If it weren't for the guy in the Kelly green trucker hat emblazoned JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY and the Bibles poking out of several backpacks, this Friday morning cell-biology class could be at any sun-soaked California college. At least until the day's lecture turns to evolution. "Darwin wasn't necessarily a God hater," says Assistant Professor Jon Milhon, in between slides of mitochondria. "You don't have to agree with his theory. I personally don't. But the man wasn't an idiot."
Milhon is a biologist at Azusa Pacific University (A.P.U.), the U.S.'s second largest evangelical Christian college, with 8,200 students attending its palm-tree-lined campus in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles, and seven satellite locations. Enrollment in the nation's 104 "intentionally Christ-centered colleges," as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities calls them, has risen 27% since 1997. That's more than three times as fast as the growth at all four-year schools. A.P.U. is booming--its student population is up 53% over the same period--and it is becoming a model for how a Christian college can reinvent itself in a modern age. The U.S.'s galloping evangelical movement is fueling part of this growth, but so is a population of young adults craving an active experience with God and spirituality. As it expands, A.P.U. is challenging the stereotypes of evangelical colleges as weak academically and ultraconservative socially. Can an institution that doubts Darwin and mandates chapel attendance provide an education the mainstream world respects? God willing, say students and faculty at A.P.U.
"Young people want to know something bigger than themselves," says senior Marcus Robinson, 24, an art major from Pomona, Calif. Robinson describes himself as "feeling out this whole God thing," when he applied to A.P.U. at his pastor's urging. Like Robinson, most college students are pondering spirituality, according to a study under way at the University of California, Los Angeles. More than three-quarters of college juniors told researchers they discuss religion and spirituality with friends, and 68% said they are "feeling unsettled about spiritual matters." But 62% said their professors never encourage classroom discussions of religion or spirituality. "There's a [gap] between the degree of interest in these issues that young people display and the extent to which colleges inspire students to explore them," says Alexander Astin, director of UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.