I had the conversation again earlier today. It’s the same conversation I’ve had more times than I can count in the ten years since I was first elected bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod. It always starts with the same question: “Where are all the young people?” The people in our congregations look around them, see their aging peers and they yearn for the days when their church was filled with families and children; for the days when they themselves were young and their children were the ones polishing the pews with their playful energy. They are always disappointed when I say that there is no magic solution that will suddenly get younger people to show up. If my twenty years in campus ministry taught me anything, it was that ministering to young adults, like all ministry, takes patience, relationship building and a huge dose of humility and vulnerability.
I think campus ministry still has a lot to teach the church about how to minister to and, more appropriately, with young adults. When I was at the University of South Dakota, I was frequently invited to speak to congregations about the role of campus ministry in the life of the church. Now, many years later, and in spite of all the changes on campus, in the church, and in our world, my thinking hasn’t changed all that much. Campus ministries, along with other ministries with young adults, are still vital and important for the life of the church. I say that for three reasons:
First, campus ministries release the creativity, energy and imagination of young adults for the sake of the Gospel. Campus ministries are incubators of innovation and communities that can try new things without having to combat the weight of tradition and history you find in congregations and other traditional ministries. Campus ministries also provide the church the opportunity to be in dialogue with and learn from the many disciplines of thought, study and research going on in the University. This interface is necessary if the church is to effectively proclaim the Gospel in today’s world.
Second, campus ministries are leadership labs that nurture the gifts of students. Campus ministries have long been places where young adults and others have heard their call to ministry. Many leaders in our church first heard the Holy Spirit’s call in a campus ministry, including myself. The church’s investment in campus ministry is directly related to the church’s ability to raise up pastors and deacons to lead the church. But it goes beyond just pastors and deacons. Campus ministries help students of all kinds connect faith to whatever it is they are studying. They cultivate a sense of vocation and the awareness that whatever we do with our lives is a ministry and presents opportunities to serve in the Way of Jesus.
Finally, through our campus ministries, the church goes to where the young people are. If we are serious about “engaging new, young and diverse people” we have to strengthen and expand our presence on college and university campuses. We need to stop trying to find ways to lure younger people into our churches and treating them like prey which we devour to help our flagging institutions survive. Instead, we need to find ways to walk with people, accompany them, listen to them and learn from them. We need to engage those outside the church — outside church walls — with humility and vulnerability, expecting that God has a Gospel word to speak to us through them. Campus ministries are uniquely situated to this kind of engagement. I redeveloped two of my three campus ministries not by sitting in a building looking for clever ways to get people to come in the door, but by hanging out on campus with students, faculty, staff and others in every way I could think of. Ministry has to happen in the community, not apart from it. After all, Jesus did his best work on the streets, on hillsides, in people’s homes and from boats and beaches, and on a cross outside the city walls.
Where are the young people? The truth is, they are all around us, in our families, in our neighborhoods, and in our communities. They are on our campuses and universities. We just need to start seeing them…. I mean really seeing them. Loving them…. Listening to them…. And welcoming them as the children of God they are and as our siblings in Christ. Campus ministries know how to do this work, and can help us all in learning how to do it in the communities where we are called to serve.
PS: My thanks and prayers for everyone who serves in campus ministry. My heart will always be with you!