College Students, CRI, and Spiritual Struggles: Drilling down through the Sources

Zotero1

The first set of sources in my Zotero library

Millennials’ involvement in church has been one motivating factor in my spiritual journeys research. When I came across an article titled “Religion as Bridging or Bonding Social Capital: Race, Religion and Cross-racial Interaction for College Students” my interest was piqued. The title suggests that college students and their social interactions can benefit from an understanding of religious beliefs.

The article asserts that colleges have a responsibility to promote cross-racial interaction and cultivate an environment in which students from diverse backgrounds meaningfully engage with each other. The authors of the study recognize that structural, organizational, and social factors, i.e. religious affiliation, influence student interaction. Religion, interestingly, seems to be the most segregated aspect of American daily life both on and off campuses; Parks and Bowman cite research, particularly that of Bryant, that implies participation in religious communities has a negative relationship with diversity-related behaviors. Such organizations instead promote bonding of likeness. (Park & Bowman, 2015).

Zotero2

The second set of sources in my Zotero library

Consequently, the goal of this quantitative survey study is to examine whether religious observance, religious world view, and participation in religious student organizations affects cross-racial interaction (CRI). This is significant because college tends to be first opportunity for  young adults to interact with and make connections between different racial/ethnic groups.

The study presented the following five hypotheses:

  1. Participation in campus religious groups is associated with lower CRI.
  2. Students attending a religious group with a majority of the same race would have lower CRI than groups with a more diverse majority.
  3. Students who identify as Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu (religious minorities) would have higher CRI than the Protestant reference group.
  4. Students with higher religiosity will have lower CRI.
  5. There will be a negative relationship between religious activity and white students (Park and Bowman, 2015).

The study found that students belonging to religious minorities all had higher CRIs than Protestants. The authors were surprised to find that significant effects between religious group participation and CRI were lacking. Instead, religion seems to make it easier for students to create bridges between students of different races (Park and Bowman, 2015).

Because this study seemed to reflect a positive conclusion in regard to millennials and religiosity, I chose to investigate more of Alyssa Bryant’s study, a study Park and Bowman seemed to use as a counterargument and jumping off point for their study.  I found “The Impact of Campus Context, College Encounters, and Religious/Spiritual Struggle on Ecumenical Worldview Development” through the university online database.

This quantitative study of 14,274 college students analyzes how students develop an ecumenical worldview.The study used a four page survey to examine the extent to which religious/spiritual struggles mediate the relationship between campus contexts/college encounters and worldview. The findings illustrate that college experiences bring students into contact with religion, spirituality, and diversity in classroom and co-curricular settings. More challenging experiences tend to provoke religious and spiritual struggles, and while the struggles “stimulate acceptance of, interest in, and understanding of others…,” the experiences may cause lower levels of psychological well-being, physical health, and self-esteem (Bryant, 2011).

While Bryant’s article illustrates what might help students of different backgrounds and religions relate while on campus, it doesn’t clearly define spiritual struggles. The term interests me so I went to the references page and found the following article: “A Phenomenological Analysis of College Students’ Spiritual Struggles.”

This qualitative research study expands upon a 2008 quantitative research study that identifies correlative factors of students’ spiritual struggles. This follow-up study used interviews, transcriptions, and journal reflections to define and classify the spiritual struggles of college students.

The study found that spiritual struggles of college students can be summarized in one word: CONTRAST. Bryant, Walker, and Luzader write, “At their core, spiritual struggles were steeped in the conflicting, contradictory, and paradoxical aspects of life….Spiritual struggles revolved around deeply felt dualities in the most fundamental aspects of the human experience.”  As the chart from page 60 of the study reveals, religious struggles of young twentysomethings arise out of questions sparked by new experiences or new interpretations of previous experiences.

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Millennials may be confused about church, but had I read the sources from bottom to top, instead of top to bottom, I would have recognized that positive experiences arise for this young generation out of religious questioning and exploration. Hope and faith may not be as lost as I had assumed they were. Faith, instead, is a starting point for relationships and connections as long as this generation stops being afraid to learn about it and discuss it.

