Campus celebrates faith differences

When students at John Brown University gather in the Cathedral of the Ozarks for chapel, hundreds of voices blend together in worship. In the same way, the University creates an environment in which people from a variety of backgrounds come together.

The University’s mission is to grow the whole person in a Christ-centered environment.

To carry out this aim, the faculty and administration of the school strive to recognize “Christ Over All.” One difference between the University and some other Christian schools is that the University lacks the label or oversight of one particular faith tradition.

According to the school’s website, “the University has no denominational affiliation and admits students of any faith.”

University Chaplain Rod Reed described the school as interdenominational rather than non-denominational. He said the main difference between the two is that being interdenominational means people are not expected to leave their personal faith tradition behind at the door.

Professors thus have the freedom to share with students about their personal background, Reed said. The University’s policy does create restraint, however, to prevent one tradition from taking over.

“Every denomination tries to be faithful to who God is,” Reed said. “But because we are human, no one denomination gets everything right.”

Senior Matthias Roberts said he purposefully looked for a school that “welcomes the body of Christ for what it is – a community of diverse people coming together under the hope we have in Christ.”

“I have a bit of an issue with denominations in general,” Roberts said. “The exclusivity that has become a hallmark of many denominations is pompous and hurtful to the body of Christ.”

Reed explained how the school tries to apply its interdenominational policy.

“The University emphasizes the agreement on central issues of the faith, while encouraging grace and discussion on the non-central matters,” Reed said.

Sophomore Rissa Willis agreed. She said she enjoyed talking to people who believe differently than she does.

“I’ve never had anything like that create a real conflict between me and my friends,” she said. “I also really like that there’s not one tradition that’s kind of ‘shoved down my throat’ or meaninglessly repeated over and over.”

Reed said the process of applying the principle is a “constant challenge.”

“There are opportunities to be unintentionally offensive to people,” he said. “Every decision the University makes will cause some people to be happy and some unhappy.”

President Chip Pollard said the University requires faculty and staff to sign the statement of faith when they are hired. According to the University’s website, the articles match the ones adopted by the National Association of Evangelicals.

As a result, Pollard said, faculty members have historically been Protestant Christians.

“We have not made a determination that we will only hire Protestants,” he explained. “But there is the question of whether prospective professors match up with who we are as an institution.”

On the student level, all are welcome, Pollard added. When John Brown, Sr. founded the school, he required that there be no faith or denominational conditions which students must meet. A few Mormon, Hindu and Muslim students attended the school in the past.

Reed said he hoped there are times when every student feels comfortable and also times when every student is challenged with the environment at the University.

There are benefits to the University’s way of doing things, Reed said, while there are also areas where there could be improvement.

Reed explained that when students are exposed to people from different backgrounds, they can gain a bigger picture of who God is. This can lead the students to reconsider the basis on which they make decisions about personal practices.

Senior Victoria Bennett said she enjoyed the opportunity to know people who “love the Lord with all their heart,” even if they were different than her. She attributed that to the “diverse Christian environment” at the University.

“I appreciate being able to ask questions … without the other person getting upset and being threatened by the fact that I have different convictions and views than they do,” Bennett said.

Roberts agreed. He said not being “tied down” to a particular view left “room for learning and exploration.”

“Questioning is vitally important in any faith practice,” he added. “JBU does an excellent job encouraging one to think about faith in a critical way.”

Reed said the University does still have areas where there is “room to grow.” He used worship styles in chapel as an example.

“We tend toward the style that is comfortable for most of the students at JBU,” he said. “Some styles come more naturally. We are still working at trying to broaden our range.”

Willis said she does not always feel a “wide dynamic” of denominations on the University campus, although she appreciated the times when differences with others challenged her.

“Most of the time there really isn’t too much to shake my Baptist comfort-zone,” Willis said. “A lot of the time I still have the bad habit of just assuming that everyone else on campus goes to a church a lot like mine and shares the same beliefs and traditions that I do.”

Freshman Elizabeth Flora-Swick said the Christian environment at the University sometimes created pressures for her.

“Something I struggle with on campus is being real with people,” Flora-Swick said. “It’s so easy to pass off conversation on hard topics … I don’t want people to look down on me. It can be hard to be real about my faults and challenges.”

At the same time, Flora-Swick said she found the University culture to be “friendly and grace-filled.”

“God is continually using JBU to help me appreciate and honor the diversity of his body, and to honor individuals despite religious background,” she said. “JBU strives to keep Jesus at the center. I also see Christ in my fellow classmates because they are so open and kind. This community is beautiful.”

Bennett agreed.

“Being at JBU has taught me the value of openness,” she said. “It’s also helped me understand what it means to truly be free in Christ in all that I do.”