Forming Christian College Students

Guy Williams writes today about United Methodist campus ministry. He says,

Many churches send students to the college and university campus assuming that they will be stepping away from the church and the Christian life for a brief time. The generation gap in many congregations alerts us to the fact that our assumptions (expectations?) are coming true. But they may not be stepping away for a brief time after all. What if they don’t return when we expect—say, after marriage, or at the latest, a child or two? A part of our call to faithful ministry on the campus frontier is to fulfill our congregational baptismal vow to support and uphold one another in our Christian walks.

Guy is the current chair of the Division of Campus Ministry here in the Texas Conference. It’s very encouraging to hear someone in that position speak so clearly.

In my undergrad days (at a UM school) I saw a number of people come to school as professing Christians, but before too long many appeared to be little more than practicing hedonists. If this is the pattern at a Christian school (and I haven’t seen evidence to show that things have changed much in 25 years), I wouldn’t be surprised if it were also the pattern at non-church-related schools. How does this happen?

It’s easy to blame academia. While our UM schools tend to have religion departments and chaplains, these frequently embody the scientific study of religion (either the dead thing we dissect or those archaic practices other people engage in). The central doctrines of Christianity – the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Resurrection – are treated from a Humean or Bultmannian point of view (impossible or mythological). It’s easy to say that it’s these and other acids of modernity that eat away the faith of college students.

While the current character of academia likely has some effect on the faith of students, I think there is a larger factor – a factor that we can’t blame on those other folks. I perceive that in our congregations we have either (a) adopted the Humean and Bultmannian positions – or their correlates – that faith has no substance, no connection to historic Christian doctrine, but is rather a personal (individual) expression of authenticity or trust (in something); or, (b) we’ve seen the naturalistic position and assumed that scholarship in our era must take that form; since we don’t want a naturalistic approach to the faith we evacuate it of intellectual substance. To put it bluntly, we’ve failed to love God with all our minds.

What might an alternative look like? Here are a few ideas.

  1. We need to shepherd our kids through challenges to their faith so that their first experience of such challenges doesn’t happen when they’re alone at college. This is very different from sheltering them from the “acids of modernity” (or postmodernity). Not only will this sharpen them for their encounter, it will also remove reasons for them to think the “old church back home” was simply ignorant, living in the medieval world.
  2. We need to teach our people that there are reasons Christians believe and do what they do. It’s not just because Mom, the preacher or the Sunday School teacher say to do it. Our kids have the advantage today of being exposed to difference at an early age. Our Christian kids go to school and play with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and non-theist kids. They are engulfed by a consumerist, hedonist culture. They are taught early on that violence and vulgarity are perfectly normal and acceptable. They need to be taught by the church what Christians do and believe and why Christians do and believe what they do. While they don’t need a foundationalistic account of Christianity, they need some account of the rationality of the faith.
  3. We need to maintain relationships with our students. For this to help, we’ll have to do more than just send them a church newsletter or a scholarship. We’ll need to visit them on campus. We’ll need to find ways to enter into their academic world. We need to make sure they know that they never stand alone. If we wait to start this kind of relationship when they go off to college, it may not work well. We need to start now, while they’re in high school (and earlier grades!), to interact with what they’re learning, to help them contextualize it within a Christian worldview.

Even once we figure out what to do for our college students, it won’t be easy. As I tell my young people all the time, “When you go off to college you’ll be away from Mom & Dad and the church folks. You’ll have the freedom to be and do whatever you want. Now is the time to find your identity and security in Christ.” That freedom is a dangerous thing. At the same time it is necessary and good. As Guy observes, we’re going to have to pray.

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7 Responses to Forming Christian College Students

  1. Holy Pirate says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but…
    I assume the first point is meant to say that our young people should NOT be allowed to leave the familiar environs of their home church without having their faith challenged, so that it’s first occurrence is not when they’re away and alone?

  2. Richard H says:

    That sounds like a good way to put it. We know from our own experience that their faith WILL be challenged. We need to walk them through some of those challenges so they can learn to identify them, expect them, and deal with them.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. crevo says:

    This sort of thing is an absolute necessity, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later. I feel physically sick almost every time I think about youth groups and how quickly people fall away.

  4. Hey Richard,

    I’m fixin’ to come down that way to meet with the PPR at Como UMC. I need to call Rev. Mahle and coordinate a time to do so.

    Insightful article and good ideas as to how to combat this problem. My fiancee and I are still active in the Springfield Wesley Foundation and we see students of all ages slip away – from freshmen to seniors. Some find other minsitries, others find frat parties or the virtual worlds of MMPORPs. As a misitry we can only do so much when there’s no support, encouragement, or preperation from family and the home church.

    I think we have an additional problem here: In Springfield, MO, we have 13 UMCs. Only one has a college/young adult ministry worth mentioning. In a town with five universities, only one UM Church bothers to reach out to that displaced or transient population. It’s one thing to reach out to new students, but most of these churches have difficulty (or make no effort) holding on to the college students that go to school locally.

    It seems like what Guy says runs deep. We treat young people as second class church memebers; not important enough to bother ministering to.

  5. Richard,
    I really like what you are saying here. It is so important for people to teach their children the reasons why things are right or wrong or tue or false instead of playing the authority card. Claiming thins are right “because mom says so” plays right into the hands of the postmodernism that kids hear from the media and at school.

  6. Richard H says:

    It’s not just postmodernists we have to contend with. We still face the forces that argue for the authority of institutions of reason (naturalistic science et al.) that are inimical to Christianity. Given the struggle between modern naturalism and postmodern relativism, we must avoid turning off our brains and thiking, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

  7. we have the privilege of being a UMC church in a university town in Finland. And students come to us (and we reach out to them) – and it’s an honour to do so.

    What is important is that the worship service is someting they want to (choose to) come to – and no longer forced to by mom/dad and peer pressure.

    Do pray for our church – it isn’t always easy (esp finances) and we try to offer good moral teaching with love, not condemnation. I love it – but as I said we could do with all the prayer support we can get esp in ‘liberal’ europe.

    be blessed

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