References

Bryant, Alyssa N. “The Impact of Campus Context, College Encounters, and Religious/Spiritual Struggle on Ecumenical Worldview Development.” Research in Higher Education 52.5 (2011): 441–459. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Park, Julie J., and Nicholas A. Bowman. “Religion as Bridging or Bonding Social Capital Race, Religion, and Cross-Racial Interaction for College Students.” Sociology of Education 88.1 (2015): 20–37. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Rockenbach, Alyssa Bryant, Coretta Roseboro Walker, and Jordan Luzader. “A Phenomenological Analysis of College Students’ Spiritual Struggles.” 53.1 (2012): 55–75. Web. 4 Apr. 2015.

Post-Interview Reflections: Rev. Randy (In Person Interview 1)

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I opened the doors to The Treehouse in Audubon, New Jersey for the second time on Friday, March 27. I was scheduled to interview the owner, Randy Van Osten, who is currently a student at Palmer Theological Seminary, pursuing a Masters in Divinity. He is also an associate pastor at Oaklyn Baptist Church in Oaklyn, New Jersey.

The interview was scheduled for 4:30, and it was only 4 pm, so I perused the menu of coffees, teas, and bakery items, many of which are fair trade and/or vegan. I settled on a cup of The Republic of Tea’s Strawberry Vanilla tea being that I have given up coffee in honor of Lent. I took the steaming cup back to a table by the front window and unloaded some items from my overloaded shoulder bag–a computer, a notebook, my field notes, and a pen. As I waited for my tea to cool, I scanned the room. In a Facebook message prior to our meeting, Randy had told me the family opened the cafe as a space where customers could feel God’s love and presences, and I wanted to see if that translated in my opinion.

I was drawn to a sign by the coffee stand and supplies, a sign that read “Mugs, Not Drugs.” I chuckled at the positive play on words. The owners definitely have a sense of humor. Additionally, the space was warm as the three baristas were singing a song together as they swept and wiped down the counters in preparation for the music event that would take place in the space later that night. I felt at home and settled in.

I must have felt more settled in than I looked because at about 4:30, I was surprised by a voice behind me. “Lauren?” the voice said. “Hi, I’m Randy. Did you need another minute before we get started?” I looked up and then quickly grabbed the books I had strewn on the chair across from me.

“Not at all,” I replied. “Please. Sit. It’s really a pleasure to me you.” I am surprised to see the figure matching the voice is wearing shorts, r sandals, a Palmer Theological Seminary t-shirt. He also has a piercing in his left eyebrow and long hair tied back with a bandanna. I feel like I have nearly forgotten that pastors can be regular people, too.

I opened my field notes book atop an outline I had made, and that’s when I began. I introduced myself and summarized my research, explaining my interest in spiritual journeys, particularly the journeys of millennials or those in their late teens and 20’s. At that moment, I could have thrown my outline into the wind because I only referred to it one time in the remaining hour of our interview.

The Findings

Our interview, thanks to my introduction, opened with a discussion about millenials in church, as this is also something Randy is researching at seminary. According to his findings, this age group seems to have an aversion to church, about 33% of this group argues this aversion is predicated by the aversion to the formal structure of services. They also want to be able to make a difference, and the church doesn’t really give them that opportunity. Many churches today operate on the system of the 3 B’s: butts, buildings, and budgets. They aren’t as much about the people as potential members would hope.

Serving as a youth pastor for the last six years, this is something Randy is working to combat. His responsibilities include teaching and fostering socialization among the younger members of the parish. He mentions that the youth group, about 35 to 40 6th graders through 12th graders, at his church “likes to have fun” when they meet from 5:45 to 7:45 on Sunday nights.

