1st Edition

It’s All About Jesus! Faith as an Oppositional Collegiate Subculture

    What is it like to be a collegian involved in a Christian organization on a public college campus? What roles do Christian organizations play in the lives of college students enrolled in a public college? What are evangelical student organizations’ political agendas, and how do they mobilize members to advance these agendas? What is the optimal equilibrium between the secular and the sacred within public higher education? What constitutes safe space for evangelical students, and who should provide this space? This book presents a two-year ethnographic study of a collegiate evangelical student organization at a public university, authored by two “non-evangelicals.” The authors provide a glimpse into the lives of college students who join evangelical student organizations and who subscribe to an evangelical way of life during their college years. They offer empirically derived insights as to how students’ participation in a homogeneous evangelical student organization enhances their satisfaction of their collegiate experience and helps them develop important life lessons and skills. Ironically, while Christian students represent the religious majority on the campus under study, Christian organizations on this campus mobilize members by capitalizing on members’ shared sense of marginalization, and position themselves as cultural outsiders. This evangelical student organization serves as a safe space for students to express their faith within the larger secular university setting.The narratives and interpretations aim not only to enrich understanding of a particular student organization but more importantly to spark intellectual discourse about the value of faith-based organizations within public higher education. The role of religion in public higher education, student involvement in the co-curriculum, and peer education are three examples of critical issues in higher education for which this idiosyncratic case study offers broad understanding. It’s All About Jesus! targets multiple audiences – both sacred and secular. For readers unfamiliar with evangelical collegiate organizations and the students they serve, the authors hope the narratives make the unfamiliar familiar and the dubious obvious. For evangelicals, the authors hope that the thickly described narratives not only make the familiar, familiar and the obvious, obvious, but also uncover the tacit meaning embedded in these familiar, but seldom examined subculture rituals.The authors hope this book spurs discussion on topics such as campus power and politics, how organizations interact with the secular world around them, and how members can improve their organizations. Additionally, this text urges secular readers in student affairs to consider the many benefits, as well as liabilities, of “parachurches” as co-curricular learning sites on campus.Lastly, given that the authors lay bare their methodology, their use of theory, and the tensions between their perspectives and those of the participants, this book will serve as a compelling case study for courses on qualitative research within religion studies, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies fields.

    Acknowledgements; Foreword; 1. Jesus and Higher Education. Rituals of Faith; 2. Research Processes. Rituals of Inquiry; 3. Researchers’ Tales. Rituals of Disclosure; 4. Evolving Christians. Pre-college Evangelical Rituals; 5. God’s Squad. Rituals of Recruitment; 6. Praise Jesus. Rituals of Difference; 7. Getting to Really Know Jesus. Teaching and Learning Rituals; 8. Bridging the Gap Between Evangelicals and Non-Believers. Outreach Rituals; 9. Leading by Following Jesus. Servant Leadership Rituals; 10. From College Seniors to Real-World Evangelicals. Transition Rituals; 11. The Chosen. Rituals of Vocation; 12. SSC Revelations and Reconciliations. Rituals of Understanding; 13. Capstone Principles. Exit Rituals; 14. It’s all about Jesus. The Last Word; Notes; References; Index.


    Peter M. Magolda was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University. He focused his scholarship on ethnographic studies of college students, critical issues in qualitative research, and program evaluation. He is author of The Lives of Campus Custodians and co-author of Contested Issues in Student Affairs, Contested Issues in Troubled Times, and It’s All About Jesus!: Faith as an Oppositional Collegiate Subculture, and has served on the editorial boards of Research in Higher Education and the Journal of Educational Research. He was an ACPA Senior Scholar inductee, and in 2013 received the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Mentoring Award. He also received Miami University’s Richard Delp Outstanding Faculty Member award, as well Alumni Award from The Ohio State University and Indiana University. We deeply mourn the loss of author, teacher, and friend Peter M. Magolda. Kelsey Ebben Gross is an academic advisor at the University of Michigan.

    "Written by a scholar of educational leadership and an academic advisor, this book offers an ethnography of "Students Serving Christ," an evangelical student group chosen form among many types of organizations to exemplify student subcultures and their role in undergraduate lives. The authors' choice of group-and their passion for its exploration-comes in part from their lack of familiarity with the evangelical world and the dearth of literature on parachurch groups, which crisscross college campuses. Neither author is a scholar of evangelicalism nor of religion per se; perhaps this is why they accomplish their aim of "making the strange familiar and the familiar strange." As indicated by methodological and personal reflections, their approach is "thick description." By focusing on rituals of recruitment, teaching and learning, Magolda and Gross offer insight into the structure of the group membership. More crucially, they offer details of dailies, allowing readers to imagine this life-world effectively and to reflect in new ways, whatever their own level of engagement with evangelicalism. Beyond their contribution to the ethnography of religion on today's college campuses, the authors emphasize student engagement and offer recommendations to higher education leaders (faculty and staff), parachurch leaders, and students themselves. These include clarifying the role of religion in the curriculum, examining its place in the co-curriculm (and thus not ignoring the prevalence of parachurch groups), and reflecting on the ways such organizations enhance and sustain student involvement in the life of the mind.

