What’s Wrong with Evangelical “Student Christianity”

Interactive List of Contents

(1) Introduction

(2) Why did I decide to write this article?

(3) Evangelical Student Churches are too big, impersonal and lacking in pastoral care

(4) Simple answers to very complex, difficult questions

(5) Narrow, normative, uniform, one-size-fits-all approach

(6) Grace and sin

(7) Too big an emphasis on doctrine

(8) View of Human Nature

(9) Exaggerated emphasis on Pauline literature over and above the Gospels

(10) Over-simplistic and demeaning view of Scripture

(11) Lack of and under-valuing of Liturgy

(12) Proselytism

(13) Too great a focus on Jesus alone

(14) Cliques


For an introduction to what it means to be an “evangelical Christian”, a discussion of the different types of “evangelical Christian”, and the reasons why I choose to not describe myself as an “evangelical Christian”, please see my article entitled What does it mean to be an “evangelical Christian”? Am I one? In this article, however, my aim is to try to identify and explain the problems which I personally have experienced with the stereotypical evangelical “student model of Christianity” in Durham. That is what I mean when I use the term “student Christianity”. I fully and openly acknowledge in advance that this article will be, at least to some extent, based on generalisation but unfortunately, in my experience, these generalisations are all too often accurate. When I came to Durham University I rather naively thought that I was a fairly stereotypical conservative evangelical Anglican and so went to a church of that tradition in Durham, believing that it would suit me down to the ground. However, I could not have been more wrong. I then, through my journey of faith over the year, through my study of theology and my experience of evangelical “student Christianity” and conservative evangelicalism, rejected this tradition and now choose to simply define myself as a central Anglican Christian.

In this article I will try to identify as many problems with “student Christianity” in general as I can but obviously I in particular have experienced conservative evangelical “student Christianity” more than I have experienced charismatic evangelical “student Christianity”, for instance, and so will inevitably have more criticisms of the former than I will have of the latter and some criticisms may only apply to one grouping and not others.

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Why did I decide to write this article?

I decided to write this article because I have frankly had a pretty poor experience in Durham for most of my first academic year. I haven’t settled into a Church and have found it almost impossible to find a student Christian social community or to find any like-minded friendly, welcoming and accepting student Christian friends. This forced me into a very difficult, unsettling, disconcerting and uncomfortable period for my faith and worsened some mental health issues which I had at the time. I relate my criticisms of evangelical “student Christianity” here to let those who are also and have also experienced the same situation to know that they are not alone and that others sadly go through the same situation. I hope to, in some small and inadequate way, represent what I sadly see as the “silent majority” of student Christians at Durham University, particularly those who are first-years/freshers. I also hope that those who choose to define themselves as evangelical student Christians will read my constructive criticisms, ponder on them and that some changes might hopefully occur at some point in the future. In some ways this article was a late last resort as, whenever I was asked by those who worked for the evangelical student Church I initially attended, what I thought of the services I always honestly and clearly expressed my concerns and issues but no change at all ever came of it. If one cannot reform from within, one must leave and make their voice heard both inside and outside.

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Evangelical Student Churches are too big, impersonal and lacking in pastoral care

On the average Sunday evening, about 150 students attend this particular church. That is a lot and forces such student churches to become impersonal and nowhere near as good at personal, private pastoral care as other smaller churches are. I have been to this church on at least about 8 Sundays but neither the Senior Minister nor the Student Minister introduced themselves to me and no one whom I met introduced me to them either. Each week I went, I was sat next to someone different and so had to go over the usual, routine small talk of home town/city, college, course, etc… I fail to see how such a church where one can attend for such a long period of time without ever meeting the Senior Minister or the Student Minister can be a welcoming, friendly, pastoral and personal church. A friend of mine went to a student charismatic evangelical Anglican church in Oxford for 4 years and was deeply involved in the Church but the Rector still did not even know him by name after those 4 years. Faith and religion are both deeply personal things and so pastoral care is needed on a personal, individual and sometimes confidential basis. One of the main roles of a priest or minister is the care of the congregation and the inhabitants of their parish and the nurturing of their faith on their spiritual journeys. This impersonal element to large, evangelical student churches leaves a vacuum where younger, less experienced Christians have to try, as best they can, to provide any pastoral care that is needed. This places a heavy burden on relatively inexperienced Christians who are themselves exploring their own faith.

