Scholars of religion in the United States often tend toward studying Christianity, especially the evangelical type that has typically been at the center of political and cultural turning points throughout American history. Very fine studies of political groups, religious leaders, commercial ventures, and parachurch organizations help to interpret the ongoing story of Christianity in America. Christian colleges have produced many of the leaders of these organizations, and much has been written on the growth and development of those schools.
Yet one of the most influential groups in this story, Christian college student affairs professionals, has been largely overlooked. Last week, on the campus of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, college staff from around the country met for the annual meeting of the Association for Christians in Student Development (ACSD). The organization’s mission is to “to equip and challenge members to infuse their Christian faith into student development practice and scholarship.” Workshops at the conference included:
· “Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities”
· “Is It Manly to Say You’re in Love with Jesus? A Study of Masculinity and Spirituality”
· “Ernest Boyer’s Legacy and Implications for the Future of Student Development”
· “Surviving Tragedy as a Resident Director: How to Heal Personally, Guide Students, and Maintain Professional Focus and Direction”
ACSD members focus on the holistic development of college students, pairing their work outside the classroom with the learning outcomes that are the focus of most faculty members. Most—not all—ACSD members work at higher education institutions that are affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The organization publishes a peer-reviewed journal, Growth, elects officers and committees, and gives annual awards for outstanding service.
ACSD officially organized in 1980, but has its roots in separate organizations of Christian college male and female deans that previously formed in 1958. The 1950s represented a pivotal decade of organizing for Neo-evangelicalism in the United States, and these associations reflected a new focus on young people. As scholars such as Joel Carpenter and Garth Rosell have explained, Youth for Christ and similar groups were responding to the rise of the American teenager with well-coordinated evangelistic meetings. Christian colleges, long the home of church doctrine and denominational politics, slowly expanded their mission to adopt an emphasis on what would become known as the liberal arts.
After the student protests of the 1960s, colleges around the United States moved away from the traditional model of In Loco Parentis, and emphasized an empowered student government and organization structure. Christian colleges adopted a similar approach over the years, and by the end of the 1970s the time had come to unify their efforts in a national advocacy organization, ACSD. From roles as “dorm moms,” on-campus concert promoters, events planners, and rule-enforcers, the profession developed as a distinct academic and professional discipline. A good resource on Christians in the profession is Student Affairs Reconsidered, edited by David S. Guthrie.
Why does ACSD matter in the story of American evangelicalism? ACSD personnel are often most directly connected with students in residence halls, leadership groups, and outreach work. The emphasis on scholarship in classroom is vital for student learning. But as scholars such as James K. A. Smith and Todd Brenneman have emphasized, the intellectual aspects of faith are not always as strong as the holistic approach on what people love and emphasize emotionally. When campuses are faced with issues like school shootings, such as the one that took place at CCCU member institution Seattle Pacific University, it is typically the student development personnel that take the lead in addressing the emotional needs of students.
As traditional college age students face crisis points such as suicidal thoughts, shifting stances on matters of politics, belief, or sexuality, it is often the student development staffer who enters into the conversation. When a traditionally fundamentalist or evangelical college develops its stance on dancing, alcohol use, issues of sexuality, or even human origins, it may be the board of trustees, administrators, or a faculty committee who develop the policy, but it is the student development staff who work closest with students as they live under it.
Student development organizations provide governance opportunities for staff and students who may not have a voice in the university otherwise. The study of secularization and integration of faith and learning has typically focused on scholars and leaders of institutions that have shaped the narrative by massive policy shifts or scholarly works. Looking into student affairs gets closer to a social history that measures change by the student experience. Most student affairs professionals are experts on student culture and interpret student behavior as a matter of professional responsibility. And the whole person approach, at its best, builds a love for learning that extends beyond the walls of the classroom. Students who foster curiosity beyond the need to fulfill graduation requirements will be better prepared to shape their culture.
Scholars investigating the political shifts of the evangelical movement can benefit from exploring the ways that these cultural and political issues have been shaped by young evangelical leaders on college campuses. ACSD brings a focus on the whole person that complements what scholar-teachers attempt to accomplish in the classroom. As Christian colleges adopted the liberal arts in the twentieth century, ACSD members helped shape the thinking of students who paired scholarship with faith and emerged as leaders of American Christianity.