Eastern is a Christian university. Its professors must sign a statement of faith, and the combination of faith and learning is supposed to infuse every classroom. There are chapel services every week, student chaplains in the residence halls and myriad opportunities for praise and worship.
But here, unlike many other Christian colleges, those outward recognitions of faith are not required of students. Students can practice their faith constantly or not at all, in visible ways or invisible ones – whether they have faith or not. And those students affect each others’ faiths in surprising ways.
“With any Christian community, or any kind of community, there are different ways to be related to it,” university chaplain Joe Modica said. “We have quite a diverse set of students.”
That means that some never practice the outward forms of faith at all.
“I kind of sat in on a chapel one time, because I was sitting at the athletic trainer’s office waiting for someone,” first-year Justin Allphin said. He was brought up in a Christian home, but he came to Eastern for its basketball program and location, not its Christianity, he said.
Allphin has not been to church since eighth grade.
“Since then, [faith] has been something I felt like I had to do on my own,” he said.
Ryan Cressman, a junior, came to Eastern partly because of his attraction to the Baptist tradition. But now, he never goes to chapel or Grow Groups, “choosing sleep” instead.
“When I went to college, I kind of got lax about [faith],” he said. “I figure when I get out of here, I’ll spend more time working on my faith and God.”
The very things that lead students away from faith might lead them to a deeper Christianity, Modica said.
“I’m not denying that students have faith crises, but I think sometimes they might be faith catalysts,” he said.
In light of all that, Modica said, Eastern is not about forcing people to conform to certain practices but “creating a hospitable space where students can come in and see Christ modeled.”
But that doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Nicki Landen, a sophomore, was brought up by her grandparents. She went to church all through high school, going to youth groups and on mission trips. But when her grandfather died several years ago, she went through a crisis of faith – which she hoped to counter, in part, by coming to Eastern.
“I came here, and I thought it would be great,” Landen said. “But in my first year here, I just wasn’t Christian enough for everyone.”
This is partly because of the division between types of students at Eastern, she said.
“The majority of people, you know if they’re the ‘good Christians’ or the ‘bad kids,'” Landen said. That makes it difficult to be between the two options, making transition from one to the other, she said.
“I feel like, if I wasn’t here, I would be a stronger Christian,” Landen said.
She has never been to chapel, but “I do envy the kids who go,” she said.
Allphin also stressed the relevance of the more visibly-Christian students.
“I do have my faith,” he said. “But I find myself straying the opposite way when I see people so caught up in it.”