It seems to me that these churches are only really thus suitable for those Christians who have already got all their questions and doubts completely settled and sorted out before they have even arrived at university. Yet, the whole point of studying a theology degree from a secular and academic point of view is to challenge, and hopefully thereby strengthen, one’s beliefs or it can be to “rearrange the interior of the mind” as one of my lecturers once said. What is the point of a minister or priest having all the pastoral training they have and all the practical theology if they are going to just leave this down to less experienced students who do not have that training? It costs at least about £40,000 to train each priest and much of this training and learning is related to pastoral care. What a waste of money!

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Simple answers to very complex, difficult questions

“Student Christianity” has a tendency to try to give simple, straightforward, easy answers to very difficult and complex questions which have puzzled Biblical scholars and theologians for centuries. “Student Christianity” has little, if any, respect for the academic discipline of theology and for modern, academic, critical Biblical study which it sometimes instead just insults and fobs off. I think that academic theologians and Biblical scholars should play a vital role in the development and refining of the Church’s doctrine and that only unhealthy churches do not listen to such experts. Whenever I have raised critical comments or challenges to the Biblical beliefs of the stereotypical student Christians, they just say “Oh well we can’t know all of the answers and we don’t need to”. However, often the questions which are being asked and the issues which are being discussed are not just minor, pedantic minutiae but are instead vital issues. These have to do with Hell, Christology, the Incarnation, the Trinity, salvation and predestination, and the problem/mystery of evil. There is nothing wrong with wanting to further explore and understand Christian doctrine and beliefs and there is also nothing wrong with thinking that such understanding is vital for the Church and that all believers should take note of the findings of academic theology. Yet these conservative evangelicals seem to say that only the “simple Gospel” message needs to be known.

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Narrow, normative, uniform, one-size-fits-all approach

The evangelical model of “student Christianity” is very much a narrow and normative, uniform one-size-fits-all approach. It presumes that all Christians should and will inevitably hold the same beliefs, interpretations, views, values and morals and that they will all connect in the same ways and by the same means and that they will all live their Christian lives in the same way, carrying out the same evangelistic activities in the same style. I think there needs to be a much greater focus on the God-given gift of the individuality and uniqueness of each and every human being and of human free will. As Sophocles once said:

“I ask to be no other man than that I am”

(From “Oediphus” by Sophocles)

Or as God Himself, in whose image we were all each made, says:

“I am who I am”

(Exodus 3:14)

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Grace and sin

Stereotypical evangelical “student churches” place a very strong emphasis on grace and argue that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from and separate from the works of the Law (that is the 613 commandments mentioned in the Torah/Pentateuch – first five books of the Old Testament). I agree with that, but I don’t think that we should just completely ignore works. This belief that works are completely irrelevant is, in my view, very dangerous. Martin Luther once said, ‘we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone’. What he meant by this is that while it is true that our works do not save us, if we believe, we will necessarily also perform good works because they will flow from our belief. The two go hand-in-hand and are inseparable. Matt Chandler and Dr Joe Cassidy have both pointed out that it’s not really possible to believe in Jesus but to not make any effort to follow Him. This is because believing something so incredible, wonderful and frankly so unbelievable (in a good way) ‘demands my soul, my life my all’ in the words of Isaac Watt’s hymn “When I Survey”. If you truly believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose again, you have to and will love him more than anyone or anything else. This love will necessarily lead you to follow Him and obey Him as it says in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”.

