In the midst of many college communities’ spiritual “buffet,” what model of campus ministry effectively reaches students? Our authors focus on “accompaniment” — walking with students in all circumstances, engaging them in difficult conversations, and meeting needs — which characterizes the approach of one college.
The following article is co-authored by two undergraduate students who are involved in student campus ministry, as well as by the campus pastor at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania, an ELCA-affiliated institution. At times, the students speak on behalf on the entire student body; at other times, on behalf of the campus ministry that services the campus.
On a quiet Saturday night in November, a small prayer labyrinth was arranged in the Muhlenberg College chapel during a student retreat. At the stops of the labyrinth, walkers were encouraged to light candles, read passages from the Bible and the wisdom of Martin Luther, ponder baptism, and hear inspirational music — all pointing to the theme of hope.
Hope is a bit of a paradox on a college campus. Young people are infused with a natural sense of hope and of looking forward to the future; and yet, students tend to fret about the present and the future. We wonder if hope is the privilege of those who have it all figured out. Challenges on our campus include how to speak a word of hope to all students and how to make the gospel of Jesus Christ relevant in a setting in which people may not want or know how to hear it.
Speaking a word of hope may not be the most effective strategy for college students. The primary work of a student is listening to lectures, presentations, and conversations in and out of class. Speaking and preaching are not always heard with full attention. Add to that the distractions of iPods, Web sites, and other media and it is hard to get a word in around that noise. But we are called to be witnesses to Christ and to be fully present for the campus. How, then, are we to share news that is relevant to us, but not always to others? We may look back to the labyrinth for our guide.
In walking the labyrinth, we remember that the most effective witness on our campus seems to be accompaniment: walking with one another and offering the gospel in whatever ways we can. We notice that students, especially first-year students, wonder if they are alone. Students contemplate aspects of their intellect, physicality, spirituality, sexuality, and psyche and conclude that maybe they are the only ones to feel insecure and alone in their new environment. In that loneliness they remain isolated, but still long for companionship. As part of the church, we believe that we are called to walk with them, to be their companions when times are both good or bad. In that accompanying, we live and share the gospel. Beyond the loneliness, students also hunger for community. That yearning is fulfilled in many ways — teams, fraternities, religious communities, academic departments, and community service groups. We can’t expect those communities to come to us on Sunday afternoon (when we worship); we must be in the midst of those communities, publicly living lives of faith and inviting others into conversation about what that means.
What do we hope for? We hope for gifts to offer a renewed church that dares us to accompany new people in new places.
Accompaniment also means confronting resistance. Many students, even those raised with a church background, are wary of what it means to be religious in a pluralistic environment of their peers. They don’t know if the familiar labels apply, such as denominational names and expressions. They are concerned that there are certain ideas of what you must be to remain a Christian, and many believe that they cannot live up to those perceived expectations.
Religious people confront their own resistance. Even in the late teens, a person’s religious preferences can be set, making change difficult. Religiously active students have strong feelings about what it means to live publicly as a Christian, and in the eyes of some, not everybody measures up. How, then, can those of us who are part of the church on campus go about inviting and challenging people to become serious about faith, while at the same time being careful that we ourselves do not turn them away by becoming overinvested in our own labels, identity, and doctrine? At Muhlenberg, those are open questions. There is no bias against student religiosity but Muhlenberg students are not, for the most part, publicly religious. What, then, do we say to this?The Spirituality Buffet
Our fellow Muhlenberg classmates are good, decent people whose values reflect much of what Christian values seek to instill. Our classmates are also clear reflections of the culture and time in which they are living — a eastern U.S., mid-Atlantic culture that values overachievement, material wealth, and a fast pace of life. Religion has become, for many, an unconscious habit and cultural relic that is considered a nice thing to have around and useful to say that you have, but not lived publicly in recognizable ways. Make no mistake — our classmates say they believe in God, they claim to be spiritual and have conversations about and with God — and there are no reasons to dismiss those claims. Studies show that as a group, many of us young adults are more interested in spirituality than generations before us. However, that spirituality has become highly individualized, which marginalizes the need for and usefulness of the church, as well as the urge to live our spirituality through organized and public channels.
Our friends prefer a “buffet” mentality when it comes to exploring faith. The life and work of organized religions is only one selection at the spiritual salad bar. Lutheranism and Christianity are no longer part of the main course, but are options on the religious menu. We like the ideas of Christianity, just not always the specifics, or the code language that makes it hard to understand. We blend traditions and sometimes fill in the gaps that we don’t like or don’t understand with other sources. Maybe that’s okay.
Individuals before this generation have struggled with meaning and practice. Our most devout believers, of any age, have sometimes wondered if there is some religion, philosophy, or other way of thinking and understanding that can inform or stand in for the gaps present in their faith. This brings us back to accompaniment. We think that a powerful part of Jesus’ ministry was accompaniment no matter the circumstances. Sometimes we are challenged, sometimes we need to make decisive judgments, and sometimes we need the skills of preaching, but we always strive to be fully interested in what the other person needs and how we can address that need. This kind of ministry is really not something new in the 100 years of Lutheran campus ministry practiced here. But it is a model that needs constant attention and renewal.Walking Together
No model is effective if students are not willing or able to engage it. This is our greatest challenge. Two opportunities arise. First, the campus minister cannot be the sole interpreter of the mission or model. A campus minister can only accompany a limited number. Students too must accompany, on a peer-to-peer basis, and model a life of faith that works for them. This is hard and risky work but it can be done.
Second, we should remember that Jesus did not lose faith, even when feeling abandoned. There is reason to be concerned about the life of the church, especially on campuses. Jesus will accompany us — or we should say, is accompanying us — in this endeavor.
Is there hope on campus? Can the church on campus present the gospel to a new generation? We believe it is already being done. In some way, gospel ministry on campus is more akin to the realities the early church faced: it is presence over program, and accompaniment over assimilation. Kelsea Reel ’12, Aaron Lawson ’09, are students at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Peter Bredlau is the campus pastor.