Helping Christian College Students Become More Forgiving: An Intervention Study to Promote Forgiveness as Part of a Program to Shape Christian Character

Article excerpt

As part of a system-wide university intervention to help build stronger Christian character, an emphasis was placed on helping students become more forgiving. This effort involved chapel programs, newspaper articles, and general attention to forgiveness. Near the end of the community intervention, 65 students volunteered to attend a 6-hour psychoeducational Christian-oriented forgiveness workshop (n = 42), or participate in an assessment-only control (n = 23) condition. The content of the workshop is described in detail. Workshop attendees reported becoming even more forgiving than did students in the assessment-only condition. The use of interventions that are consistent with a student's Christian values and beliefs to promote positive character change within Christian college students is discussed.

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The Christian college or university often finds itself in between a particular rock and a hard place. On the one hand, parents often send students to Christian universities to receive their higher education within a morally protected environment that will maintain a sense of spiritual dedication. Some parents hope that a liberal arts education will teach a Christian way to understand and critique cultural trends while modeling and shaping lifestyles typical of educated and discerning Christians. Most parents also want Christian universities to prepare students for secular jobs or graduate schools. That preparation must be as rigorous as an education at a major secular liberal arts university for students to compete in the job or graduate school market.

Students' goals may not be as lofty as their parents' goals, and may change as they progress throughout their college experience (Johnson, 1998). For them, college is often the first time out of the home. Their interest in moral character and their spirituality may or may not blossom (Cook, Larson, & Boivin, 2003). In fact, if they fall in with friends who are not spiritual, do not attend church regularly, and do not incorporate their spiritual beliefs and values in their everyday life, students can experience Christian college as more harmful than going to a secular university (Bassett, Mowatt, Ferriter, Perry, Hutchinson, Campbell, et al., 2002). They may expect spiritual learning, but not seek to develop their character.

Administrators at Christian universities are aware of these difficulties. They attempt to design the college environment to maximize both spiritual and academic growth. The part of the equation that is sometimes omitted is the growth of Christian character. It cannot be developed simply by taking courses, attending chapels, and hearing sermons. Christian character must be learned by living Christianity daily. It must be learned by seeing living models--such as professors, advanced students, and campus leaders in the faith--who inspire students to become more mature. Sadly, not all people at Christian universities are inspiring Christian models.

Humans being what they are (i.e., fallen creatures), the more overtly Christian a university is, the more some students within the university community can damage others within the community. The falsely pious, the religious thought-police, and the hypocritical can (as anywhere else) inflict transgressions on their fellow students. Negative models tend to drive younger students away from the faith because of what they see and experience at the hands of their peers. Inevitably, people do not live perfect lives, and if any spirit of judgment or condemnation is present among students, it will manifest itself within the student body. As students experience personal transgressions by other students or faculty members, those transgressions can fester and lead to unforgiveness. Chronic unforgiveness can produce an unforgiving character--the opposite of what Roberts (1995) called forgivingness.

Christianity is the religion among the world's religions that is most characterized by forgiveness (Marty, 1998). …