Many evangelical student Christians believe that people who believe in Christ and then make no conscious effort at all to obey his commandments or follow Him are saved regardless and are eternally secure. This seems to me to be a very dubious statement to make. Paul seems to contradict himself on the question of the eternal security of the believer which is, by the way, a doctrine which he basically invents without drawing on Jesus’ words to support it (remember Jesus, not Paul, was and is infallible). Often, Paul issues severe moral warnings and urges people to turn away from sin and temptation and argues in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 that certain groups of people who are categorised by the sins they have committed (the sexually immoral, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, etc…) will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Why would Paul issue moral warnings if Christians were already eternally secure, if they always will be eternally secure and if there was no risk whatsoever of them losing their salvation? He wouldn’t. Also, why would Paul list groups of people based on their sins who would not inherit the kingdom of heaven when he states elsewhere that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, not of and apart from the works of the Law? Here Paul is saying that works are not completely irrelevant; they are not what saves us, but they should not be ignored and brushed aside entirely.

Here we see that the complexities and nuances of Christian theology and Biblical studies are just not acknowledged or recognised by most evangelical student Christians. Most evangelical student Christians want nicely-packaged, simple, easy and straightforward answers to difficult but important questions and so just ignore or brush aside the challenges to their views or to their faith and try to pretend that they had never existed or were only ever weak challenges anyway. They never really examine the challenges themselves and form their own responses to them.

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Too big an emphasis on doctrine

Many conservative evangelical student churches place a huge emphasis on doctrine and on trying to dispel and dismiss false teaching and doctrine. However, many of these matters are hotly debated topics and are highly subjective. As one of my lecturers rightly pointed out to me, what is needed is a strong, overriding emphasis on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Only his life, death and resurrection should not be “up for grabs”. Leo Tolstoy made an incredibly astute and prophetic observation about today’s mainstream model of evangelical student back in 1903 (over a hundred years ago):

“There are people who take it upon themselves to decide for others what their relationship is to God and to the world. And there are people, the vast majority, who give away this right to others and blindly believe what others tell them. Both groups are equally misguided”

(From Leo Tolstoy’s entry for 12th January in his book “A Calendar of Wisdom”)

In my experience, the former criticism most commonly applies to the average charismatic evangelical student Christian, while the latter criticism most commonly applies to the average conservative evangelical student Christian. St Anselm once said:

“[A] living faith believes IN what it ought to believe, whereas a dead faith believes WHAT it ought to believe”

(From St Anselm’s “Monologion” (emphasis added by me))

I think that, in conservative evangelical student churches, people are all too often told: you MUST believe this, and you MUSTN’T believe that. There is far too great a focus on doctrine and issues of truth and falsity. People are constantly taught and told what to believe in. They thus sadly fail to realise that Christianity is an individual and personal belief in, not a belief that.

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View of Human Nature

Most evangelical student Christians often have a very cynical, over-negative and pessimistic view of human nature, neglecting the fact that we were all created by a perfect God in His own image. It is constantly obvious that we humans are not perfect and do not measure up (to use one of my lecturer’s terms) but this does not mean that we are totally sinful and depraved and that we are all constantly completely wicked and evil. Clearly non-Christians can perform loving, moral actions without believing in God or having His Holy Spirit reside within them. Many conservative evangelical student Christians argue that we must acknowledge our total sinfulness and wickedness in order to fully realise and acknowledge and thus be truly grateful for God’s unmerited and undeserved grace. I disagree here – God’s grace is still unmerited if we are not completely evil – He is still a perfect being who amazingly has grace on imperfect beings who don’t deserve it because they don’t measure up and aren’t perfect. Conservative evangelical Churches, as my friend pointed out to me, very wrongly view the Cross and salvation almost entirely through the lens of human sin, rather than through the lens of God’s extraordinary love and redemption.

