RUSTY BENSON | AFA Journal Associate Editor
"My parents dont understand me!" This common lament
of young people is generally shrugged off by parents who know that
within a few short years Mom and Dad will suddenly seem much wiser.
However, for many now in their late teens and early 20s
from churched and unchurched backgrounds that classic complaint
may have more veracity than in earlier generations. What makes the
"boom echo" generation (born between 1977-2000) different
from their parents and grandparents?
"The way moral foundations have traditionally been formed
is gone," says Rev. Greg Thompson, Reformed University Fellowship
(RUF) campus minister at the University of Virginia (UVA). "Students
have basically learned how to be human beings by watching television."
RUF is the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Thompson says there was a time when even unchurched young people
were influenced by the Christian culture. Increasingly that is not
the case, resulting in a national student body in which, to many,
the claims of Christ are not even a category to be considered.
In addition, students from churched backgrounds including
many who consider themselves Christians hold a shallow
view of what it means to be a follower of Christ living in a secular
culture, Thompson says.
Is it any wonder that when their foundations are shaken by new
challenging philosophies, so many students turn away from the faith
of their families?
Yet for some, the college years are the time when Christ makes
His deepest mark and sets a course that lasts into eternity. Frequently
His claims are heard with new ears and embraced with new hearts
through faithful college ministries. Leaders in these campus ministry
organizations offer remarkable insights on Americas first
On college campuses across the nation there is a growing
spiritual openess, campus ministers say. However, that openess is
toward all religions, according to Inter-Varsity campus minister
Nikki Toyama. She says that at the University of California at Berkeley
near San Franciso where she minsters, students
are open to Jesus, but closed to Christianity as an organized religion.
Bill Wade, national collegiate ministries specialist with the Southern
Baptist Convention, perceives students as very skeptical about Christianity.
"They see Christianity as condemning and judgmental,"
Students particularly have difficulty with Christ being the exclusive
way of salvation, Wade says. But still they are looking for "something
bigger than themselves to believe in." And that search is leading
many toward eastern religions.
Intervarsity staffer John Lundgren says two other issues add to
the skepticism on campus about Christianity: scandal in church leadership
and disenchantment with the future. "We Baby Boomers were optimistic
that if we applied our great minds to problems, we could solve them.
These students are our children, and they dont see the problems
getting any better," he says.
Along with what Toyama characterizes as the "question-everything-and-trust-nothing"
attitude, she says there is a strong sense of personal entitlement
among students. To non-Christians that may mean a perceived right
to personal wealth and well-being. Among Christians its the
attitude that "Im entitled to a good life because I follow
God," she says.
Thompson says he sees the same thing among many UVA students from
Christian homes. "What I frequently see is a personalist
understanding of their relationship with Jesus. Its only about
me getting on the heaven bus."
Among athletes, Dan Britton with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes
(FCA) says, "Their relationship to God is often seen as a turbo
booster: God can help me do great things for Him, and therefore,
He is going to bless me and give me victories."
So on one hand, students display skeptical and self-centered attitudes
toward spiritual matters. At the same time, they search for authenticity,
meaning and purpose. It is between these ambivalent notions that
campus ministers bring the claims of Christ to college students.
"More than ever, we have to approach each person
as an individual," says Tony Arnold, media relations director
for Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), "reaching them in their
unique setting in unique ways. Every dorm room is its own universe."
For Toyama that means a strong focus on "incarnational ministry."
"Jesus is our model. He incarnated in a human body, so that
we might have access to God. So we become part of campus and dorm
life. We try to bring fellowship that wears the clothes of a college
student to make the Gospel accessible."
Thompsons methodology relies heavily on engaging students
from the Scripture about universal issues. For example, his recent
teaching series from the book of Revelation raised questions such
as: Who governs your life? What do you do with your shame? Does
your life matter?
Students repond to such questions, Thompson says. "Ive
seen that part of Gospel ministry is taking peoples deepest
yearnings seriously. And when you get to something as intimate as
a yearning, its really hard for people to be ironic and cynical."
Another dimension to reaching students with the Gospel is a genuine
respect for their beliefs, Lundgren said. "Recently I was meeting
with another person who was very religious, but would not agree
with evangelical Christianity. I told him that it was really important
that I understand what he believed and that he not feel like I have
blown him off. He got a tear in his eye and said, I cant
believe you said that. At that point we were off and running.
We were into deep stuff. And for me when you get into deep stuff,
you finally get into Jesus."
Along with respect, authenticity is also key. "Ministry on
campus is very effective when it moves beyond the stereotypes that
the unbeliever may have as to what a Christian looks like or says
or sounds like," Arnold says. "But when a believer is
winsome, articulate, knows what he or she believes and lives it
out in daily life, that is persuasive and unique. Students flock
Students also respond to simple Biblical hospitality. "Im
beginning to learn how important hospitality is," Thompson
says. "When you invite someone into your home they begin to
understand what it means to be welcomed by Christ."
With slightly different emphases, campus ministers express
similar hopes for the impact of their ministries in the lives of
"The thing that I most long for in my students is that they
get a bigger picture of their faith," says Toyama. "I
want them to see that its not just a Sunday faith that is
compartimentalized into things that are just spiritual issues. I
want them to see every aspect of their lives as an act of worship
Likewise, Wade says, "My hope is that our students understand
that their lives are not for themselves, but for Kingdom involvement.
So we are trying to be intentional in communicating to students
that they are not here to get an education, but to be a witness
for Christ; and that the great job they may get is seen as an another
opportunity to invest in the Kingdom of God."
"I hope Campus Crusades ministry leads students to be
captivated by their relationship with Jesus," says Arnold,
"that they love Him and follow and serve Him throughout their
life no matter what they are doing, and that they have a sense that
they are being sent."
Britton outlines FCAs vision in ministry using the words
share, seek, lead and love. "We want to see our athletes share
Christ boldly; passionately seek a more intimate relationship with
Christ; lead others by using their gifts and abilities to impact
their community for Christ; and love others unconditionally."
"Basically I want them to love God and their neighbor,"
says Thompson. He explained that Jesus summary of Gods
law has implications in every area of life including being a spouse,
parent, employee and church member. "I want to talk to them
in 10 years and hear about how God is using them to build his Kindgom."
ON THE WEB
and links to many campus ministries
www.ccci.org Campus Crusade
of Christian Athletes
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA
www.ruf.org Reformed University
Baptist Collegiate Ministries
Online magazine for college students published by
Focus on the Family