By Buzz Roberts
What is going through the minds of today’s college students? What motivates them? What has been their experience with the church and fellow Christians? If we could hear their thoughts, what would they reveal?
In recent conversations with collegians about God, Jesus, and Christianity, I heard the following:
— “Jesus was a good person.”
— “I don’t believe in God.”
— “I’m not sure if God exists.”
— “Christians are hypocrites.”
— “I’ve had a bad church experience—I’m not going back.”
David Kinnemen and Gabe Lyons share insight into the hearts and minds of students in their new book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . And Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2007). What today’s young generation thinks about Christians depends directly on their experiences with Christians. They see many Christians not acting like Jesus and unwilling to engage in genuine dialogue.
But even with these criticisms, all is not lost. This young generation exhibits some very positive characteristics: compassion, vision, optimism, and involvement. They favor a unique and personal journey rather than a “normal” lifestyle resulting in a constant search for new experiences.
Dr. Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said, “Today’s students are more health conscious, environmentally friendly, and list among their top 10 concerns education, poverty, and equal rights. In fact, 61 percent of college students said in a recent survey that they feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.”1
At colleges across the nation, more students are engaging in religious activities and spiritual conversations on campus. Researchers at UCLA found that more than two-thirds of students entering college say they pray and almost 80 percent believe in God.2 Harvard University Professor Peter J. Gomes told The New York Times there is probably more spiritual interest now than there has been in 100 years.3 Students are looking to define themselves spiritually as well as with their career choices. They are seeking after things they are passionate about.
We often expect them to come to us, but if we are to impact students for the kingdom, we must meet them on their turf. This is the reality in reaching today’s young collegians with a message of hope.
The decision to engage the university is based on a heartfelt pledge to impact the world as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20. This generation of youth is seeking our help in understanding their world. Our approach should be based on true friendship, shared trust, and challenge that motivates them to excel.
What is our action or inaction saying? Do we care for collegians as individuals or do we, like some congregations, fail to recognize their presence or potential because they are gone nine months of the year?
Mentoring students to live as mature believers takes time and commitment. They hunger to see our authenticity before they accept us into their lives. A practical way to begin a friendship is to ask students for help. Start a conversation about something they are knowledgeable about (e.g., technology). Remember, they are highly gifted and would feel honored to share their talents with others.
Another approach is to find out what they are passionate about (e.g., social injustice or victims of natural disasters) and join them in their cause. By taking an interest and investing in relationships, we learn about their struggles and are better able to provide spiritual guidance. When we join students on a mission trip, help with their service project, or invite them home for dinner, we open the door for meaningful communication.
Engaging the university means getting involved in conversations with all types of people from diverse cultural, social, and religious backgrounds. The apostle Paul did this with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Our natural tendency is to spend time with those who are like-minded. It’s easy to be around people who make us feel good. Engaging the university means extending outside our comfort zones, toward those who do not yet know Christ.
The truth claims of Christianity continue to be debated in the marketplace, student union, quad, library, apartment, and even at bus stops. The religious climate on campus tolerates the personal testimony of the believer very well. By becoming involved on campus you reveal a believing community that accepts students’ spiritual journeys and shares a conviction and an understanding of Jesus Christ.
The university community is part of the world for which Jesus died. Since he has “committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21), we are to unselfishly love the university world by risking everything for the sake of Christ. The church cannot afford to disregard it. Every student involved in a personal relationship with God risks losing a friendship or being rejected by family. Risks are part of life, and God is asking us to take the initiative to be bold in our adventures by seeking out new opportunities on the college campus.
After Jesus called Matthew to become a disciple, the tax collector threw a party (Luke 5:27-31). He invited Jesus as the guest of honor. Notice that Matthew did not limit the guest list to his new friends, the disciples, nor did he snub his old associates, the tax collectors and prostitutes. He invited them all to the banquet.
What Jesus did was revolutionary: He attended the banquet! Why? To share in the joy of Matthew’s newfound hope in the freedom to worship. (Tax collectors and prostitutes were forbidden by the religious establishment to worship in the temple.) When Jesus broke with the Pharisaical tradition of purity, he created a new venue in which all could come into the presence of God. We are just as revolutionary today when we engage the lost where they are.
Just last fall members of Christian Student Fellowship at Pennsylvania State sensed God leading them to establish a church in a local, downtown bar. As a result the gospel is being proclaimed and lives are being changed all because a few students took a risk.
That method of outreach may not work in your situation, but you cannot help asking, “What risks am I taking to advance the kingdom?” People are so much more important to the Lord than our comfort zone.
In his excellent book Reinventing Evangelism, Don Posterski writes, “The strategy must not be to run from the world but rather to engage the world, to interact in a bold but compassionate manner with what is happening in modern society.”4
Campus ministry is engaging the university because we believe it to be one of the most strategic mission fields in the world. The future of the church and society will be determined, in large part, by what happens on campus in the next 25 years.
Engaging the university does not mean that we agree with everything that happens on campus or that we are assimilated into all aspects of campus culture and its belief systems. Rather, by engaging in the university culture, we draw ourselves into a relationship with those outside of Christ. We take risks to proclaim God’s truth and righteousness.
1G.B. Spanier, “Today’s college students: Are they prepared to be the next generation of leaders?” keynote address at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, 8 January 2007.
2“College students report high levels of spirituality and religiousness,” Higher Education Research Institute, 13 April 2005, available at www.spirituality.ucla.edu/spirituality/news/release_study3.pdf.
3A. Finder, “Matters of faith find a new prominence on campus,” New York Times, 2 May 2007, available at www.nytimes.com/2007/05/02/education/02spirituality.html.
4Donald C. Posterski, Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ in Today’s World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1989).
Buzz Roberts serves as director of ministries for Christian Student Fellowship in the state of Pennsylvania.