Interview with Lee Snyder

By Brad Dupray

Lee Snyder can observe the positive effect of campus ministry firsthand as faculty sponsor of Christian Student Fellowship (CSF) at the University of Nebraska, Kearney, a campus ministry supported by the Christian churches and churches of Christ of Nebraska. Lee is in his 22nd year as a professor at Nebraska and has been active as a local church elder, in pulpit supply, and as a board member of CSF. Lee and his wife of 37 years, Vicki, are alumni of Kentucky Christian University. Lee holds a PhD from The Ohio State University and has done graduate-level work at Cincinnati Christian University.

What is the most basic value of a university education?

It gives people a chance to understand whatever they’re interested in, in an organized way. You can read philosophy, biology, and rhetoric on your own, but you will miss the structured foundation you get in the classroom, perhaps. The best possible outcome of a university education is a person learns how to think and learns how to learn.

What value does campus ministry provide to the college community?

Most universities have in their founding documents some recognition that education involves the mind, the body, and the spirit. That last part is largely neglected today, and to the extent any spiritual training happens at all I would say that pretty much takes place in campus ministries.

Can a university provide a well-rounded education without a spiritual component?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be labeled as a spiritual component, but when students in their classes are confronted with moral choices, that is spiritual training. When I teach logic and reasoning and try to help students think more effectively and discount their own biases, then I feel like I’m engaged in spiritual education. I think of it as pre-evangelism.

Is there any kind of biblical training available at the university?

Classes in the Bible as literature are often offered by universities, but these do not always help the student’s faith. Sometimes they’re destructive. That’s one reason why we need campus ministries.

How are those classes destructive?

By emphasizing uncritical acceptance of methods and teaching the Bible as literature only, and not as a revelation with moral imperatives. I have heard professors laughing about how students come to them from small towns, from the farm, thinking that a course in Bible is going to support what they’ve learned at church and then discovering that instead they lose all their faith.

How does a campus ministry help students keep their faith?

They integrate students into weekly Bible studies, usually in small groups. Besides that, campus ministries emphasize the basic Christian disciplines that all of us need: regular prayer, regular Bible reading, self-control, and living a holy life. It’s that last category that’s really urgent today. We’re living in a time when many Christians feel that adapting to the world, and becoming as much like the world as possible, is a means of reaching people. The consequence is we have neglected teaching people to live a separated life. We end up with an impaired relationship with God and a weakening of a personal witness.

How do you describe a separated life?

It’s a life in which a person doesn’t live like everyone else around him. We all have to eat and wear clothing and all students have to go to classes, but there is an excellence in the life of the Christian that is not found in other places.

Does campus ministry strengthen the local church or is it the other way around?

It works best where there is mutual support. Of course, this varies depending on the state and health of the church and the campus ministry. Sometimes campus ministries flourish and sometimes they languish. The campus ministry brings a certain number of students to our local church. International students enjoy coming to our local church, having been led there through the campus ministry. Sometimes they see this as a way to experience more of the American culture.

Do students seem to stick to their “churched” upbringing?

Some students who have been brought up in a Christian home are faithful and some abandon any religious pretense. As to people who are not particularly religious, it seems to me (and I think this varies according to where you live) that there is less interest now in the established faiths. Christianity, even as a part of Western culture, tends to leave students bored, but their hunger for spirituality is as great as it ever was.

So their spiritual seeking takes them other directions?

Solomon said that God has placed eternity in our hearts. Students still wake up at 2 am and ask themselves, “Why am I here? What’s my purpose?” Students today seem more open to seeking diverse ways of spiritual satisfaction. They may combine elements of various faiths. They may respect both Muhammad and Jesus as prophets. They may choose to meditate in a Buddhist fashion and they may find great meaning in a Navajo sweat lodge ceremony. And because they don’t always think of their religion as a search for God so much as a search for a satisfying experience, they don’t have any problem combining these diverse heritages.

Is that a reflection of the culture?

It is partly a result of the postmodern world in which we live that emphasizes experience and is very pragmatic. This is why students may come to our church and evaluate it based on whether or not it gives them a sense of holiness, or a sense of God’s presence—a feeling of spirituality. Modernists, though, people my age, evaluate a church based on asking, “Did they speak the truth?”

