It’s a Wednesday night, sometime around 8:00, at 77 Massachusetts Avenue. The flow of students and staff through the Infinite Corridor is slowing down, and most of the offices are dark. However, 5-231 is humming with voices. About 20 students sit around a wooden table in this narrow room where, in true academic fashion, a chalkboard covered with esoteric scribble spans an entire wall. The overhead light flickers a cold fluorescence, and the table is littered with plastic water bottles and Styrofoam take-out containers. There’s certainly nothing spiritual about this décor, no sense of “sacred space,” but the humming of voices is the sound of religious fervor.
This is a student leaders meeting of the group Campus Crusade for Christ, one of the fastest-growing Christian groups on campus, although not the largest—at least not yet. Each student present leads or coleads what is known as a life group—a dorm-based four- to eight-person Bible study/ prayer group consisting of both Christians and non-Christians.
These life groups are the backbone of Campus Crusade’s presence at MIT. Students who are members of the groups are encouraged to invite their friends, roommates, and lab partners to participate. And now, on this night, the life group leaders are here to support one another, to pray for all the groups, and to brainstorm about ways to keep growing. According to Mike Bost, student director of Campus Crusade’s MIT chapter, last year there were four life groups on campus. Now they number around 14—and if his organization has its way, there will soon be many more.
Campus Crusade’s goal, quite simply, is to grow, and on the MIT campus the organization has found fertile soil. Campus Crusade isn’t alone. MIT is home to more than a dozen evangelical Christian groups. Over the last year, much has been made in the media about the influence of evangelicals in American culture. Universities are experiencing this phenomenon as well. In Boston alone, Campus Crusade boasts somewhere around 500 members. Harvard chaplain and religion professor Peter Gomes told the Boston Globe in 2003 that “there are probably more evangelicals [at Harvard] than at any time since the 17th century.” And this trend has found its way inside the walls of the world’s greatest bastion of science and rationality.
A Quiet Revival of Religion on Campus
Ever since the last presidential election, pundits and analysts have been trying to get their heads around the renewed public presence of the evangelical demographic. According to the conventional wisdom, an urgent concern about moral values has caused the influence of religious conservatives to increase. Whether this is true in the wider American context or not, it doesn’t appear to describe what is going on at MIT. The growth in evangelicalism at the Institute coincides with a broader surge in spiritual interest on campus.
In fact, the religious options at MIT are so diverse that a freshman arriving at orientation in search of a faith could spend the next four years sampling every conceivable spiritual path without ever having to cross the river. MIT’s board of chaplains currently is made up of three Jews, one Roman Catholic, five mainline Protestants, five Protestant evangelicals, a Mormon, a Muslim, two Hindus, and a Buddhist. Then there are the more than 30 registered student-led religious organizations. A few of those are ethnic specific, such as the Chinese Bible Fellowship. But most of the organizations represent a denomination of a world religion or, in the case of the student-led group Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists, of a nonreligion. Twenty-three groups represent different branches of Christianity, including Christian Science and Mormonism, while the remaining groups cover everything from Bahaism to Paganism.
Attendance at religious services and group membership are rising as well. Father Paul Reynolds, MIT’s Roman Catholic chaplain, has seen attendance at Sunday mass services double to about 400 over the last eight years. Rev. Kevin Ford, team leader for the evangelical group Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, has seen a dramatic increase since the early 1990s. Campus Crusade, which barely existed two years ago, now has approximately 90 students involved in its small-group network. Weekly Hindu worship services bring together about 100 students, and Friday prayers draw roughly 70 students to the Muslim prayer room throughout the day. About 120 students participate in weekly Buddhist meditation—a ritual that three years ago drew only five students.
While some chaplains and students see God’s fingerprints on these impressive numbers, others see a clear cause-and-effect between increased involvement and new outreach methods.
“Years ago there was just one Jewish chaplain on campus serving all students,” says Miriam Rosenblum, director of MIT’s Hillel. “Now there are three. Each community—Conservative, Reform, Orthodox—sets its own goals for how it wants to worship and function as a community.”
Division into small groups has also worked for Ford. Intervarsity used to be a single, monolithic presence on campus, but in the early 1990s, the students wanted to subdivide. Now, there is an Asian-American group, an African-American group, and a graduate business student group, among others. The combined membership of these subgroups varies between 200 and 300 students a year—two to three times the total membership in the late 1980s. “Maybe,” jokes Ford, “it’s because there are so many engineers, and they like things very specific.”