Students on college campuses today are seeking a faith that makes a difference now, one that involves their whole lives. The pastor of Jacob’s Porch tells how one campus ministry is responding.
In every way, things are the same on college campuses as they have always been: Young people are striving through a four-year-long identity crisis discerning value. They are asking about their career, how to spend money, how to choose when to go out and when to study, which classes to take, whether they should work or get loans, and how to “enjoy the best days of their lives.” It sounds like college as it always has been.
But there are profound differences between the new student on campus and one from even 20 years ago. The new student was born in 1990 and has never known a life without the Internet or computers. They have always lived in a world with cell phone technology. More than likely, they have only watched cable television with 140 available channels or more. They view war through the green glare of nightscope lenses, watching bombs fall through chimneys on CNN. They measure worth by gigabyte, distance by the number of hours in-flight, and power by Google ranking. Students have been raised with a global worldview; they are instantaneously affected by events from continents away. The world has never been smaller, information more available, and time more valuable. In such an environment, how can the church respond?
Knowledge vs. Experience
The age of modernism trusted in humanity and intellect. This rationalism held that we could come to an end of all questions if we sought answers long enough, a case can be proved with better arguments, logic will win out, and puzzles will be solved. Now students see that for every question answered, 1,000 new questions take its place. For every theological proposition, another can argue for the antithesis. Finding God solely in the lecture or sermon, or argument or proof no longer seems effective as the sole means of sharing the gospel. How can we trust that we need only say, “The tomb is empty,” when they can easily Google thousands who would disagree? While the church is saying, “the tomb is empty” and hoping words are enough, students seem to be responding, “Show me.”
Lauren visited our church ministry, Jacob’s Porch, two years after leaving a severe addiction. She grew up in the church, attended youth group, and knew all the stories. But for all the messages of grace, she experienced very little. Invited to attend a retreat with our community (rather than retreat, we like to call them an advance), she encountered a community that showed her grace that was not only heard but experienced. She had been told of an empty tomb, but it was on this retreat that she experienced one. Of course, her life is not perfect now. But now she has a community she can trust as she explores a full life in Christ, one that calls her out to experience this empty tomb not as the end of the story of salvation but the beginning.
How can we trust that we need only say, 'The tomb is empty,' when they can easily Google thousands who would disagree?
If we Lutheran Christians wish to claim a truth and provenance about ourselves as followers of Jesus, we must be able to do more than say so. Young adults desire to experience God, not just be told about God. How can we continue to proclaim Christ crucified and go on as if this makes no difference? Words are not enough. Our lives need to express Christ as our head and cornerstone; and while grace saves, we should not settle for a cheap grace that demands nothing of our lives.Future, Present Kingdoms
Here we come to the question Lutherans have struggled with for a long time: the role of works in the life of faith. We can easily and quickly dismiss the usual hand-wringing if we readopt the Reformation vocabulary of sanctification and justification — that is, the difference between present and future salvation. With the question of works, we seem to respond always as a matter of justification. We so believe there is nothing we can do to be saved in the next life, we almost convince ourselves we should do nothing in this life. Young adults, or perhaps any of us, do not understand a faith that does not look like faith. Why convince anyone to believe at all if it makes no difference to life (no empty tomb) in one’s believing?
If we are to take sanctification seriously, then we have work to do and, lest I scare you away, decisions to make. We do decide to go to church. We decide to engage the life of faith — to pray, to reach out, to be discipled, and to lead lives worthy of the grace afforded us. We must learn to encourage one another to live in light of the empty tomb. We must address the “hells” of the present, and not always the “hell” of the future. These “decisions” may have little to no affect to our place in the future kingdom (justification), but perhaps there are hells in this life we are called to turn from (sanctification). Perhaps our “decisions” do not change God but instead change us in the doing. We must learn to be brave enough to say when someone says they never read Scripture or pray or care for the needy and the poor, that this is offensive to God and the grace God gives. We are called as leaders to encourage a whole and full life of grace and encourage those we lead to be a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
|Resources on Current Generation
- Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope by Brian D. McLaren (Thomas Nelson, 2007).
- Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden (Zondervan, 2008).
- The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne (Zondervan, 2006).
- They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations by Dan Kimball (Zondervan, 2007).
- unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity ... and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Baker Books, 2007).
Leader vs. Partner
If we take this sanctified life seriously, this means we must take the priesthood of all believers seriously. We must see every member as a “pastor,” a term I prefer over “minister.” This generation hears the call and desires to respond with more than membership in a church. They want to follow Jesus with their whole lives.
One day a student approached me with the vision to read the entire New Testament out loud. He did not come to ask my permission. He came to tell me this is what he was doing and invited me to join him. As the invitation started to circulate, 25 to 30 other students joined him in the reading. They read through the night and completed the New Testament 21 hours later.
Several other times students have taken the initiative. I once arrived at church and discovered that the walls had been painted. I found that our storage room had been converted into a prayer room. Students once gathered to hand out cookies to other students and the homeless walking the streets.
In our ministry, students are seeing their role as pastors serving beside pastors. They desire a place where they take their own crosses and, with the Holy Spirit, create an empty tomb. They don’t need a committee, they need permission.
Jesus and the Church
This generation is not looking for a church — they are looking for Jesus. I am Lutheran because of the beauty of our theology and the deep respect for God’s grace. This is our shared heritage. I pray that, as Lutherans, we may be called by this generation to live our theology as well as we talk about it. It is an age of re-formation and, like the first, we are called to put Jesus and not just church as the center of our lives.
May we love Jesus as boldly as our message.
Jay Gamelin is an ELCA campus pastor serving at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, through the ministry of Jacob’s Porch.