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5.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating, engaging and challenging, 3 Nov 2013
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This review is from: Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding Student Faith (Paperback)
Christianity and the University Experience provides a timely and much needed examination of the state of Christianity amongst the university student community in Britain today. It is based on a detailed three year study of attitudes and behaviours of Christian students and the role played by a number of the individuals and groups that minister to them. The work draws on a rich dataset of some 4000 questionnaire responses and 100 interviews, collected from a diverse range of universities, and is, to my knowledge, the first comprehensive study of its kind.

The result is a fascinating read. For the researchers uncover the highly complex pattern of believing and belonging amongst those who self identify as Christian today. They demonstrate the surprising resilience of faith when it is exposed to the supposedly threatening agents of the secular academic framework and the distractions of the prevailing student culture. Numerically, Christianity remains the most important faith tradition within the student population. However, at the same time, the research highlights the limited involvement of many students in organised Christian activities.

The study thus exposes a number of ambiguities and tensions within the world of faith on campus. Christianity within the university context evidently defies simple stereotypes. There are, for example, great variations in the doctrinal positions, balance of belief and practice, attitudes towards the liberal agenda of society at large, and approaches to evangelism, amongst Christian students. Striking differences also frequently exist between the faith expression of students in term time on campus and during the vacations when they are back at home. Institutional distinctions between forms of student Christianity emerged as another fascinating theme in the data. Furthermore the work demonstrates the limited reach that organised bodies (such as Christian Unions, university chaplaincies and national agencies) generally have within the Christian student population. As an Anglican priest and university chaplain myself, the discussion relating to what the researchers call `hidden Christians' was an especially interesting and challenging element of the book.

There are certainly important lessons here for the institutional church and for the various bodies that seek to support Christian students within the higher education environment. Although there are notable exceptions, it was sobering to learn just how little engagement many local churches have with the university students that are based in their neighbourhoods. There is much to digest here and the messages emerging from the study deserve serious consideration across the church structures that mesh with the world of universities. There is also further analysis to be done. And to this end the suggestions for further research, set out at the end of the book, will hopefully provoke additional studies in the arena of campus based faith.

The authors are to be commended for an excellent contribution to the sociology of contemporary religion. It certainly adds significantly to our understanding of religious engagement in our complex and rapidly changing society. The text is lucid, engaging and accessible and the conclusions reached are carefully weighed, objective and thought-provoking. For anyone interested in student ministry, the dynamics of faith within the higher education sector or, more broadly, in the shifting interface between religion and public life, this book is an essential read.
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