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Exaggerated emphasis on Pauline literature over and above the Gospels

Within evangelical student Christianity, and particularly in conservative evangelical student churches, there is a very strong emphasis on the letters of Paul which often seems to be much greater than the emphasis on the Gospels and the words of Jesus Himself. This is largely because Paul was a very prolific writer and wrote a lot more than Jesus is recorded to have said in the Gospels. Furthermore, Paul’s teachings are clear, obvious and blunt, whereas Jesus’ teachings are often told in metaphorical, symbolic and more complex ways such as via parables. It is thus more difficult, but in my view much more worthwhile, to deduce the exact doctrines and ethics that Jesus was Himself teaching and how exactly they ought to apply to us today. It is also because these sorts of Christians generally tend to believe that the Bible is both infallible and inerrant and so what Paul teaches is just as right, good, perfect and valid as what Jesus is recorded to have said. This makes little logical sense to me because the same people say that Jesus was infallible, but Paul wasn’t and so how can Paul’s teachings be infallible if he himself is fallible? Now some will respond to this by saying that Paul’s teachings are only infallible because of the influence of the Holy Spirit which caused him to write them and to write them exactly as they appear and because of the Holy Spirit which causes true Christians to correctly interpret his writings. However, this idea that the Bible is without error necessarily rules out human free will. This is because humans are imperfect and fallible and so could not write a perfect, infallible book unless the Holy Spirit forced them to write it and forced them to write it in a particular way and thus allowed them no freedom whatsoever. Another thing to bear in mind, is that God and His own nature are often described in the Bible and yet God is known to be transcendent, unfathomable and incomprehensible and so how can a document which was written by humans in limited, finite human language possibly contain the majesty and mystery of an infinite, unlimited and unfathomable God as one of my friends pointed out to me?

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Over-simplistic and demeaning view of Scripture

It seems very clear to me that there are at least some clear, unambiguous and indisputable human errors in the Bible which just cannot be reinterpreted to make sense. Such an example is the story of the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant in the Gospels, as James D.G. Dunn has pointed out. In one version of the story, the Roman Centurion himself approaches Jesus but in the other telling of the story, he is too humble to do that and sends his friends instead. Both of these versions of the same story cannot be true. One must be right and the other must be wrong. This is clearly, therefore, a human error. What is important, as Dunn again points out, is the main gist of the story and the point that is trying to be made through it, not the pedantic detailed minutiae. However, most evangelical student Christians reject this view and argue that the Bible must be infallible, and they generally interpret it in a very narrow, literal, wooden way, neglecting the complexity of scripture and the multiple layers of deep, powerful and profound meaning. As one of the College Tutors at my College recently pointed out to me, they make Scripture and the text itself their golden calf, their idol and their false god. Christianity and the Gospel are based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not on a particular view and interpretation of Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture is it stated that the Bible is infallible or inerrant – that is just a human construct dreamt up by those who want easy answers and certain and to safeguard the Bible because they fear a slippery slope if they let go of that particular view, as Robert Carroll has rightly pointed out. Also remember that nowhere in the Bible does it tell us how we should interpret Scripture or individual passages, verses or chapters. As Professor Anthony Bash often states:

“God may have given us an inspired Word, but he has not given us an inspired hermeneutic [interpretation]”

(Professor Anthony Bash)

An acknowledgement of the fact that Scripture clearly contains some minor human errors needn’t diminish one’s view of the Bible. I still believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired book and that it is by far the most important and fascinating book in the world and in history and I believe that all Christians should aim to read it at least once a day and that it is the best set of instructions before leaving Earth.

