I halted, somehow contacting the pavement despite my lofty bike seat, and stared into the darkness, wondering.
Does that wooden barricade ACTUALLY mean I shouldn’t pass—or is it just a traffic control for keeping cars on the real road?
The pavement seemed to end ahead, with only muddy gravel delineating the roadway beyond. For the umpteenth time that night, I scrutinized my GPS, its ghostly radiance doubtless transforming my face into a vision of disembodied puzzlement.
But how else can I get to that bridge, cross the canal, and find the Christian students?
Mustering a confidence which I hoped would prevent my being questioned, I skirted the barricade and pedaled into the mud. But with every strained revolution of my tires, I grew more convinced of an unwelcome fact:
I’d unwittingly trespassed into a construction zone.
Pedaling faster, I managed to plunge through the muddy darkness until passing another barricade, reinstating myself on legitimate concrete. Finally, I crossed the bridge, followed the canals a little to the right, and locked my borrowed bike outside what I hoped was the right address.
“Hello?” I called inside, stepping over the threshold.
Two students poked their heads out from around a kitchen door in the back of the room, where a mountain of raw spaghetti was melting into a boiling cauldron.
This is the place.
Further students entered one by one, until about fifteen or twenty of us gathered around a central group of tables for dinner. When the spaghetti mountain had diminished, I turned to the girl next to me, a Hebrew studies student at the local public university.
“What do most people here believe?” I began, having explained my visit’s purpose.
“It’s really diverse,” she replied. “The Netherlands is generally a secular country, but in Dutch culture, there are a lot of different churches. Evangelical ones are more liberal; then, the Calvinist ones are reformed, with many denominations. But lots of people don’t have anything to do with faith and never go to church. I would say people like that are the majority.”
“So, what attitude would you say most people have toward Christianity?
“In my experience,” she answered, “most people who aren’t Christians don’t really care. They might be open to it; there might be some people who want to talk about it. But usually, they just say ‘that’s your thing, it’s fine; I have mine.’ Most of the time they’re not really that interested.”
A hallmark of the postmodern west, I noted, thinking back to similar answers from my earliest interviews in Australia and New Zealand.
“So, what challenges do you encounter as a Christian student here?”
“To me, the most challenging thing is the general culture of university. In my degree of Hebrew studies, the context is the old testament. There are no Christians among my teachers, and if the professors are Christians, they’re very liberal. They assume that everyone else is just as liberal, and that no one takes the Bible literally any more. The Bible comes up a lot in class casually, but I would not feel very comfortable saying something that goes against what a teacher is saying. I’d feel bad if I said, ‘I do take this literally; I do take this as historical truth; I do think it was written during that time.’ I don’t think I’d be taken very seriously.”
I nodded, remembering the sense of isolation I experienced in some of my own classes, where I felt like I might be the only listener who couldn’t agree with the professors’ monologues.
“You really have to think critically and stay grounded in your beliefs,” she reflected, “and if you hear anything that goes against your beliefs, try to process it and figure it out for yourself. There are a couple of other Christians in my program, so after each class we get together and discuss everything–what the class was about.”
An excellent way to combine critical thinking and Christian community—I realized—two of the most important assets for navigating secular education as a Christ-follower. (See also Top Nine Tips for Christian Students Going Into Secular University.)
“On the positive side,” I proceeded, “what do you find encouraging about being a Christian student here?”
“The relationships with other Christian students are incredibly encouraging to me,” she enthused, “because everyone gets what it’s like to be in a secular environment. I have a really good friend who I get together with for Bible studies every two weeks, to encourage each other, and to discuss. It’s really cool that we’re able to be open with each other about questions we have, to talk with each other and figure it out. Because of our degree, we end up talking about the Bible with other students who aren’t necessarily Christian, and we get to discuss it with people who are reading the Bible for the first time as homework. I wouldn’t say I’ve had conversations where I’ve changed anyone’s minds, but people are really open, and we’re able to share.”
“Cool! So what advice would you have for another Christian student?” I wanted to know.
“Find a solid church. I think a lot of people, once they’re out of their parents’ house, they end up skipping out on church most of the time. But students should look for solid Christians—people they can meet and talk about things they might not have heard in high school. I think it’s really important for students to find other Christians who are grounded in their faith, so they can encourage each other.”
The importance of local churches again. (See also Supporting Students’ Transitions: Insights from Christian Hostel Managers in New Zealand.)
“I’d also advise students,” she continued, “‘When you do have questions, don’t be afraid of them. Instead, start looking for answers. Accept that you have questions, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Read solid Christians books, articles and blogs to keep connected with your faith and keep learning more. And talk about it.’”
Awesome. Time for the clincher.
“So how do you think churches can be more intentional about supporting students?” I asked.
“I think in some churches,” she said, “young people feel like they’re not taken very seriously. I definitely don’t experience that here, but it does happen. A lot of students end up leaving those churches. So, I think churches need to take young people seriously, and to take their questions seriously.”
Interesting. I needed more specifics.
“What would it look like for churches to take students more seriously?”
In response, she began telling a story.
“I can think of one really bad example with a friend of mine. He got told off by his pastor because he had too many questions. The pastor was afraid my friend was going to make other people doubt. I think sometimes older people especially get afraid when students start asking questions. But I think it’s really important to let people have those questions, and to be able to say, ‘I don’t know this either, but let’s figure it out together.’”
Especially when there are so many accessible apologetics resources available these days, working through tough questions side by side does not have to be a hair-raising ordeal. In fact, connection with real, vulnerable adults who don’t obviously have everything figured out might be just what students need.
“I had a couple teachers in high school who were like that,” the student added, “who were really open to discussing their lives and their struggles. I think that they were the teachers who students respected most and wanted to listen to. Students are always going to get new questions and learn new things—and that’s growing. It can actually make their faith stronger to really look at the roots of their beliefs.”
Good words. We can’t let the fear of questions become a barricade to mentorship in churches. In fact, that would be the worst thing we could do.
Like the physical barricade which blocked my path to finding the Christian student community earlier that evening, how often do less obvious barricades—like an aversion to discussing tough topics—block young people from achieving the community connections they so vitally require?
We paused our conversation as the evening transitioned into a time of worship, an in-depth study of 1st Corinthians, and a lively discussion about what knowing God really means. Still, I hadn’t finished learning from the students yet. In fact, the Hebraic Studies student and I made plans to meet later for coffee, to keep our valuable conversation going. But first—I’d have to bike back to home base without ending up inside any more construction zones.