Fish out of water? The relationships with non-believers at Christian universities

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Leah Whittaker
Leah Whittaker

Leaders on college campuses believe that higher education is one of the most transformational seasons in the life of a student. Then those leading faith-based universities add another element of missional focus as they integrate spirituality. However, what about students, for this particular investigation, that may not have any interest in growing spiritually or those who don’t identify as a Christian? What happens to them? I presented my questions to university administrators and coaches as I was curious to know how these athletes might fit into a culture that places spiritual growth at the center of its mission.

Bethel Vice President Clair Knapp responded to my question about the cultural fit of non-believers, saying “I don’t necessary think they have to be a Christian because I believe we want to be open to this place changing lives.” Another senior executive, Keith Newman at Indiana Wesleyan, added, “the mission has to be central, we attempt to recruit athletes that are quality students but not all of our students are Christians.”

Throughout this investigation I learned that these particular colleges welcomed all students regardless of their spiritual background. However, I also discovered that each of the schools were deeply committed to their mission and unwilling to compromise their institutional values.


Coaches’ Perspective

While coaches had the freedman to recruit non-Christian athletes, the understood focus was that the weight of the team would lean towards higher numbers of Christians. Coach Steve Brooks explained, “to say that we would only recruit Christian kids would not be right, but we definitely lean in that direction. We really want kids that desire to be in a Christian environment.”

While being a Christian was not a prerequisite for admission standards, many of the coaches referenced that the institution’s mission was always at the forefront of the recruiting process. Coach Thiago Pinto described a season in their athletic department when this wasn’t the case. “It is my understanding that in the past some coaches brought in too many athletes that didn’t buy into our culture,” he said. “But the onus was more on the coaches and their lack of communication in clarifying the expectations of who we are to their recruits. Personally, I’m okay with bringing in a kid who is a non-believer but I’ll explain to them who we are and how we are going to be intentional about spiritual development. Additionally, I’ll share our team’s desire of being a championship team that glorified God in how we play, how we serve, and how we celebrate.”

As an outsider it was clear to me that the coaches embraced the opportunity to use intercollegiate athletics as a vehicle to spiritually mentor their athletes. However, the coaches were never dogmatic. Coach Mike Lightfoot provided an example that illustrated this belief, noting “I recently had a player tell me that he was not buying into the spiritual side, and my reaction was, ‘alright, that’s fine, at least now I know where you are at.’”


Student-Athletes’ Perspective

Student-athlete John Wilson, who is a Christian Ministry major, explained how his coach communicated during the recruiting process that not everybody will be on the same page spirituality. “He made it known that not everybody on the team is a Christian,” Wilson said. “That actually encouraged me more; it helped me know that the team was going to be a ministry opportunity.” Across the campuses I visited I collected stories of student-athletes that arrived for various reasons with little-to-no faith background, however many left transformed. Paige’s story below is more dramatic than others but her journey of spiritual growth was common.

Paige’s story

One powerful story that took place in the Women’s Basketball program was communicated by Coach Steve Brooks. “In the process of recruiting Paige she identified herself as an outspoken atheist,” said Brooks. “As a high school senior she knew she didn’t want anything to do with a Christian college experience. So Paige makes a decision to play at Grand Valley State, however she gets involved with things she shouldn’t have gotten involved with and she is miserable. As she is considering transferring, she tells her parents that the only place she wants to go is our school.

The parents then come to the campus, her dad sits in my office, he’s a former lineman in the NFL and he shares, ‘I have to be honest with you and say that the spiritual component was the reason why Paige didn’t initially come here and why we weren’t real high on it because that’s not who we’ve been.’ The dad added, ‘If there is an area where we have lacked as parents it would probably be in the spiritual development of our children.’”

Coach Brooks’ communication to both Paige and her Dad was, “Paige is free to be who she is in this whole process with the hope of becoming what God has intended her to be. Now there is a spiritual component to this campus and it is not going to go away. I am a Christian who is a coach not a coach who happens to be a Christian, so there are going to be devotionals and prayer times.

“So Paige ends up coming and rooming with Leah Whitaker, a 6’3 freshman post player. Had Paige come in as a freshman she never would have been Leah’s roommate. The two connect in a way that’s unbelievable, however then Leah is diagnosed with Stage IV liver and colon cancer. As roommates Paige walks through that experience with her, every night Leah reads the bible to Paige. Every night she tells Paige bible stories and explains them to her. It was through that process that Paige comes to know the Lord. A year after becoming roommates Leah lost her battle to colon cancer but her testimony in Paige’s life is incredible.”

Brooks explained, “if you talked to Paige right now, you would not know that this kid is only three years into her faith journey because of the maturity and the growth that has taken place. I think that is the beauty of Christian higher education. I think that is the beauty of being in an intense competitive environment. I really believe that God can use these experiences to draw you into a relationship that is real and vibrant.”

Jim’s story

“Jim is a really good player for us, his parents came out of the hippy era and Christian spirituality was not a big part of their parenting philosophy.”  In fact, Jim’s coach shared with me that, “his mom and dad didn’t want him here at all, however during the recruiting process he visited our campus, attended chapel, and he just fell in love with this place.”  While he enjoyed the chapel service he didn’t fully understand it, noting “this is not my experience, we don’t have this back home, we don’t go to church but I’m definitely interested.”

Jim’s coach continued the story. “Ultimately he decides this is where he wants to go to, so his father and I have this really drawn out long conversation. I let him know, ‘I’m not going to beat him over the head with the Bible, I’m not going to force a round peg in a square hole but this who we are and we are going to live our faith out in front of him.’” During my visit I learned that Jim is now a junior and during their last leadership retreat he made a decision to become a Christian. Jim’s coach added, “what makes this place special is that we all played a role in seeing this young man grow in his faith. I’m a part of that process, his teammates are a part of that process, and the school is a part of that process.”


My Perspective

On each of the campuses involved in this study it was communicated that a majority of the student body was professing Christians, however it was in the athletic department where more non-believers might be attracted to the institution. Christian institutions with open enrollment, where students are not required to sign a statement of faith or communicate any Christian beliefs to be accepted, may establish campus cultures with greater acceptance for non-believers. Conversely, it is believed that Christian campuses that require students to sign a statement of faith may be more susceptible to developing cultures with less grace for individuals whose lifestyle may conflict with the institution’s values.

As mentioned throughout the research, the coaches went to great lengths to assure that all prospective student-athletes were aware of the cultural expectations. Any coach that would consider diminishing the spiritual expectations in the recruitment process risked recruiting poor mission fit students, lower retention, and fragmented team chemistry. Coach Mark Castro communicated an additional responsibility: “If a student-athlete arrives overwhelmed of the spiritual mission and is asking the question, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” then Castro believed not only has he failed in presenting the mission of his institution but he’ll have to re-recruit a student that is already enrolled.


Next post in the series: Leadership development: If everything is leadership then nothing is leadership

Previous post: Recruiting: The process of finding mission-fit athletes


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About Duane Aagaard // Chair and Assistant Professor of Sport Management, Pfeiffer University

A resident of Concord, NC, Duane has spent the past 15 years in higher education, 9 years as Director of Athletics at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL) and the past 4 as a Professor of Sport Management at Pfeiffer University (Charlotte, NC). He is passionate about inspiring the next generation of athletic leaders to use sport for a greater purpose in changing our world. He can be reached on Twitter at @DuaneAagaard or via email at

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