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Lack of and under-valuing of Liturgy

Almost all evangelical student Churches dispense with all liturgy, except for the Creed and a Confession. They fail to acknowledge the role, purpose, power and meaning of what Rt Revd Paul Ferguson, Bishop of Whitby, calls “the words of worship”. As Scott D. de Hart points out in his 2004 PhD thesis, liturgy is and ought to be a lived thing; a way of life. It is organised and gets us into a spiritual routine. We need to be reminded of the same things in the Christian life – our sin, our need for mercy, Christ’s sacrifice and our thankfulness. The liturgy does all of this in a very effective, powerful, moving and meaningful way. Liturgy binds the current community of believers who are saying or singing it together and connects them with almost innumerable previous generations who repeatedly said exactly the same words. These words, both in Common Worship and in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), were very carefully crafted over a long period of time and much broad discussion and are very clearly based on Scripture while having their own distinctiveness and value too. Words such as those which form the BCP’s Prayer of Humble Access:

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”

or those which form the Invitation to the Table prayer:

“Come to this table, not because you must but because you may,
not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come,
but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ, for we are his Body.”

are extraordinarily powerful and meaningful and are just as powerful and meaningful today as they were in 1662. If we enthusiastically, honestly, openly, publicly and meaningfully declare these words together and aloud in Church services, they can be incredibly meaningful, profound, important and powerful. Without ever having or using liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, stained glass windows, beautiful Church buildings, hymns, robes, Choir Dress, a choir and an organ, evangelical student Churches lose the mystery, wonder, awe and transcendence of God, instead often focusing on literally, narrowly and woodenly reading the precise words of the Bible alone.

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Many evangelical student Christians here, especially those who choose to label themselves as conservative evangelicals, seem to treat the Gospel message as if it is something which they quickly need to get off their chests. Sometimes, they formulaicly recite it to new people they meet, occasionally without even first asking whether or not the person is a Christian!! It is almost as if the Gospel for them is like an annoying piece of food stuck in the throat which they need to cough out onto others! If, however, they do discover that you are a Christian, they often breathe a proverbial sigh of relief and the conversation ends there. The vast number of people who are not just immediately converted by this short recitation of “the simple Gospel” are often put off the proselytiser and will refrain from approaching them in future. It would seem that to them, the only thing that matters is whether or not you are, by their own definition, a Christian. This makes many “evangelical student Christians” seem almost like door-to-door salesmen.

I think that a superior approach would be to get to know people well and then, if and when the subject of Christianity and/or religion comes up in conversation, to share your story, your view and to evangelise. It is worth remembering that Jesus Christ Himself never told the Gospel in the same way or style or with the same words. He didn’t just boringly reel off or regurgitate the lines of the short, infamous and rather dry Two Ways to Live summary of the Gospel message as many conservative evangelical Christian students do today. No, He told the same Gospel in a radically and refreshingly new and different way each time people approached Him or asked Him questions – just look at all of his different parables. His evangelism was situational, contextual and circumstantial – he humbly, modestly and meekly met people exactly where they were at. As it says in the “Prayer after Communion”:

“Father of all,

we give you thanks and praise,

that when we were still far off

you met us in your Son and brought us home”

(“Prayer after Communion” from Eucharistic Prayer H in “Common Worship”)

Jesus constantly adapted the particular way in which he expressed His Gospel message to the particular audience/individuals he was speaking. The particular expression of Jesus’ own Gospel message was clearly, therefore, responsive. This is shown in Mark’s Gospel where the disciples and others are commanded by Jesus to keep His actions secret. This is, as Professor Anthony Bash has shown, because Jesus wanted to ensure that each and every individual met with and encountered Him personally in the flesh as He was and is the Word which “was made flesh” (John 1:14, KJV). Jesus did not want people to convert to Christianity by hearing second-hand accounts of which particular deeds He may have performed in the past or through rational argument. Through the medium of confrontations and discussions between a human Christian(s) and a human non-Christian(s), you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot, and should not try to, make it drink. As Jesus Himself said to the moralistic, legalistic, and hard-hearted Pharisees who were afraid of submitting to Jesus’ Gospel message as they feared it would cost them power and influence:

“[Y]et YOU refuse to come to me that you may have eternal life”

(John 5:40, with emphasis added by me)

Or what it says in Revelation 3:20:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”

(Revelation 3:20)

At the end of the day, the ball is in the non-Christian’s court – only they can make the decision of whether or not to accept Christ into their life and they have to make this decision by and for themselves, Christians cannot do it for them. We have the good, God-given gift of freedom and so different non-Christians will respond to hearing the Gospel message in very different ways as we are all unique individuals.

