By Pastor Mindy Roll
Recently, at an intergenerational small group conversation about the church, an older couple directed a familiar question my way: “Why don’t we see young people in church anymore? Are they lazy, self-involved, or do they just not care?”
This is the million-dollar question these days, isn’t it? If only we could find a formula to get those young adults back in the church, the thinking goes, then all would be well.
“Well, why do you go to church?” I asked.
The couple looked surprised. “We go because our friends are there,” they replied honestly.
Now, I was surprised. “You don’t go to experience God in the bread and wine, to hear words of forgiveness, to learn about Jesus, to connect to service, to have your soul renewed, or to be re-oriented toward a life of discipleship?”
“No,” they replied, not missing a beat. “We go because our friends are there.”
I think we have discovered a piece of the problem.
There are approximately 240 campus ministries connected to the ELCA, and while no two look or function alike, campus pastors speak of a common thread running through each: students are deeply hungry. Many students who have been raised in the church, now standing on the edge of adulthood, hunger for a deep faith – an adult faith – to match a growing awareness of the world. Many students raised outside of the church crave meaning and purpose they find in faith communities.
When I started in campus ministry five and a half years ago, that was the thing that struck me: how profoundly hungry students and young adults are.
As I worked with students to re-build the ministry at Texas A&M and Blinn College, which had been without pastoral leadership for several years, I learned more about their hunger: they weren’t hungry for more church, smooth programming, or fun social activities – they were hungry for Jesus. So we began to study the Gospels.
“Here’s what I don’t get,” one student commented after several weeks in a row of Matthew’s Jesus throwing people into the outer darkness. “How do we reconcile a loving, forgiving God with this outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? This just doesn’t make sense.”
The students wrestled with the verses, read up on the context, talked with each other, and then came to me. “I don’t know” I challenged them.” How do we make sense of this?”
By then, thanks to Book of Faith’s excellent resources, students had learned a method to the study of scripture: look at context, examine law and gospel, search for a communal meaning, and pay attention to the wider message of faith.
“Well,” one pondered, “a wider message of the Bible is that God is infinitely present, closer to us than our own breath, and will never abandon us.”
“And that God is a God of resurrection,” another chimed in.
“Yes!” I exclaimed. “So what does this mean in light of the text?”
Silence, and then, slowly – insight. “That God is actually present in the outer darkness,” they responded thoughtfully. “That God is actually in the weeping and gnashing. That there is no darkness too dark for God, and that even when we find ourselves alone in darkness, overcome by weeping, God is working to transform it to light.”
It was a eureka moment for students, but one that did not ease their hunger. In fact, it intensified it. For most, the one-dimensional flannel board Jesus they had come to know as a child no longer worked as an adult – he was nice, and wanted them to be good, but was ultimately irrelevant. But as they encountered Jesus first-hand in the text, suddenly they were intrigued.
Here was a God who didn’t act like a God should act – not proper, powerful, nice, or benevolent, but real – radically loving, present on the margins, willing to shake things up, on the side of the lowly, choosing to die without status or honor, and full of emotion: anger, joy, sadness, despair, warmth.
They were hungry to know this God. This was a God who they were willing to let shape their entire lives.
And that encounter, in a nutshell, is what Lutheran Campus Ministry is all about.
Campus ministry sits in that liminal space between youth and adulthood. For those raised in the church, the faith we are taught as children is foundational. We are welcomed in baptism, learn the stories of the Bible in Sunday School, dig into the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments in Confirmation, find our sleepy home in the pews as teenagers, and through it all, begin to sense how deeply loved we are, not only by God, but by a church community as well. That was certainly my experience in church, and it is the story that resonates for many college students as well.
But faith must grow. And the transitions from the simple faith of childhood, to the questing faith of adolescence, to the complex, nuanced faith of adulthood are challenging. They lead to sleepless nights, heated debates, hours of study, deep conversation, and much soul searching. What is it I actually believe, college students, and young adults wonder. And if it’s not worth everything, is it worth anything?
