The Prospects and Problems of Multifaith Engagement On Campus, By Paul Sorrentino

Posted on August 31st, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, In Print: New Books, On Campus

This article is based on excerpts from Religious Pluralism: What Do College Students Think?: A Study at Amherst College, By Paul Sorrentino, with the express permission of VDM Publishing.

Religious life staffs at colleges and universities struggle with how best to address religious plurality on campus. How can we serve a multifaith community in a way that is respectful and meaningful to the various faith adherents? A key question often missing in this discussion is what religiously involved students think about coming together with people of other faiths? This is the research question of a study I recently published as a book, Religious Pluralism: What Do College Students Think?: A Study at Amherst College.

Surveys were sent to 701 Amherst College students. Two hundred and nineteen of these were returned. From that group, 91 students participated in two-hour focus group interviews. The groups were homogeneous by faith tradition. Sample size was large enough to subdivide the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic groups into high, moderate, and low involvement groups. All four class years were represented. Transcripts were analyzed with a computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software program (NVivo).

One of the surprises for me was that the most dominant way to view a multifaith service was as a cultural event and not as worship. This has led me to avoid the use of the term "worship" and, where possible, even "service" because of common associations of these words. Being clear about the purpose of the gathering seems to ease people's concerns. A strong sentiment was that multifaith services be for a clear and specific purpose.

Examples of this were a memorial service, such as after September 11, 2001, when the entire college community needed to come together to mourn. Another example was for a college-wide celebration, such as the baccalaureate celebration at commencement.

I believe that we can best meet the religious needs of students primarily through faith-specific gatherings while encouraging cross-religious interactions in a variety of settings. Informally they may happen quite often. When they are formal multifaith interactions, the more interactive they are, in general, the better.

Multifaith services do, however, maintain a legitimate role in campus life. This is more than simply nostalgia or tradition. The academy can be a very secular place. It is important to have times when there is a public affirmation of a belief in God or gods that is so widely held in society and by members of our campus community. These sorts of gatherings (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration, a memorial service, baccalaureate, Thanksgiving) may most properly be multifaith so that the minority religions have a voice and representation. I offer the guidelines below as a summary of my current practice in planning multifaith gatherings or services.

Planning a Multifaith Service

The process should include representatives from each of the faith traditions participating in the gathering. Trust is important when it comes to the vulnerability of expressing our faith publicly. The more developed the relationships between participants, the greater the trust level will be and the more enriching the event. The planning phase is when important decisions need to be made about what specific activities are appropriate and acceptable to all participants and faiths represented. For instance, should a Christian pray "in Jesus' name"? Is it acceptable to Jewish participants if a candle is lit at a service occurring on the Sabbath? Can people take pictures during the service? Can music be played immediately before or after a Muslim member's part of the service or during the service at all?

No single person should dominate the planning. Ideally, a multifaith team would co-lead the planning. Pragmatically, it is usually helpful if there is a rough plan that is presented so that people can respond to it. Each tradition's representatives should choose what they would like to do for their section, centered on a mutually agreed upon theme (e.g. gratitude or service). The planning member for each faith tradition should report to his or her constituency regularly, but especially if a controversial issue arises.


Members of the planning team and participants should understand that their own religious tradition will be respected and that this is not an attempt to replace their own worship. Rather, the gathering is for a specific, identified purpose (e.g. community crisis or celebration; an effort to educate people about differing religious perspectives; an attempt to include all members of the community and to affirm the various religious traditions).

No one should be put in the awkward position of feeling pressured to compromise his or her own beliefs or values. This should not be a time for evangelism. That would be insensitive to people who come with an entirely different set of expectation. The audience should be invited to participate only to the extent that they are comfortable. For many this will be viewed as a cultural event rather than a religious service. Others will see the gathering as a religious seriatim where they feel comfortable participating in one or more sections of the service, while they retain a respectful, observing presence for the rest. A third group will filter whatever is said to align with their own faith tradition. For only a smaller number, the entire event will be experienced as a worship service.

final_small-outdoorThe Reverend Dr. Paul Sorrentino has served as the Director of Religious Life at Amherst College and advisor to the Amherst Christian Fellowship and Amherst College Multifaith Council. He is ordained with the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference and works for Amherst College and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. Paul is a member of the the Journal's Board of Scholars and Practitioners.

Comments are closed.