Above: Mary Jo Sharp speaks during Collegiate Week, which was at Falls Creek Aug. 8-12.
DAVIS—Mary Jo Sharp enjoys talking about apologetics, and she especially enjoys answering apologetic questions from college students.
“College students are my favorite because they are so open in their faith,” said Sharp, who is an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University. “They are questioning and not ashamed to have the questions they have. They are more exploratory whereas adults tend to think, ‘I should know this by now,’ or ‘I should be better than this by now.’”
Sharp was in her element as one of the keynote speakers during Collegiate Week at Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, Aug. 8-12. Students gathered for a week at Falls Creek before starting the fall semester. They represented colleges from many states and Canada, including Alaska, Arkansas, British Columbia, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Quebec, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.
More than 1,300 Collegiate Week attendees had their chance to ask Sharp questions about the Christian faith during her Tuesday morning talk in the Tabernacle. What makes the setting even more interesting is Sharp herself was once an atheist.
Growing up in Oregon, Sharp went to the University of Oklahoma as an aspiring band instructor. It was in her college days at Norman when she became a follower of Christ. Eventually, she and her husband got involved in church youth ministry, and she has fond memories of taking youth groups to Falls Creek in the summer.
“My husband and I were in youth ministry from 1996-2006,” she said. “We came to Falls Creek during the James Lankford era (current Oklahoma U.S. senator who previously served as program director at Falls Creek).”
Sharp knows that many college students fall under the Gen Z demographic, and she believes most current collegians have at least a familiarity with Christianity.
“I think apologetics has reemerged long enough that Gen Z is more prepared,” she said. “What they are having to deal with now is if they’ve dealt with hypocrisy in the church and mean-spirited people, they are seeing nonbelievers being more loving and caring. Now that’s the real challenge. If they go off to college and they find nicer, more caring, empathetic, loving people who are not church members, that is really going to throw them in their faith.”
Sharing their faith with fellow college students was a common topic during Collegiate Week, and Sharp was encouraged by the type of questions she was asked at Falls Creek.
“What I’m getting now is a lot of students are asking about hypocrisy,” she said, “and how they handle the view of the church with people they are trying to evangelize or how they handle people in the church who have gotten hurt by fellow Christians and now want to leave.”
Sharp also had encouraging words for Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) directors—many of whom were attending Collegiate Week—as they begin the school year.
“My encouragement is we want to provide Christian fellowship that is rich in love and telling people that they are going to be loved in this environment (like BCM),” she said. “They don’t have to conform first, but they are going to be loved first, and we are going to let Jesus work on them to become more Christ-like—not just in the words said, but in the reality of how we run our ministries. That’s going to be key for college directors going forward.”
State collegiate directors happy for Collegiate Week returning
The 2020 pandemic led to cancelling many events, including Collegiate Week, but Southern Baptist state collegiate directors, who are responsible for putting on Collegiate Week, were happy to be back at Falls Creek this year with COVID protocols in place.
“Students are hungry for this,” said Bruce Venable, who serves as college team leader for Arkansas Baptists. “They’re not just hungry for community; they are hungry for understanding their faith on a deeper level. And they want to see it applied and lived out in community.”
Mark Robinson, college ministry team leader for Louisiana Baptists, said the work to making Collegiate Week happen is worth it.
“Students are in contact with missionaries and learning about opportunities for them (to serve in mission work),” Robinson said. “This is significant. I’m excited about the future because, even during these really crazy times, it’s obvious God is still moving in this generation, drawing them to Him.”
Cris Lowery, collegiate ministries director for Oklahoma Baptists, emphasized the importance of Collegiate Week, as a time to encourage Christian college students as they prepare to make an impact on many college campuses this school year.
“College is a time when, even students who were raised in the church, they own their faith,” Lowery said. “It becomes theirs, not something that they’ve been told, but this is where they grab a hold of it. For me, that’s the life-changing part for a college student.”
Chad Stillwell, director of collegiate ministries for South Carolina Baptists, shared how important BCM directors are, describing them as “boots-on-the-ground, frontline evangelists and disciplers” on college campuses.
“These first few weeks of college are important for incoming freshmen because what happens in this time could affect them,” Stillwell said. “They are setting patterns of life that establish their whole college career. That’s why (BCM directors) are (at Collegiate Week). It’s the ‘pre-game pep talk’ because when they get back (to their respective schools) it will be move-in days (for students).”