As students undergo this faith deepening, their worlds are shaken.
One of the most important parts of my work is taking students to coffee. We sit, we sip, and I listen. I guide them with a few questions, and then make space for them to talk about their soul and whatever is happening in it.
During my first year in campus ministry, I had had coffee with every student in the ministry, except for one… Mark. I am not sure why Mark came each week, except that his sister was on the leadership team, and they shared a car.
“When are we having coffee, Mark?” I’d ask.
He would shrug. “I’m really busy.” I heard this for weeks.
He wasn’t, in fact, really busy, he would tell me later. He just thought he had nothing to say to a pastor. Finally, near the end of the semester, he said he could talk between classes, if I met him on campus. The time frame was intentionally short.
Mark, as I would quickly discover during that conversation, had one of the most profound faiths I had ever encountered. And he was angry – at the church, at God, at his family, at society, and at the campus. He had one foot out the door, the other on the threshold of leaving. Church was not his thing.
One coffee turned into another, then another. We talked about faith. We talked about Jesus. He started to study the Bible. Then he became a Bible study leader. Then he became chaplain to the leadership team.
By his senior year, Mark’s anger had shaped him into a person of deep, passionate faith. He taught our ministry how to show up for justice, how to take risks out of love for Christ, and how to befriend other groups on campus: the Jewish student group, the Atheist/Agnostic student group, the LGBT Resource Center, groups often scorned by other Christians on campus.
Recently, he sat on a panel about young adults and the church. When the question came up for him about why young adults do not go to church, Mark’s trademark passion came out: “I don’t understand all this obsession about young adults and the church. Every young adult that I know is working as the hands and feet of Christ – one of my friends does environment sustainability, another works with HIV/AIDS patients, another works with homelessness and the mentally ill, another works with children aging out of foster care. Instead of being obsessed with getting us into the church, why doesn’t the church come to where we already are and join us in doing the church’s work?”
The applause was thunderous.
Campus ministry is not about wooing college students with pizza (though that helps), nor is about fun retreats with campfires and s’mores (that also helps), nor is about “being where our friends are” (though these friendships often last a lifetime). Campus ministry is about helping young adults encounter the living Christ, and then being present as their faith deepens into a world-shaking force.
It’s a profound thing to witness.
How, then, can congregations and campus ministries better connect?
Here are a few ideas that have worked in our context:
Invite your campus ministry to worship. Once a year, in late January, we have “Campus Ministry Sunday” in our synod. Last year, with our sister LCM in Houston, our campus ministries sent about 35 students out to preach in 20 area congregations. Listening to a student tell their story of faith through the lens of the Gospel text is powerful – for the congregation, for the student who is preaching, and especially for high school students. If you can’t do a Campus Ministry Sunday, invite your Campus Pastor and a few students to lead worship one Sunday – we would love to.
Connect high school seniors to their campus ministry. This one is critically important. Send a note, with the incoming student copied to their campus pastor introducing one another. The number of students that have stumbled into our ministry as juniors because they had no idea that Lutheran Campus Ministry even existed is heartbreaking. Encourage high school seniors to seek out LCM and give it a try. If you don’t know how to connect high school seniors, use this website: http://elcacampusministry.org/student-referrals/
Take an annual offering or add your nearest campus ministry to the congregational budget. Most Campus Pastors spend a whole, whole lot of time fundraising (in the Brazos Valley, for example, we fundraise a whopping 80% of our budget). This is time away from coffee with students, Bible study, and good conversation, the very things for which students hunger most. We need your help.
Finally, make space. After students graduate, they search for a passionate community that takes Jesus seriously. If recent graduates come your way, help them connect in a meaningful way – leading a Bible study, teaching the congregation about justice work, serving as a mentor for a confirmation student, and organizing interfaith events.
Then prepare to have your faith shaken in powerful ways. For they have certainly shaken mine.