“Your job, Enns, should you choose to accept it, is to face 35 18-year-olds twice a week and say something meaningful and not boring about the Bible, challenging them while and the same time not destroying them. As always, should you blow it, we will make believe we do not know you. Good luck. This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.”
After teaching seminary and doctoral students for 18 years, I’ve been teaching Bible courses to college students for the last 6. So, of course, this makes me an expert: I know enough to know it’s a tough gig. I love it, but it’s tough.
I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about how to pull this off—usually on the fly. Teaching Bible in a Christian college can be tricky, especially introductory courses (I teach both OT and NT Intro), because the students are in so many different places.
Some arrive with little or no knowledge at all of the Bible. Others have been around the biblical block a few times and walk in bored silly–little do they know, but still, they’ve heard the Bible stories.
Others are eagerly awaiting the chance to study the Bible on a deeper level. A few are already conversant with some aspects of the academic study of the Bible (authorship issues, historical problems, etc.) and are now looking to explore these issues more deeply.
Add to this the psychological/spiritual factor. Some students are in searching mode concerning their faith, while others have thus far in their lives not been encouraged to make the faith of their parents their own.
Some are a bit nervous about leaving familiar territory, which causes stress, while others are on autopilot and just want to pass the course and get on with things. And I don’t need to mention all the other predictable factors of college life that pull and stretch first year students beyond what they thought was possible.
All this diversity in the same class of about 35 students.
Teaching these students is the most challenging teaching experience I have ever had—but also abundantly rewarding.
I have the privilege and responsibility of being in on the ground level, trying to bridge the gap between where they are now (collectively and individually) and where I think they need to be at the end of the semester—not to mention modeling a path of lifelong study of Scripture and walking with God.
I’ve had to think very intentionally about what I am trying to do in these intro classes, and it boils down to this: respect the students where they are while at the same time embracing my responsibility to not leave them there.
My ultimate goal is spiritual formation, which means finding a regular, rhythmic, balance between affirming and challenging the students in their present state of biblical understanding and spiritual development—don’t blow them way with concepts they are not ready for but don’t baby them either.
In other words, treat them like adults in the process of becoming—35 students from different backgrounds, emotional states, and spiritual experiences.
It also means being available—in class and out of class—to help them work through potential crises of faith that invariably come up when intellectual and spiritual growth happens, as well as leading further onward those who are more ready and so inclined to proceed into the unfamiliar.
That’s a good thing for parents to remember, too. A deeply challenged faith is inevitable in life, and regardless of where your children go to college, it is likely to happen there. Let it be at a Christian college that gets it.
Perhaps as important as anything, I try to give students permission to sit with their questions, that their faith doesn’t depend on arriving quickly at firm conclusions about matters that have captured the imagination and energy of brilliant minds for two and a half millennia.
Rather, I want model for my students what most have already experienced on some level, that a maturing faith never free of questions, uncertainty, and doubt—and God understands and loves them just as they are.
This, as much as anything, is a huge relief to young men and women trying to figure out the big questions of meaning and faith that come up at this stage in their lives.
Pulling this off is tricky and I am by no means successful day in and day out. And it certainly can’t be scripted. You have to wing it and just sort of know when it is happening, and if you ask the students they will tell you, believe me.
Sometimes they don’t even need to be asked. Which leads me to my last point:
Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college means creating a culture of transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community.
I’m still working on all this.
***I post a similar reflection I explore in more detail the nature of the Bible and what it means to understand it in Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005/2015) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014). I look at the spiritually formative role of uncertainty in The Sin of Certainty, (HarperOne, 2016).***