Madison Perry, Executive Director of the North Carolina Study Center, discusses how the Center came into existence and how it serves the students of UNC-Chapel Hill.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Thanks for joining us for this week’s special Focus on Faith edition of Family Policy Matters. Today, I am excited to have as my guest a gentleman who made his own dream of a Christian Study Center at his alma mater a reality. Madison Perry is the Executive Director of the North Carolina Study Center, whose mission is: “To cultivate Christian life and thought at UNC.” They have a wonderful vision that propels them along and that is that the students at UNC come to know “Christ’s love and truth thanks to the hospitality, thoughtfulness and joy of the extended Christian community.”
Madison earned both his bachelors and law degrees from UNC, and his Masters in Theological Studies from Duke Divinity School. He worked with a number of Christian organizations, as well as an interfaith diplomacy group in Washington, D.C. and he currently serves on the board of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Madison Perry, welcome to Family Policy Matters; it’s great to have you on the show.
MADISON PERRY: Thank you Pastor Thomas. Happy to be here.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Madison, we know that the intersection of faith and public life is really a collection of individual people and stories. As we begin, introduce our listeners to your personal story – your childhood and young adult life, education, marriage and family, and maybe devote a moment or two to talk about the experiences that shaped your faith.
MADISON PERRY: Happily. My mom went in to labor with me September 30, 1982 at a Billy Graham crusade in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the Dean Dome. I was born in Chapel Hill and raised by two Christian parents. I actually remember being three and praying to accept Jesus into my heart with my Dad one night. We ended up moving to Kinston, North Carolina where my extended family is really from and I was raised in Kinston. I was heavily influenced by Young Life growing up. My mother is a pediatrician and we spent every summer as a doctor’s family at a Young Life camp. That kind of really put faith on the radar for me, not only as something personal and spiritual but also as a great way to be a whole human being. We grew up at first going to the Baptist church in Kinston. Then my parents helped start a non-denominational church. I ended up at boarding school for high school at McCallie in Chattanooga, Tennessee and started going to a PCA church called Lookout Pres[byterian] and ended up going to UNC.
High school was a pretty important time for me. I was pretty careful to make decent, moral decisions. Christianity had a lot to do with what I decided not to do and who I sat next to. I slowly grew in to thinking Christianity has a something to do with what I do – with how I studied and how I treat other people. It was really important for me at that stage of my life to be involved with Young Life and also I came into contact with the sermons of Tim Keller. This was back in the late 90’s. Tim Keller has done a great job of bringing some of the riches of the Christian faith into his preaching and that had a really massive impact on me. I ended up at UNC and was involved in a number of different campus ministries and was always trying to balance being formed and having a deep faith while also being engaged in the wider world. I guess the other thing I would highlight as I think back about my life is just the importance that my family has played. Both my grandfathers were Christians. I really grew up in a community of people who showed me what it’s like not only to be a decent human being but also to be a faithful, joyful and whole person.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I love that. That sounds like a wonderful, wonderful adventure you’ve been on. Madison, how did the North Carolina Study Center come to be? That’s a fascinating concept. What precipitated success for the North Carolina Study Center?
MADISON PERRY: I was a student at Carolina. I was very invested here. I also had a friend at UVA. My sophomore year I went to go visit him and he showed me this place that they called The Stud, the Christian stuff that there is in Charlottesville. It’s basically a place to study and celebrate what it means to be a Christian and to do that on a college campus. They’re their own private 501(c)3 and they have their own property and he went and showed me. And there were all these great books to read. It’s this beautiful little house. There was complimentary coffee. It was full of students. It was a resource center to help students learn to navigate the college experience and really push them toward maturity. I said, Wow! I’ve never conceived of anything like this before. Why doesn’t UNC already have one of these things – one of these study centers? And really my second thought was, who is going to be blessed enough to get to be a part of doing this study center thing in Chapel Hill? That was back in 2004. I just kind of kept asking that question, sort of praying, and in the back of my mind thinking what would be a good place to do it at Chapel Hill. There was no reason I should have taken that seriously except that it was just kind of a fun thought experiment. As the years rolled on, I went to Divinity School. I went to Law School. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what the Lord was fitting me for. My dad had a conversation with me where he said, “You know, you can always come and practice law with me in Kinston. And I think you would be a great attorney. But now is probably the time for you to try to start that study center that you have always been talking about.” With my dad’s blessing, and with his encouragement – he said it so obliquely, that it felt like it was my decision to do it. I researched a house in Chapel Hill. It was owned by the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina. It sits on two acres. It was the former president of the University’s house. I ended up contacting the Baptist State Convention. We started talking and dreaming together about what the Lord could do if He took this vision and implemented it at this beautiful house. They were great partners as we discerned together what the right thing to do would be.
THOMAS GRAHAM: What do you think is the most important thing parents can do to help prepare their students to keep and even grow their faith when they go off to college?
MADISON PERRY: That’s a super question. I’m not sure I am qualified to answer it perfectly. I do think about what I will do to help my children stay rooted. I really do think that having a loving and thoughtful and fun family will give a student a place to come back to and will really root them in who they are in Christ. I have four brothers and we all share the same faith. We’ve all navigated college and we’re in different places now. On one level or another, I think we all want to be like my dad and my granddad. I really think growing up in a place where you know adults who each model Jesus differently because everybody it’s different for everybody. I really think that ends up sticking with people. Children can spot a hypocrite from a mile away. Being consistent and really being shaped by Christ as a parent makes it way harder for your children not to take faith seriously. It makes it easier for them to love Jesus in the long term. That’s my number one responsibility as a father.
I think too, if you look at a lot of the catechesis methods that the church uses – a lot of them were written way back in the Reformed church back in the 17th century or 16th or 15th. They were written against positions that people no longer hold as much. You have to look at culture to see what its assumptions are and to go after it and explain how the lives that we are encouraged to live by the culture more widely and more broadly were often simplistic and full of fallacies. I would also spend some time thinking about what are the buffet of life decisions that we’re encouraged to make and are these actually good decisions. How can we thoughtfully show an alternative?
THOMAS GRAHAM: Great answer. I love that. Let’s turn the table around for a moment and let me ask you this question. What practical advice do you have for students who feel challenged to abandon the faith of their childhood once they reach college?
MADISON PERRY: I think I’d first say, “You’re not alone. There are lots of people, I’m sure, who asked the question that you’ve been burdened with. Christians have been asking what it means to be a Christian, and how to understand the world and how to read Scripture since the very beginning – since Christ ascended. It’s very likely that people have asked the same questions that you are asking now.” I’d say, “Don’t walk away from the faith without having heard someone explain exactly your question and where it is coming from and how to understand it. For me, I’ve sometimes been burdened with questions that were, in fact, opportunities for me to grow. The Lord was calling me to develop a more sophisticated way of understanding the world. I’d say that first. I think, second, I would say, if you really want to honestly ask these questions about the faith, make sure you do it honestly. If you really want to walk away from the faith, don’t pretend like these questions are the reasons that you are going to. I actually had my own crisis of faith back in college and when I did I was actually very careful to not make moral decisions that would slay me to then be dishonest when answering these intellectual questions, if that makes sense.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Oh, that makes perfectly good sense. I like that answer very much. Madison, what do you think is the most important thing that the North Carolina Study Center offers both the UNC campus at-large, as well as the individual student? I’m sure you’re very pleased with how the Lord has blessed you in this ministry.
MADISON PERRY: A Christian Study Center – there are about 22 around the country – they’re premised on helping students grow intellectually. There’s a Christian formation piece. And then, secondly, there is kind of a hospitality piece. We welcome basically every different – we have over 35 campus ministry partners of different organizations that come and use our space. We have a beautiful front yard. We sit on two acres. We have complimentary coffee and tea. We often have meals. People come here – we have over 100 students a day. We’re just kind of present. They want a place to be and a place to rest or play or study. We have this space. Second, if you look at the formation piece, we offer a number of different seminars and discussion groups that are able to look at some of these serious questions that we brought up earlier. They also look at how we read Scripture. Or how do different cultural issues intersect with our faith and how does our faith help us to navigate the limits. We have four of those different discussion groups going on right now. We also bring in a number of different speakers. One of my goals is for students to meet compelling, Christian adults who aren’t ministers. Because we are surrounded with campus ministers but we also just need regular faithful adults show them what it is like to follow Jesus as adults. We bring in Christian faculty, business people, scientists – a lot of these are on Monday nights. Finally, we offer some big, special events for the whole campus. We coordinated with ministries and a few weeks ago we had an MIT scientist come down to give a VERITAS talk. There were over 500 people who came to it. This was an MIT scientist describing how faith and science can be related to one another. This was also somebody who was very comfortable saying publicly he thinks Jesus rose from the dead. It was a great evening.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Oh my! I could just envision what you’re telling me. Madison, where can our listeners go to learn more about the North Carolina Study Center?
MADISON PERRY: It’s ncstudycenter.org.
THOMAS GRAHAM: That sounds wonderful. Madison, it’s been wonderful to have you on our show today. We appreciate so very much all your hard work serving the UNC community by providing a visible and tangible presence of Jesus Christ to those students. Thank you so much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
MADISON PERRY: Thank you so much. Thanks for these wonderful questions and I pray the Lord works with you too.
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