Truth has become a very relative thing.

Francis Schaeffer told us back in the 1970s that we’re moving into a post-Christian age, that we’ll no longer have a foot in the door or an edge over any other faith, as we did in the 1950s and ’60s. Every generation respects the Bible a little less. Our culture is increasingly secular. It’s no wonder some international Muslim students who come here think we are the great Satan, because they don’t see the influence of God in our culture. It’s hard for international students to appreciate the past Christian influence that has made America what it is.

Are you able to inject a spiritual component in your teaching?

It seems that students, by the time they have reached college, often have not learned the role of Christianity in shaping human history, in, for example, giving birth to science, in elevating the rights of women, in ending slavery, in giving Americans most of the rights they enjoy. Religion has become invisible. Therefore when I teach a course in rhetoric and I mention the importance of the Christian heritage in shaping the discipline of rhetoric, I feel like I’m giving them insight into the importance of the Christian world that they have not been exposed to before.

Unless my students have been home-schooled, they probably come to college not realizing that a great portion of American culture and progress is due to Christianity. To understand this is not moral education, but it helps balance the scales. I hope from learning such facts, from finding that Christianity is responsible for most of the good in the Western world, that they will go and think for themselves—that they might imagine, This is something I need to think about. I try to do my part to unsecularize their education.

Have you had difficulty with other educators for your willingness to be open about your faith?

No. The image people have of a university, where all the professors are hostile to religion, is not true (at least in my experience). A large number of professors are professing Christians and even those who aren’t respect people of faith. It’s true sometimes there are pressure groups that are uncomfortable with people of religious background, but I think that’s relatively overestimated.

Are you able to direct students to the campus ministry without contradicting your role as a professor?

There are times every year when students are going through a great deal of stress—midterms, papers coming due, outside jobs (students have to work so many hours these days)—the stress gets to be too much for them. At least once a year I tell my students to take a step back and remember that college is important but it’s not the most important thing in life. They must not lose their morality, their family, their health, or their life because of stress. So I remind them that the university provides nurses to talk to them, that their professors care about them, and the university is abundantly blessed with campus ministries and that the campus ministers have time for them and will help them. It would be a frightening thing to teach in a university without a campus ministry.

Frightening? That sounds very strong.

It would be a place that would be very secular. First off, students would have the impression that spiritual matters don’t belong in higher education. That’s an error in the understanding of reality. Second, I don’t know where students would go to talk about spiritual needs. There are a certain number of professors with faith, but many times the students don’t recognize that their professors are people of faith. Just the fact that they acknowledge that religion is an important part of being human lets some students know that they’re safe talking to someone like me about spiritual matters.

What level of influence does a professor have to change a student’s core values?

In a sense, most education has to do with helping people to think. When people think better, their values become clarified. The largest influence we can have is to help students make distinctions between right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. Students have had so much training in diversity and tolerance that they think all choices are just matters of taste. A good education helps them realize different choices have different consequences and that it really matters whether you are Christian or an atheist. It matters whether you choose to live to serve other people.

That really highlights the importance of having Christian professors at the university level.

Helping students have good reasons for their choices is an important part of teaching. If students learn to look for good reasons, I believe we have a lot of folk who we can eventually bring to Christ. But if students never learn that some choices are good and some choices are bad, they have no reason to choose for Christ except for inertia.

Sending kids to university and counting on inertia is a pretty big “roll of the dice.”

The latest Pew Study tells us 40 percent of Americans change their religious views from the time they’re young to adulthood. All the old certainties are up for grabs. People born in America are not necessarily patriotic, people who are brought up in a Christian home are not necessarily going to stay Christians, and people who went to a Christian church at home may not go to any church when they go to school, or they may go to a denominational or Catholic church. That’s why I think the best thing the local church can do to prepare their high school students for college is to explain why we believe what we do and why we’re different. In other words, the Restoration Plea, that all Christians can be united and that all Christians can just go back to the Bible—those two ideas.

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