    Susan E. Henking, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

    Religious Studies Review

    "The first three chapters introduce the student organization and provide an overview of ethnograhic research, providing a helpful tutorial about values of qualitative research, especially ethnography. The language and writing style is easy to follow, unmasking the mystery surrounding rigorous research. Magolda and Ebben Gross tell their own stories of spiritual search and development in an attempt to interrogate themselves and identify ways that their own identities may have influenced the study. It is rare that professionals tell their stories of spiritual struggle, so this section captivated me more than I would like to admit. This is the first book I have found that includes both a short introducation to research and then follows with an actual study modeling that approach... As the authors suggest, this book is useful for evangelicals to understand the way outsiders perceive us and it is also useful for nonevangelicals interested in understanding the perspectives, values, and practices of an evangelical subculture... The authors stepped into a fairly typical evangelical organization for two years and then tell us what they observed. Those of us who occupy such organizations, whether they are campus organizations, churches, or colleges and universities, will benefit from listening to the perspectives of those outsiders. Rarely will a neighbor, friend or student feel safe enough to tell us what they really think. Magolda and Ebben Gross offer such a perspective."

    The Journal of the Association for Christians in Student Development

    "If after picking up It's All About Jesus, you feel motivated and equipped to begin an ethnography of a nearby religious commnity, you are not alone. It is a sign of their success that Magolda and Gross are able to capivate their readers early and to hold their attention firmly... In the end, It's All About Jesus challenges public and private, secular and religiously affiliated institutions to recognize that dialogue about religion and spirituality are "essential to students' identity development and essential to living out American higher education standards"."

    Debra Majeed, Beloit College

    Teaching Theology and Religion

    "The authors give voice to the characters, tell richly descriptive stories, and come forward to offer perspectives and interpretations. And before it's done, important lessions are learned about student culture, higher education, and qualitative research methodology... The authors fill a void in higher education which, while not being hostile, has been indifferent to the presence of faith-based student organizations; prehaps largely out of misunderstanding of the important role they can play in students' lives. Though focused on a specific student organization, the authors offer broader lessons about religion in higher education, cocurricular pedagogy, student culture, and student learning... It's All About Jesus not only immerses the reader in this unique collegiate subculture but also serves as an instructive ethnographic study for those considering or conducting qualitative research."

    Journal of College Student Development

    "A resounding success. What drives this narrative so engagingly is the charitable tension that emerges between the faith commitments of these students and Magolda and Evven Gross's personal faith commitments which they discuss forthrightly and at length. Magolda positions himself as once Catholic but now non-Christian. Ebben Gross, once a Catholic, refers to herself as a Protestant (perhaps more descriptively a mainline Protestant or Protestant liberal). In their own ways, both authors question how well they can engage in a two-year ethnographic study of students with different religious views from their own. In the end, this spirit of charity, or a desire to take seriously the depth of convictions of others, provides a model for scholars thinking through the complexities defining comparable divides. Magolda and Ebben Gross offer indispensable reading for anyone beginning to plumb the depths of the relationship that religion and higher education now share. Despite their status as cultural outsiders, parachurch organizations will, in time, rewrite even popular sentiment. Higher education scholars need to follow Magolda and Ebben Gross's lead to truly understand this important dimension of the ever-chaning collegiate experience."

    The Review of Higher Education

    "Magolda and Gross intend not only to enrich understanding of a particular student organization but also to spark intellectual discourse about the value of faith-based organizations within public higher education... this is a must read for researches, administrators, faculty, and students."


    “Via a richly textured account, "It’s All about Jesus!" offers a compelling portrait of the inner workings of an evangelical student organization and illustrates key features of student subcultures. Magolda and Gross provide thoughtful interpretations about the educationally distinctive curriculum of ‘Students Serving Christ’ and the organizations’ influence on student learning and development. Educators committed to optimizing students’ co-curricular experiences in both faith-based and secular student organizations will gain insights about approaches to fostering undergraduate socialization, effective co-curricular pedagogy, and the powerful influence of peers. By examining tensions and paradoxes, the authors encourage readers to rethink their understandings about the role of faith-based organizations within public higher education.”

    Jillian Kinzie, Associate Director, IU Center for Postsecondary Research, NSSE Institute

    “Magolda and Gross have composed a compelling ethnography that immerses the reader in a collegiate student subculture that few have had the opportunity to observe or experience in such an ‘up close and personal’ way. Through vivid, ‘thick’ descriptions, the authors succeed in making ‘the strange familiar and the familiar strange’ to a wide audience of scholars, practitioners, religious organizations, and college students – all of whom may benefit from the messages articulated in this book about student engagement, teaching and learning, and worldview development. Magolda and Gross step beyond the traditional academic comfort zone and authentically reach across lines of difference on their journey to know and to understand.”

    Alyssa N. Bryant, Department of Adult and Higher Education, North Carolina State University

    “It’s All about Jesus is a penetrating ethnography of a campus evangelical organization that will intrigue those who want to know more about the inner workings of such groups, but also about the power of a well-crafted study to inform the many layered stories of student subculture. Magolda and Gross have done one better here in this fascinating tour of how one student group engages and contributes to the lives of its members. Their resultant portrait of ‘Students Serving Christ’ renders the tacit explicit and the unfamiliar familiar, as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ debate their grip on the truth. A very informative read for campus advisors and researchers.”

    C. Carney Strange, Professor, Higher Education and Student Affairs, Bowling Green State University