In addition to youth group, Randy has worked to develop a contemporary service, the second service at his church on Sundays that targets an audience of mainly 30-to-40-something members with kids and families. This service includes a worship band, led by Randy’s wife, Theresa, that sings original songs and worship tunes from Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Hillsong United. The service also features a more interactive sermon with video clips and reenactments to keep churchgoers more engaged and interested. He notes that in 20 minutes time, only 10% of the church, the audible learners, would be able to remember a purely spoken sermon. Most people need a more experiential learning enviornment.

Randy acknowledges that this contemporary service may not be enough to draw millenials back to the church, suggesting that we “don’t do church the way it’s supposed to be done.”  Many church goers hang up their faith when they leave, simply going through cultural motions. Church should really include building a sense of community among believers, a community in which they could share meals and share life. They could read more of the Bible at home independently and discuss. They could go out and do things that serve the town. Randy stated, “If churches want to be seen, they need to go out and love on their community. Love is appealing.” This is why he takes the youth group out on one to two service opportunities a month, including visits at the Ronald McDonald House and Urban Promise Academy in Camden, New Jersey.

On a personal level, Randy has been actively involved in church life from the time he was a small child. His father worked for the church, and Randy was in Bell Choir, Youth Choir, and Teen Choir. He also attended Sunday School, church, and youth group once a week from the time he was in Kindergarten through the time he was a senior in high school. Astonishingly, he received a calling to be a pastor at the young age of 13 as he listened to a family he was friends with speak at Camp Lebanon with his youth group. They had returned from four years of missionary work, and Randy explained that he felt God was speaking directly to his heart through this family. He felt that God was telling him he needed to be involved and be a leader.

From that point, he never questioned his faith, though Randy admits to leading a double life at some points, particularly during college in which he was torn between God’s ways and the temptations of the ways of the world. He attended a Christian college, but there was still peer pressure in this environment, a statement also made by Jefferon Bethke in his book Jesus>Religion. Randy, however, acknowledges the importance of those experiences because he feels he can relate to people more and serve them better.

To maintain his faith now, outside of church, Randy prays, reads the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer of Ordinary Radicals regularly. He also does a devotional one to two times per week with his two young sons and with his wife, a practice that involves scripture reading and prayer. He used to play music, but between school and running his shop, he simply doesn’t have time time anymore.

The Treehouse

I was still interested in what Randy meant when he wanted the shop to be a place with the presence of God’s love, so this is the moment of the interview where I returned to my outline and asked what he meant by this. The answer I received was awesome and in-depth, spanning nearly four pages of my field notes book.

He began by explaining that he wanted the interactions between the staff and customers to be likened to that of family and embody a familial atmosphere. Randy explained that God can move any way he wants in the space. It could mean someone just enjoys themselves to someone learning about faith in one of the many Bible study or church initiate groups that meet there weekly or bi-weekly.

With the recent news controversy about the Religious Freedom Act now effective in Indiana would have any bearing over the shop’s customers or target clientele, but Randy just laughed briefly and replied, “Jesus doesn’t discriminate. Not serving someone is crazy.” He explained that The Treehouse has suffered a bit from the stigma that might surround a Christian-owned business when they were located in Collingswood as opposed to Audubon. They were believed to be an anti-gay business, though this was never true, and were rivaled by another coffee shop in town owned by a gay couple.

About a year ago, a customer entered the shop with his daughter. He said she had been invited to a birthday party there and asked if he would be welcome in the shop, as he was gay. Randy said his wife comforted the man and rid him of any doubt that his attendance would be a problem. As Randy retells the story, the man cried tears of love and acceptance. Furthermore, there have been small services and weddings for gay couples at The Treehouse. The rumors, which followed them briefly on the Audubon forum, have been annoying to Randy, but overall, they don’t seem to have affected his business.