From my own experience in Freshers’ Week particularly, once people found out that I studied theology, they immediately had many different questions to ask me about Christianity – the questions came from them, their initiation, their interest and curiosity, not mine. The Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with me on this one, stating that Christians should not speak about their faith with non-Christians unless they are asked to. Now, at this point the conservative evangelical student says well if you see your mate is about to be hit by a bus, you immediately try to save him/her, you don’t wait. Yes, but I would hope that most non-Christian undergraduates in Durham aren’t about to die any second. I think this bus example shows just what largely seems to motivate these people – a fear of eternal doom, not an emphasis on loving God because He first loved us so much more. God is omniscient (all-knowing) and knows when our motives are ulterior and immoral and sees through this.

Christian faith, like life, is a journey and a personal story, it is a marathon and is certainly not a sprint. This complex, long journey cannot possibly just be boiled down to a few sentences written by humans in limited human language. The Gospel is not a race, it’s not something to be memorised and then rattled off in a matter of minutes. It is something so much more profound, complex and wonderful than that. We ought to meet non-Christians where they are, listen to everything they have to say, try to understand their point of view and then respectfully and carefully respond. If there is then disagreement, you should disagree well and disagree in love as the Archbishop of Canterbury is fond of saying. The Gospel is not just a shuttlecock in a debate, nor is it an arrogant or stubborn Gospel, so we should not appear arrogant when discussing it. True evangelism is not and should never be about winning an argument; it is instead about trying to facilitate the opening of the eyes of a non-Christian’s heart to God. Many non-Christians often see most evangelical “student Christians” as at least appearing to be aggressive, argumentative, moralistic, arrogant and sanctimonious. Often evangelical “student Christians” do not really properly listen to what the non-Christians they confront are telling them and already have their concise, neatly-packaged, formulaic and pre-prepared Gospel message memorised, ready to recite back. Evangelistic conversations are not really conversations as there really isn’t much listening or many truly relevant responses from a lot of evangelical “student Christians”.

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Too great a focus on Jesus alone

A friend of mine repeatedly points out to me that evangelical student churches constantly talk about Jesus but that talk of God the Father and God the Creator is unfortunately often lacking. Conservative evangelical student churches very rarely mention the Holy Spirit and, as another friend rightly pointed out to me, seem to replace it with the Bible within the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and the Bible; rather than God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit). These churches do not “experience” the Holy Spirit in worship (I don’t often either) but they also state that the Bible itself (excluding interpretations and study – just the very words themselves) is infallible. This leaves very little scope for the Holy Spirit. This, I think, demonstrates their hardness of hearts when it comes to interpretation. As Edwin Muir has rightly pointed out:

‘The Word made flesh here is made word again’

(From Edwin Muir’s poem “Incarnate One”)

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Evangelical “student churches” are sadly often full of small, tight, exclusive cliques and friendship groups. Often one finds out that many of these people were friends before they arrived at university in Durham and sometimes even before they applied in the first place! Conservative evangelical churches in particular have a strong tendency to have many such cliques as they have strong links, connections and networks with certain schools, often posh and expensive independent and public ones in the South of England. These small, tight, exclusive cliques and friendship groups become especially clear after student services and after Bible Study sessions. Unfortunately they make the Church seem less friendly, inviting and welcoming and make Christian fellowship after services and Bible Study sessions more difficult. I’ve always found a warmer, friendlier and more inviting welcome at smaller local Parish churches than I have ever found in huge evangelical “student churches”.

By Ben Somervell

(Special and particular thanks to Professor Anthony Bash for his friendship and for his dialogue with me which has greatly aided my transition in views and has hugely helped me to integrate the academic, critical Biblical Studies I carry out with my own personal faith.)

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