Young Evangelicals: Expanding Their Mission

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From left: Johner Bildbyra AB / Corbis; Image Source / Corbis

With few job openings available for graduating seniors, recruiters are an especially welcome sight on college campuses these days. When Josh Dickson, a recruiter at Teach for America, would show up at liberal-arts colleges this year, the earnest 25-year-old would hear student after student explain that their most urgent desire had always been to teach in a low-income community.

It may sound like exactly the kind of interaction that takes place on hundreds of campuses across the country. But there's something distinctive about the colleges and universities where Dickson has been doing his recruiting: they're all religious schools. And Dickson isn't your standard nonprofit recruiter. A devout Christian, he honed his persuasion techniques evangelizing to classmates as a leader of his university's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ.

With the touch he refined telling football players they should care more about their eternal souls than the next keg party, Dickson has been seeking out student all-stars at places like Illinois's Wheaton College, long known as the Harvard of Evangelical schools. During interviews, he heard a lot of students say variations of what one Wheaton senior told him: "I just think God has given me a heart for social justice."

For many people, the word Evangelical evokes an image of fire-and-brimstone conservatism. Pat Robertson's suggestion this past winter that Haiti had brought its earthquake on itself through a Satanic pact may have been an extreme example, but it's the kind of pronouncement we've come to expect from a certain generation of Evangelical leaders.

Today's young Evangelicals cut an altogether different figure. They are socially conscious, cause-focused and controversy-averse. And they are quickly becoming a growth market for secular service organizations like Teach for America. Overall applications to Teach for America have doubled since 2007 as job prospects have dimmed for college graduates. But applications have tripled from graduates of Christian colleges and universities. Wheaton is now ranked sixth among all small schools — above traditionally granola institutions like Carleton College and Oberlin — in the number of graduates it sends to Teach for America. The typical Wheaton student, like many in the newest generation of Evangelicals, is likely to be on fire about spreading the Good News and doing good.

The Role Faith Plays in Teachers' Lives
One of Dickson's strongest recruiting tools is the story he shares with other young Evangelicals. The native of upstate New York grew up in a churchgoing family that valued service — Dickson's parents used to take him along to serve dinner to the poor on Friday nights. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Dickson became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, an international Christian evangelism organization. Before long, Dickson was leading Bible studies in his dorm and recruiting the captain of the football team to talk about his faith at a Campus Crusade event the week of the end-of-season game against rival Ohio State.

By day, however, Dickson was a political science major. In his theory and policy courses, he was learning for the first time about social inequities that he thought had been erased decades earlier. He remembers being shocked to learn that the quality of something as universal as education depended largely on one's zip code. Once blind, he now saw systemic contributors to poverty wherever he looked.

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