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 donâ€™t return when we expectâ€”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. Itâ€™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 havenâ€™t seen evidence to show that things have changed much in 25 years), I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if it were also the pattern at non-church-related schools. How does this happen?
Itâ€™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 â€“ the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Resurrection â€“ are treated from a Humean or Bultmannian point of view (impossible or mythological). Itâ€™s easy to say that itâ€™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 â€“ a factor that we canâ€™t blame on those other folks. I perceive that in our congregations we have either (a) adopted the Humean and Bultmannian positions â€“ or their correlates â€“ 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) weâ€™ve seen the naturalistic position and assumed that scholarship in our era must take that form; since we donâ€™t want a naturalistic approach to the faith we evacuate it of intellectual substance. To put it bluntly, weâ€™ve failed to love God with all our minds.
What might an alternative look like? Here are a few ideas.
- We need to shepherd our kids through challenges to their faith so that their first experience of such challenges doesn’t happen when theyâ€™re alone at college. This is very different from sheltering them from the â€œacids of modernityâ€ (or postmodernity). Not only will this sharpen them for their encounter, it will also remove reasons for them to think the â€œold church back homeâ€ was simply ignorant, living in the medieval world.
- We need to teach our people that there are reasons Christians believe and do what they do. Itâ€™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 donâ€™t need a foundationalistic account of Christianity, they need some account of the rationality of the faith.
- We need to maintain relationships with our students. For this to help, weâ€™ll have to do more than just send them a church newsletter or a scholarship. Weâ€™ll need to visit them on campus. Weâ€™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 theyâ€™re in high school (and earlier grades!), to interact with what theyâ€™re learning, to help them contextualize it within a Christian worldview.
Even once we figure out what to do for our college students, it wonâ€™t be easy. As I tell my young people all the time, â€œWhen you go off to college youâ€™ll be away from Mom & Dad and the church folks. Youâ€™ll have the freedom to be and do whatever you want. Now is the time to find your identity and security in Christ.â€ That freedom is a dangerous thing. At the same time it is necessary and good. As Guy observes, weâ€™re going to have to pray.