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Bridging the language gap for Church and students

Campus ministers must be bilingual.

I’m not referring to the words we use to communicate common pleasantries or to ask directions, rather I mean that campus ministers are called to interpret a new generation to the Church, and likewise, to interpret the Church for a new generation. We represent disparate worlds, one to the other, acting as ambassadors of confluence and connection.

Like any interpreter, I sometimes find it hard to find the right word to describe who and what the Church is and seeks to be when speaking with college students, and in the same way, sometimes find myself tongue-tied when attempting to help the Church understand who students are, what matters to them, and how their expressions of faith and meaning might look different. While I suspect that this unique rendezvous point between two distinct places has always existed, technology and awareness of world events might make this zeitgeist particularly significant.

Research from the Pew Research Center tells us that religious affiliation across all ages is down, but especially among millennials, the category of current college students. In fact, about half as many millennials attend worship regularly as compared to those in the silent generation, those born between the 1920s and 1940s. Perhaps even more startling, the youngest of the millennials are 13% more likely than those belonging to Generation X, the generation just ahead of them, to be unaffiliated with any faith tradition.

The statistics even further show that between 2007 and 2014, in addition to worship attendance going down, prayer and general belief are also down, particularly among millennials. It’s hard to say for certain what all of this means, especially when one considers that the Pew Research Center also found in their study that a general feeling of peace, well-being, and sense of wonder is up.

Many of the students who come to UCM do not come from a church background. Or, if they do, it was a faith of their parents, and not one that they have decided to choose for themselves yet. For many students, while they seek meaning and a sense of purpose, it would not occur to them to go looking for those things in a church. They serve and learn and find community with peers outside church walls. Churches are places for believers, people who have faith and life and God all figured out. When I share with students that I still have questions about those things, and that I still find worship meaningful, they are often surprised and not sure what to make of it. It concerns me that the idea students have of the Church is that we understand church attendance to be salvific, or that we believe we are following Jesus by going to church. How can I help them understand that our reasons for going to church are really quite different than they imagine?

We go because we often feel lost and afraid in the world of relationships, conflicts, and ethical dilemmas, and are looking for solace or inspiration, or both. We go because living out the call of Jesus to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and care for the imprisoned is really difficult, exhausting work, and we go seeking community that will hold us up, help bear our burdens, and share our hopes and vision for what the world could be.

I am called to serve college students on the cusp of so many things. I am called to serve the Church in reaching out to the world as good students of the gospel. The burning of our hearts when in the presence of God, and the breaking of our hearts in the presence of the pain of the world are not different tongues, but the same language of love, but we have forgotten to interpret that to the world. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to be bilingual in this time and place.

I’ll email, text, post on Instagram, preach from a pulpit, and send out a tweet with the ancient words spoken long before any generation we have known was here, and still relevant for every generation that comes after us: as the prophet Isaiah says, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” God is about to do a new thing, and while we might not understand what it is, we can help clear the way of manufactured impediments knowing that God does. Amen.

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