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After teaching almost entirely at the seminary and doctoral levels for eighteen years, I’ve been teaching Bible courses to college students at Eastern University for the last three semesters. So, of course, this makes me an expert.

All kidding aside, I’ve had to do some thinking about how to pull this off. Teaching Bible in a Christian college can be tricky, especially introductory courses (I teach both OT and NT Intro), because the students are in so many different places.

Some arrive with little to no knowledge of the Bible, others have been around the biblical block a few times and are tired of it, and some are eagerly awaiting the chance to examine their understanding of the Bible and move to another level. I’ve even had some students already conversant with some aspects of the academic study of the Bible and are now looking to take those conversations to a deeper level.

Add to this the psychological/spiritual factor. Some students are in searching mode concerning their faith, while others have thus far in their lives not been encouraged to make the faith of their parents their own. Some are a bit nervous about leaving familiar territory, which causes stress, while others are on autopilot and just want to pass the course and get on with things. And I don’t need to mention all the other “normal” factors of college life that pull and stretch first year students beyond what they thought was possible.

All this diversity in the same class of about 40 students. “Your job, Enns (should you choose to accept it) is to walk in there twice a week and say something meaningful. As always, should you blow it, we will make believe we do not know you. Good luck. This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.”

Teaching these students is the most challenging teaching experience I have ever had–and by far the most rewarding.

I have the privilege and responsibility of being in on the ground level, trying to bridge the gap between where they are now (collectively and individually) and where I think they need to be at the end of the semester–not to mention modeling a path of lifelong study of Scripture and walking with God.

I’ve had to think very intentionally about what I am trying to do in these intro classes, and it boils down to this:

My ultimate goal is spiritual formation. In biblical studies classes, a means toward that goal is to find a regular, rhythmic, balance between confirming and challenging the students in their present state of biblical understanding and spiritual development.

It also means being available–in class and out of class–to help them work through potential crises of faith that invariably come up when intellectual and spiritual growth happens, as well as leading further onward those who are more ready and so inclined to proceed into the unfamiliar.

In other words, respect the students where they are while at the same time embracing my responsibility to not leave them there.

That’s a tough call, especially given the various factors of diversity I mention above, and it can’t be scripted. You just sort of know when it is happening, and if you ask the students they will tell you. (I try to give period gut-check moments in class for individual and/or group written reflection.) Sometimes they don’t even need to be asked. Which leads me to my last point:

Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’m still working on it.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.