The Voice: Spring 2002

The Voice

Nurturing Spirit-filled living is Dordt's mission

The student-run GIFT worship service meets twice each month in the B.J. Haan Auditorium. Music plays an important part in every service.
By Sally Jongsma

Some Sunday evenings nearly half of the students on campus attend GIFT (Growing in Faith Together), a bi-weekly student worship service held in the chapel. On Wednesday nights the Student Union Building lounge is often packed with students, led by teams of instrumentalists, singing contemporary praise songs. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings a few hundred trickle into the B.J. Haan Auditorium for chapel. The numbers seem a bit smaller than some years, but many students attend faithfully. The opportunities for communal worship on campus are greater and different than they were even ten years ago.

These more visible and often more expressive worship events have led some to describe an atmosphere of heightened spirituality on campus.

Dordt’s campus pastor, Dr. Donald Draayer, isn’t so sure it’s because students take their faith more seriously. Most Dordt students always have. But he does say that many are more open and more expressive about their faith today.

Dr. Pam Adams from the education department agrees. “I think students are more worship and service oriented, but they’re not self-centered and concerned about only their individual relationship with God.” As future teachers, she says, her students are always thinking about reaching out to others, too.

“What we have here is encouraging,” says junior Matt Deppe from Holland, Michigan, student member of the Spiritual Activities Committee. “There are plenty of opportunities to be involved in worship if you are so inclined, but no one forces you to. That makes people participate because they want to.” In addition to GIFT, Wednesday Praise and Worship, and chapel, students gather in Covenant Groups, residence hall wing Bible studies, and other small informal groups.

“Some people do all of them,” says Deppe.

“There’s a definite spirituality here,” says freshman Dan Zylstra from Lansing, Illinois. “Many teachers open class with Scripture and prayer and every teacher I’ve had has made solid connections between the Christian faith and their field of study. Spirituality manifests itself in different ways. Some at Dordt are fired-up, jumping-up-and-down, shout-it-out Christians. Other prefer to hold quiet Bible studies and sing hymns to the Lord,” he says.

Draayer acknowledges, however, that the number and visibility as well as the more expressive character of worship events sometimes create a gap between groups of students.

“People talk about the pious and the partyers,” says Dr. Sydney Hielema, who teaches theology and also serves on the Spiritual Activities Committee. Hielema doesn’t particularly like the descriptions.

“Those words often have more to do with the externals used to identify the character of the Christian life and a way of worshiping than with where a person’s heart is,” he says, adding, “Some who don’t seem as overt in expressing their faith are passionate Christians who don’t feel comfortable with certain campus worship opportunities or camps of thought.” He rues the gap but acknowledges there have always been differences in how students express their faith.

“When I was a student there were two chapel services a week, and I felt that was enough. We worshiped in a local church on Sunday. I was in college to study,” Hielema says. He and other students in the 70s expected the church to take care of their public worship, whereas today’s students want to take more ownership for it themselves, he believes.

Hielema was part of the committee that helped GIFT begin four years ago, largely because, he says, students today have a different relationship with local churches. Age has become a more powerful separator today. Many students want their own worship as well—one that is more open and expressive, more personal and intimate than what they find in local congregations.

Dr. Wayne Kobes, who also teaches theology, sees this as an important influence on increased student worship opportunities.

“There’s a strong emphasis on having a personal relationship with Jesus,” he says. Many students are willing to sacrifice a summer job to do something they consider worthwhile. He commends today’s students for more openly sharing and expressing their faith and more actively reaching out to others who don’t know Christ as Savior, but he also believes that faith should not be an individual “me and Jesus” experience. Like other professors and students, he wants to make sure that in the process of being more focused on their personal relationship with Christ, Reformed Christian students do not lose what has been their greatest strength—a big-as-the-world understanding of service and worship.

“The Christian’s relationship to God is always spoken of in the context of covenant community in the Bible. Anyone who comes to know the Christ of Scripture knows him as Head of the body, as Savior and Lord of his people.” The Christian faith is intensely personal, but it is never individualistic, he says. Christ restores people to live in fellowship with him and with each other, to work in his kingdom, not first of all to be spiritually uplifted.

In his role as professor, Kobes is heartened that so many students express a strong desire to serve the Lord. He finds that some, though, need nudging to see this as more than cultivating a feeling of closeness to God or of enrolling in more elective classes in missions as they pursue their professional training.

“Working as a good engineer in Latin America or in a North American firm is very important service if they are willing to be counter-cultural,” Kobes says. He strongly encourages gifted students to apply for programs like the Pew Younger Scholars so that they gain the scholarly depth to be able to make significant contributions to their field of expertise. Living the Christian life includes but is much more than answering “yes” to the question “Do you love Jesus?” he says. Hard academic work is also spiritual service.

Draayer agrees. “It’s sometimes too easy for students who have heard that all of life is religion to think that somehow it will just all be integrated.” If it doesn’t automatically happen, it’s easy to fall back into looking at life as made up of the sacred and secular, spiritual and other.

