Monday, June 04, 2012

The growing crisis at Christian colleges

This latest news about the existence of the "Biola Queer Underground" falls in line with other stories I've heard about recently. Faculty and administration of Christian colleges all over the country are learning that LGBT students exist on campus, and it is getting increasingly difficult to ignore these students or expect them to stay silent and invisible. The students of BQU are not demanding that Biola University change its policy against same-sex sexual intimacy. They are asking to be open about their identities without fear of repercussions. They want to talk about homosexuality beyond the let-me-show-you-how-it's-a-sin routine. And they want the school to invite speakers who can present different perspectives on homosexuality than what Biola's policy statement represents. It is an academic institution, after all.

Last year One Wheaton, a group of LGBT Wheaton students and graduates, expressed similar concerns about Wheaton College, about the fear and hiding and hurt they've experienced as students there. This year GCN (Gay Christian Network) executive director Justin Lee has been travelling and speaking at Christian colleges around the country in an effort to open up friendly and thoughtful dialogue over these topics. It is certainly needed.

What's happening at Christian colleges shouldn't come as a surprise. Over the last ten years I've noticed an interesting trend. An increasing number of high school students were tuning into gay issues not primarily because of the rhetoric they heard at church, nor because of the so-called "liberal media," but because they themselves had close friends who were gay or lesbian. Conversations were taking place, feelings were being shared, support was being given, and barriers were falling, quite often within the safety of a public school environment where anti-bullying policies were enforced or a Gay-Straight Alliance Club was present on campus.

The public charter high school my daughter attends is a good example. If anti-gay slurs or bullying takes place among the students, the administration is on it, fast. When students participated in the annual Day of Silence in protest of anti-LGBT behavior, some of the teachers took the initiative to explain the meaning of the day to their classes. There is a feeling of safety, openness, acceptance, and faculty and administration support on campus. These high school kids then graduate, expecting to move on to bigger and better things.

Enter the Christian college. Suppose my daughter were to make the transition from her present high school to one of the more typical conservative Christian colleges. She would be going from an atmosphere where the presence of gay students was accepted to a place where they were invisible and largely in hiding. She would be going from a secular campus where teachers and administrators understood sexual orientation issues and advocated for the dignity of every student, to a supposedly "Christian" campus where she would largely hear homosexuality talked about as sin, sin, and more sin. And by the way, in case you didn't know, it's sin. In short, she would feel like she had gone backward, not forward.

Wait, isn't this supposed to be a Christian college and therefore a place of greater love, understanding and grace than anything the secular world has to offer? At the very least, it's supposed to be a college, that is, an academic environment that is more intellectually sophisticated than high school, where advanced knowledge is explored and ideas are exchanged and debated.

Hence, the current crisis.

Christian colleges are also supposed to be a place where the future leadership of the church is trained up. In another ten years these college kids are going to be our pastors, elders, deacons, missionaries, counselors, and Sunday school teachers. They are the generation that is going to have to deal most seriously with the question, "Is same-sex sexual intimacy a sin?" because nothing short of their own cherished relationships with gay and lesbian family, friends, and fellow church members will be at stake.

It might be a good idea for Christian colleges to set up debate panels and invite speakers from the opposing side so that students can hear all the arguments. It might be a good idea to get your Ph.D.-laden faculty out there to model for students how to engage the opposing side with intelligence, fair-mindedness, and a spirit of brotherly affection. It might not be a good idea to hide behind a policy statement and trot out the same, tired, unchallenged rhetoric every time the subject comes up.

Because that doesn't fly when you find yourself confronted with actual arguments from actual Bible texts from actual Christians who think differently than you. And one day these college students most certainly will be confronted, except as leaders of the church when so much more is at stake. As they reflect upon these issues, someday, when they aren't forced to go to chapel or write that twenty-page paper, when their concerns revolve more around people and relationships and lives, they will probably gravitate toward the side that showed itself to be the most credible, most informed, most sound, and most loving.

I think we have our work cut out for us.