in cognitive- structural frameworks, recognize the vast implications of interpersonal connections and social or cultural contexts for faith development.

Although Parks included four stages in her framework, two of the stages are pertinent to the discussion of spiritual development among traditionalaged college students. In the Adolescent/Conventional stage, forms of knowing are primarily authority-bound and dualistic. Importantly, unquestioned authority exists outside of oneself and takes shape in religious doctrine, the influence of parents, or the norms of a particular group. Eventually, trust in absolutes breaks down. The world becomes less black and white at the same time that it seems increasingly ambiguous and unknowable. Facing this challenge, many adolescents shift to a form of knowing referred to as “unqualified relativism”: the belief that all knowledge is constructed by the knower, and therefore relative. No opinion or judgment supersedes the validity of any other. In relationships, adolescents at this stage are especially dependent on authority figures, although, like the shift toward unqualified relativism, forms of dependence become increasingly characterized by counter dependence, or opposition to authority and former conceptions of truth. Finally, forms of community are fairly homogeneous, and as such, demand conformity to the norms and assumptions of the group. During this stage, the monolithic quality of these communities deteriorates, as allegiances become more diffuse. The individual is open to other communities, but refrains from committing to any one in particular. Although some may see this stage as a loss of faith, it is instead “a loss of naïve faith, and a loss that actually signals a developmental movement forward.”32

Once individuals enter young adulthood (Parks’ second stage, which accounts for all that occurs between Fowler’s synthetic-conventional and individuative-reflective stages), forms of knowing are characterized as “probing commitment.” One recognizes the importance of constructing faith and meaning, but must first seek out and learn from tentative commitments. Forms of dependence, vulnerable yet promising, are described by Parks as fragile inner-dependence. The individual begins to recognize him- or herself as the authority and learns to trust the sense of knowing emanating from within. It is at this stage that the young adult most needs the encouragement of a mentoring community. As suggested by Parks, “young adulthood is nurtured into being, and its promise is most powerfully realized through participation in a community that poses a trustworthy alternative to earlier assumed knowing.”33 In short, the community must be sensitive to and supportive of the probing of young adults. Especially strong cultures with welldefined norms might stifle development.

On the whole, Parks and Fowler provided useful frameworks for understanding how faith develops and is nurtured in relationship and community. Yet, this study poses the question: How accurately do these theoretical conceptions of students’ spiritual development reflect the lived experiences of individuals exposed to specific religious contexts and backgrounds? How do variations in personal characteristics and religious ideology interface with the “normative” developmental processes of young adulthood? This study takes a particular focus in examining the applicability of spiritual development theories for evangelical Christian students – a constituency on today’s college campus that has been known to exist in an uneasy relationship with the secular academic milieu.34 Taken together, this study identifies hallmark developmental patterns among evangelical Christian students in college.

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