Draayer describes how his experience with students on service projects can help bridge this divide. “I used to dread sitting in the airport in Houston for hours on the way back from the PLIA service project in Nicaragua,” he says. He’s now come to appreciate it and uses the time to talk with students about how the experience can shape their future—how they will live in a way that promotes justice, how they will train themselves to help society deal with problems they’ve seen, and what effect it might have on their studies to do so—taking advantage of a heightened sense of spirituality to make them see concretely the implications of living lives that honor God. Living a life of service to God takes work, Draayer and professors say. Heightened spirituality—a sense of closeness with God—is crucial but not enough. It takes study of the Bible and the world God created. And often there are still no simple answers to what is the right and wrong way to act.

“I think evangelicalism (the tradition I grew up in) is now, more than ever, having a powerful homogenizing influence on our culture—including students,” says Dr. Ethan Brue (’92), professor of engineering. In that worldview “spirituality is equated with faith. And spirituality is often measured by the amount of thought, time, effort, resources, and enthusiasm a person devotes to being ‘religious.’ Such an understanding assumes that being ‘religious’ is only one part of being human and contrasts with the Reformed view that all of our living is Holy Spirit-led activity.” Spirituality thatis individual and personal, when it does venture beyond the walls of a personal relationship with Christ, often remains comfortably within the bounds of ecclesiastical activities, he believes.

While he applauds the positive consequences this may have for church-related programs, he notes that it could mean there will be fewer servants who dare to infiltrate the mission fields of politics, corporations, and academia. Based on his personal experience he tries to help students see how important this all-encompassing view of worship and service is.

While professors are heartened by the seriousness with which students approach their faith, many say they have been disappointed to hear students in chapel or in classroom devotions say that the only important thing in their lives is their personal relationship with God—the rest doesn’t really matter. They’ve also heard students say they’re sick of hearing about Christian worldview. And professors find that first period classes that begin with devotions often get higher ratings on perspective in student evaluations. The challenge is to discover how faith not only drives but also requires daily service, whether it is studying or something else.

Matt Deppe recalls a student devotion given during a crunch time of the semester implying that the way to get through the busyness and stress was to simply realize that one’s spiritual life was the only really important thing to worry about.

“I might have said the same thing a few years ago,” he says. Today, as a psychology and philosophy major, he believes his faith has become more concrete because he’s been pushed to think deeply about what he believes and why, and what its implications are. He appreciates GIFT worship services because of the way they build community, he says. His real growth has come through wrestling with issues in his studies in the context of his faith.

Brenda Janssen, a junior from Beamsville, Ontario, agrees. “Classes and studies are more than just required, they’re a way for me to grow as a Christian.”

Kobes encourages this attitude in a cultural setting that privatizes religion in the name of separation between church and state —despite the increased mention of God’s name in the public square. He and others want students to leave Dordt with a strong faith that will bring their Christian perspective into a business by making decisions that treat people and resources respectfully—or a public policy debate by helping shape actions on principles of justice—or a law enforcement office by encouraging restitution for wrongdoing.

Dr. Charles Adams, dean of the natural science division, also encourages students to fight against an anti-intellectual tendency often found in evangelical circles—and lamented by reputable evangelical and Reformed leaders. Adams believes that spirituality should manifest itself by a passion for doing God’s will that overflows in concrete works of love. Spirit-filled Christians should prophetically call the community to responsible discipleship, passionately strive to know the will of the Lord for life in the 21st century (often through Christian scholarship), and humbly reject status quo values of society, he says.

He is excited and encouraged when he sees students use their Christian education as a starting point for living a life of discipleship, whether that is through relief work or church planting or in a profession promoting environmental stewardship or responsible technology.

To establish the right climate for such service Hielema believes it might be helpful to once again reexamine our campus public worship.    

“I’d like to see one service that everyone went to once a week that could be what we all need it be, to strengthen us as a community of Christians and build us up for the work we have to do in this world. I think most students would be thrilled with such a worship time too.”

Maybe faculty and campus leaders need to wrestle harder with Scripture and the implications of a Christian worldview so that it becomes more than jargon that students get tired of. And maybe more students need to dig into Scripture to understand the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit to transform their whole lives—not just what they’ve come to refer to as their spiritual life.

That’s a process that will continue to take time and commitment on everyone’s part. But the climate seems open to such efforts.

“You can tell that people want to grow and be challenged,” says Denise Ver Beek, a sophomore from Zeeland, Michigan. “It’s challenged me [to want to grow] to see that.”

“My faith hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds since coming to Dordt, but I can say it has changed,” says Dan Zylstra. “Being in the Dordt community has forced me to examine the fundamentals of my worldview. And my classes have challenged me to look more objectively at different aspects of our culture and other cultures. My faith has matured like a growing sapling, not by exhaustive leaps and bounds but by a careful, steady growth both upwards and outwards, as if someone was keeping me from overextending myself, but also making sure I continue on my way.” That’s what Dordt faculty and student leaders hope happens to all students on campus.