At 3:30 on a Sunday Morning, Brandon Straub soberly surveyed the bodies draped across the sofas in his fraternity house at Indiana University. Two girls cuddled and exchanged a languid kiss. One's breast popped out of her low-cut top. "Aaaawesome," drawled one of Straub's frat brothers. Straub could only muster an awkward half-smile. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that seeing some of these scenes makes me sad," he said. "How will they feel when they wake up in the morning?"
Truth is, most of them wouldn't be up in the morning. By the time the revelers rose, after noon, Straub, 21, who is not only a loyal fraternity member but also a leader in the Greek InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, had already gone to church and come back. As some of his frat brothers nursed hangovers and others cleaned up from the night before, Straub pondered his situation. He walks a fine line of faith at Indiana, which is currently ranked by the Princeton Review as America's No. 15 party school (and No. 5 in the category "lots of beer"). The challenge, Straub says, is "How can I serve God and love the guys here?"
College is traditionally a time of transition and new freedoms, the years when young people have to figure out for the first time who they are. The task is even more complex for the growing number of devout young Christians on secular college campuses who feel called to approach this time in a way that sets them apart. They draw inspiration from Paul's letter to the Romans:"Do not be conformed to this world." But the Bible gives few details on how to navigate the collegiate world in 2005, leaving Christians to grapple with tough questions as they try to integrate their beliefs--and themselves--into college life: Can they be, like Straub, both a brother in Christ and a brother in a frat? Or should they live only with other believers? How do they deal with stereotypes of Christianity that others may hold? And what does it mean to live out their faith on a secular campus like Indiana's?
Faith matters to students as they head off to college, but then it tends to lapse. In a national study issued last month by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, 79% of 112,000 freshmen surveyed profess a belief in God; 69% say they pray. Still, only 40% think it is very important to follow religious teachings in everyday life. Spiritually, "college is a time of flux," says Alexander Astin, the study's co--principal investigator. That leads to "a dramatic falling-off of religious participation during the undergraduate years." But a significant minority are holding fast to their faith. Fourteen percent put themselves in the "other Christian" category--dominated by the nondenominational Protestant churches that have proliferated across the U.S.--up from just 5% in 1989. And 26% of the students surveyed call themselves born-again Christians, which would be a natural constituency for religious-fellowship groups on campuses. Evangelical student leaders at Indiana University estimate that fewer than 5% of the 30,000 undergraduates participate in one of the campus's Christian groups. But that's an uptick since the stridently secular 1960s, says dean of students Richard McKaig. In the past five years, "attention to spirituality has been especially strong." But committed Christians seem to want more than just spiritual living. "They're looking for something deeper," he says.