CINCINNATI (Reuters Life!) - The students piling into a house near the University of Cincinnati are laughing, sending text messages, and lining up for plates of pizza — then they all bow their heads in prayer.
This weekly pizza lunch at Wesley House, a ministry of the United Methodist Church, is just one of a half-dozen Christian events Nick George, 19, will attend this week with friends from the Navigators, a thriving campus evangelical group.
For while public colleges in America were once considered hostile territory for religious students, a revival among both evangelical and traditional churches on campus has made it safe — and even cool — to be a college Christian.
“I’m absolutely more involved (in Christianity) than before I came to college,” said George, an engineering student.
Most of his friends are fellow believers who, like thousands of young Christians, have eschewed private religious colleges in favor of large secular U.S. universities in a sign of a wider shift in the United States towards acceptance of religion in all areas of life.
Eight of 10 college students attend religious services, 80 percent discuss religion or spirituality with friends and 69 percent pray, according to a 2004 University of California, Los Angeles, survey of 112,232 freshmen at 236 universities.
“The American university system is not so aggressively asking kids to question their religion as it might have been in past years, in the 60s,” said Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas.
That’s not to say all students take a straight path to campus Christianity.
University of Cincinnati engineering student Brian Fiske grew up in church but strayed when he hit college. He made new friends, joined a fraternity, and generally had a good time.
“For I couple of years I partied it up, lived like a college kid,” said Fiske, 22. “But a couple of years ago I decided I’m done with this.”
He joined the Baptist college ministry, moved in with six other believers, and now spends 40 to 60 hours a week involved with Christian activities and friends.
“I’m just happier. It’s a good environment,” he said.
The most visible faith group on most campuses remain evangelical or conservative Christian organizations like the Navigators or Campus Crusade for Christ, founded in 1951.
Campus Crusade spokesman Tony Arnold said the group has grown from 18,000 students on 225 campuses in 1992 to 50,000 on 1,100 campuses, which he attributes to the uncertainty of modern life.
“Life in the 21st century seems increasingly fraught with danger, whether it’s a crazy with a gun in a classroom or at the seat of a plane headed into a skyscraper,” Arnold said. “This generation is hungry for community and connection.”
While college Christianity is more popular in southern states than in the northeast, even that is changing.
In 2002, Matt Bennett founded the Christian Union to bring “honor and praise to Jesus Christ” at the eight Ivy League universities. Five years of hard work organizing small Bible classes and other outreach have started to pay off.
“There’s an increasing acceptance that intellectualism and Christianity go hand in hand,” said Bennett. He estimates that between 3 percent and 9 percent of Ivy League undergraduates now participate in various Christian activities each week.
Many students attracted to Wesley House are liberals working for social justice, from the inclusion of gays and lesbians to outreach with Muslim and anti-war groups.
That one student’s view of homosexuality or abortion may differ from the view of another Christian — eating pizza nearby — doesn’t faze graduate student Leland Spencer, 23.
“All people, from the far left to the far right are welcome to be here,” Spencer said. “We have some good discussions.”
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith