According to people around the association, that anxiety is not entirely justified: in recent years, members have become more faithful to the Bible and their support for the church’s philosophy has strengthened. Moreover, in the past few years, having a critical attitude has become more common among young people from the Bible Belt.

On the walls of the corridor next to the dorm room of Hannah Weststrate (22), the logo of the student association C.S.F.R. is displayed twice. Above the staircase, the names of every student who has lived in this Rotterdam student society house are written on the wall with a permanent marker. The Master’s student in Health Care Management sits in her bedroom, wearing dark-blue slippers with the same logo. “Merchandise”, she laughs. “The proceeds go to charity.”

Three years ago, Hannah became a member of Ichthus – as the Rotterdam branch of the C.S.F.R. is known – and came to live here, together with four other female members. Before that, she lived with her parents in the Bible Belt village of Elspeet in Gelderland and was a member of the Gereformeerde Gemeenten (Dutch Reformed Congregations), a conservative Christian church. “I was mainly seeking to deepen my faith, but I also wanted to socialise”, she explains. “I found that combination at Ichthus.”

Critical attitude

According to the society’s president, Hans van Beek, the emphasis at Ichthus is mainly on the deepening of faith. “We think socialising is important – we have game nights, drinks, meals – but it is not our primary objective. We mainly provide a place where students can study the Bible, society and their own backgrounds.”

That includes having a critical attitude. This has always been one of the top priorities, right back to when the C.S.F.R. was founded in 1951. “We are not concerned solely with our own backgrounds”, says Van Beek. ‘It’s about broadening our ideas.” The association therefore has members from several different movements – particularly the Reformed movement. Together, they talk about their different perspectives; in Bible study groups, for example, where religious subjects are discussed.


The Protestant branch of Christianity includes a staggering number of different movements. Some are more progressive, others more conservative. Ichthus has around seventy members, most of whom are Reformed – an umbrella term for very conservative Protestants, nearly all of whom come from the Bible Belt. It includes the Dutch Reformed Congregations, the movement to which Hannah belongs. The difference between the Reformed movements often lies in the way in which certain aspects of the Bible are construed, but to outsiders these differences are extremely minor. Reformed Christians are known for holding themselves apart from ‘modern culture’ and liberation movements: traditional gender relationships, for example, are the norm in these circles.

The association also has study groups, where non-religious subjects may be discussed. Van Beek says: “You might have to read a book about astronomy if you want to be able to say something intelligent about where a star comes from.” In addition, each year the association invites speakers – Christian and non-Christian – to give lectures on topics such as looking at artificial intelligence through the lens of moral values. “The aim is to help students become more confident and learn how to formulate good answers to questions about their faith.”


Since the start of this century, a critical attitude like that displayed by Ichthus has become more common among young people from the Bible Belt, according to Anneke Pons-de Wit, a cultural sociologist at KU Leuven (the Catholic University of Leuven). She is writing her doctoral thesis on how religious identity develops when young people come into contact with diverse perspectives. “With the older generation, you weren’t allowed to ask questions. They said: ‘This is how we do things’. Young people are now coming into contact with different opinions, via social media for example. So they more often want arguments for why they do and believe certain things.” For example, the belief in some conservative circles that women should not wear trousers.

The researcher says that when young people come into contact with different views, a reflexivity process kicks in. “They go looking for justification for why they’re right.” There are two ways this can turn out. “They find arguments in the Bible, for example, and become more deeply anchored in their beliefs, or they don’t find any arguments and become more liberal, which means they sometimes begin to question their beliefs.”

In her time at Ichthus, Hannah has become more confident about what she believes. She stands by her convictions and has not changed her denomination. “In the association, we discuss each other’s perspectives, so I have been thinking more about why I stand by my beliefs and why I will continue to do so”, she explains. “I’ve learned how to rationalise why I believe certain things. I’m now better at standing up for my views.”

Strooisel Biblebelt geloof Ichtus christelijk kerk bijbel CSFR_Josine Henneken
Image credit: Josine Henneken


Pons-de Wit says that people in the older generation often find reflexivity and critical associations such as the C.S.F.R. ‘scary’. They are afraid that young people will leave the church. The fact that the C.S.F.R. is sometimes a sensitive issue in the Bible Belt is something she has seen via her daughter, who is a member of the Leiden branch. “Are you going to quit the church, then?”, friends from church ask her.

In 2012 in particular, the C.S.F.R. caused a stir in the Reformed Congregations, one of the most conservative churches, and one to which many Ichthus members belong. In De Saambinder, the weekly Reformed Congregations newspaper, Reverend IJp van Aalst, a retired pastor and the editor-in-chief at the time, advised students against joining the association. He spoke of a ‘secularised atmosphere’ and claimed, based on a small-scale study, that membership could increase the risk of leaving the church.

Van Aalst, who had previously been a member of the Amsterdam branch of the association because there had been no alternative at the time, has not changed his opinion. “The association took, and still takes, a broad view of learning and life; that is, it encompasses broad ideas and lifestyles”, he says. He believes this ‘breadth’ is evident in the fact that the association also invites non-Christian speakers and admits non-Reformed students.

Theological shift to the right

Reverend Gert Jan Baan of Bethel Church in Rotterdam, which has close ties to Ichthus, adds nuance to Van Aalst’s criticism. “When I went to university – more than thirty years ago – the C.S.F.R. sometimes questioned the authority of the Bible”, explains Baan, who joined a Reformed association in Utrecht in his student days. “But I absolutely never hear about that sort of thing happening these days. If I were a student now, I would undoubtedly become a member.”

According to the reverend, in the past few years there has been a ‘theological shift to the right’ within the association. In other words, members rely more on the Bible and agree more with what is taught in church. “In the past, the association had members from more diverse church backgrounds, but then more people from Reformed churches started going to university.” In recent years, all Ichthus presidents have attended his church, which is part of the Reformed Congregations.

Ichthus President Van Beek emphasises that the C.S.F.R. has certainly not abandoned Reformed beliefs. “If you come and study in Rotterdam, you’re building a life for yourself. Maybe you’ll turn away from certain precepts or traditions; for example, someone may want to sing more modern songs in his or her church. But it is not the case that our members are turning their backs on everything, because then they wouldn’t feel at home in our association. In fact, with the arrival of Bible study groups, for example, these days the faith aspect is more important than the study aspect.”

Rotterdam churches

It is therefore no surprise that the association has good relationships with various churches in Rotterdam. Some students join the congregation of one of these churches; around fifteen students join Bethel Church each year. But all members of the association can turn to the church for help, says Reverend Baan, whether they have personal questions about relationship issues or are looking for student accommodation. “And sometimes I open up my home and host drinks or a barbecue.”

Hannah sometimes goes with the association to attend services in Rotterdam churches. But she has never left the church she grew up in. Nearly every weekend, she pulls out her suitcase from under her bed, climbs down the steep stairs in the society house and travels back to her village to go to church with her family and boyfriend. She also visits other Reformed churches. “I always find it interesting to hear different perspectives on faith.”