Expectations vs. Reality

I was so nervous going into this interview that I over-prepared and had more than 15 pre-written questions, categorized by topics of interest in my research. I arrived so early, thinking I was going to be late. I was worried I was going to be disjointed and jumbled, jumping topic to topic to make sure I thoroughly covered  Looking back, none of those nerves were necessary. The interview was comfortable and conversational, in addition to being informative. It turned out that simply sharing the scope of my research and interest was enough to give my interviewee guidance in terms of topics to ponder and discuss. I am glad that I practically through my questions away and didn’t read from them.

I am glad, though, that I prepared them, because they did give me a mental checklist to ensure a thorough and complete discussion.

Questions and Next Steps

Going forward from my interview with Randy, who has so graciously answered to meet again if necessary to answer additional questions, I might inquire about some of the church groups that meet at The Treehouse and see if I can get in touch with any of their leaders. In addition to new potential interview subjects, this could lead to a looking or outing, if I am able to attend one of the group’s meetings at the cafe.

I would also like to do a bit of scholarly research on statistics about millenials in church to compare to the figures and information Randy supplied and provide additional insight to his comments. It must be a very broad topic if it is something he can cover in his masters research.

Successes and Room for Improvment

I think one of my greatest successes was my use of “on-the-fly” questioning techniques from InterViews by Brinkmann and Kvale. In my introduction, I started with introductory questions, asking Randy to expand upon things he stated. Then, as his answers expanded, I asked follow up questions and pausing after his responses to see if he would share more. I asked a few specifying questions, such as those about his services, youth group practices, and personal practices. Finally, I ended with direct questions, specifically the question about being a Christian business owner (160-2). This varied use of questioning enabled the interview to span the scope of nearly all of my research questions without becoming dull or routine.

Also, being different religions, we got into some cross-culture discussion and comparison, which was interesting and engaging, adding a secondary dynamic to the conversation. I was glad I had done some research on things like worship bands, which helped me understand what he was talking about a little bit more.

I almost wish, though, that I had stopped trying to connect my experiences as much as I did. I feel like he might have said more if I hadn’t spent as much time trying to relate with a personal experience to many of his comments. A bit of this enhanced the interview, but I worried I was doing too much.

All in all, I really enjoyed the experience, and I’m looking forward to additional interviews I will conduct.

Religion vs. Jesus: An Age Old Debate, as Slammed by Jefferson Bethke

Last Wednesday, I was scouring YouTube for a video to use in my classroom for the students’ Watch It Wednesday do now assignment. Usually, the videos are news clips, but I wanted to switch it up a bit for entertainment’s sake, so I was looking up videos on controversial topics–spoken word poems on the purpose of compulsory education and standardized testing. While watching these videos, I noticed something in the “Suggestions” sidebar that piqued my interest, a poem called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by a young man named Jefferson Bethke.

The title is certainly a version of a phrase I have heard many times, a phrase heard from kids, teenagers, and adults alike.

Oh, I’m not very religious, but I believe in God. 

Oh, I believe in God, but I can follow him and pray to him from my house.

Oh, I don’t know how I feel about church, but I definitely believe in some kind of after life.

One could chalk up this sometimes apathetic, sometimes disgruntled, sometimes outright rebellious attitude to an overabundance of rules and doctrine in various churches. Speaking from personal experience, I know that Catholic church has what I consider to be very heavy-handed rules about birth control and family planning. I know several churches, especially Southern Baptist churches, have rules and beliefs about drinking alcohol. I understand that religions develop and share these rules as interpretations of the Bible and, therefore, connected to the word of God, but for someone who wants to believe or become involved with a church, but the blanket enforcement of what seem like arbitrary rules makes religion appear to be more a way to control people than to develop a close relationship with God.

As you watch Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word poem, he addresses these concerns by addressing contradictions between being a member of religion and being a true disciple of Jesus.

Bethke compares religion to a list of chores, suggesting that it’s a way to ensure believers behave the same way rather than focusing on their individual relationship with God. He iterates that churches should welcome the broken, those who don’t follow the rules because they are the ones who need guidance, and yet he recognizes these are the people who often feel most out of place and rejected by the “good” members of the church. He ends his poem by stating religion and Christianity are two different claims.

“Religion is man’s search for God. Christianity is God searching for man.” 

This is a powerful statement that makes clear God is looking to save. God is looking to help. It shows that organized religion may not share that same purpose at it’s core or that the mission has gotten too muddled with time and the human mind, an argument emphasized again in this word cloud of Bethke’s poem. Religion and Jesus are the largest words, most used in the poem, but Jesus is larger, which suggests that He is more than doctrine. He is more than religion.

Screenshot (36)

Now, I’m sure someone might think that by posting a poem expressing views on religion as Bethke did might suggest that he is not a true Christian, but it is important to remember that this single video has received, at this time, 29, 020, 448 views. His YouTube channel has over 500,00 subscribers. He actively posts videos about living a Christian life, mostly geared toward millenials. He shares views on dating as a Christian, living as a Christian when you don’t feel God, and problems or conflicts between modern American culture and Christianity.

He seems interesting and dedicated, proof that a person can question church, question religion, and still be a disciple of Jesus. He illustrates that there isn’t a one-size fits all religious life. I highly recommend checking out his channel and watching a few videos. Most aren’t longer than 7 or 8 minutes.

His slam poem was published to YouTube in 2012. It’s success inspired his 2013 book release, Jesus>Religion. I received my copy from Amazon yesterday, and I am looking forward to seeing what else Bethke has to say.

A Research Proposal Update: It seems as though I’m going to church, but I won’t be alone.

About a week ago, I posted a research proposal explaining how a short conversation and a seemingly simple question sparked an internal philosophical and theological debate in my mind. I think I was so excited and taken by the possibilities of all there was to explore in terms of faith and spiritual journeys that I moved further away from the focus I intended to search for.

A week, and some guidance (the kind of this world, not that of the other-world) later, and I feel confident that I have adjusted my research intentions to a focused, interesting, and thought-provoking topic. I will be examining others’ spiritual journeys to and from God.

To study these journeys, I would like to conduct personal interviews or research in paper/electronic archives with people in various stages of spiritual discovery. This could include a young person who has no association with faith, a young person discovering their faith through schooling or with the help of his or her parents, a reformed believer who may have turned away from God at some point in his or her life only to find the way back, an adult believer who never stopped believing, a spiritual leader (i.e. a priest/pastor/Reverend/minister), an adult who turned away from God and decided he or she was a nonbeliever, an adult who changed religions, and an adult who was never raised in faith.

Katy Perry, for example, might be an interesting figure to look into for starters because her father is a minister. She was raised a Christian, but she no longer believes in heaven, hell, or God in a traditional Christian sense. I could research through paper and electronic archives why and how she may have adjusted her spiritual beliefs. Then, I could compare Perry’s experience to a similar experience of person to whom others might more easily relate. Again, this is just one example, and I would also love to be able to speak with and work with members of my local and surrounding communities for a more thorough, relatable perspective on the topic.

I think it would also be interesting to participate with or engage in the religious practices of those I meet and talk to. For example, attending the church services of an adult who had turned away from the church but found his or her way back to God might help me understand why they were drawn back to a religious lifestyle. Perhaps the messages shared at his or her church are particularly relevant and appealing to the specific age group. Perhaps he or she really enjoys being able to use different media to build a relationship with God rather than listening to a priest read from the Gospel and then give an instructing lecture about the passage.

I feel as though doing this might ultimately lead me to consider my own personal beliefs. In addition to helping me understand what I think about faith and its various aspects, the research will enable me to write an interesting, comparative feature article or editorial article about church, faith, and religious practices in the 21st century.

I would still like to try and publish on an online media source aimed at my age demographic, particularly Relevant Magazine because the research will still be grounded generationally.

So–what exactly will be my first course of action?

At the suggestion of Bill Wolff, I think I’ll begin by listening to Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God, the first segment of which she performed for TED in 2006.