Changing students/the world


Early on in the semester, the students met on Sunday nights, but I’m not sure that was the best time. There was always a ton of homework for them to catch up on that night. But the problem is, there’s never a good time. There’s always a scheduling impasse.

Western’s had a campus ministry for over a decade now, and during that time George Washington University has mushroomed around our church, making us a central spot for students to worship. We have very strong Sunday morning attendance with our students and we often schedule things immediately after the service. Yet, it’s nearly impossible to get something else on the calendar for them.

Something happened since the comparatively carefree days when I attended college fourteen years ago. Then, Campus Crusade for Christ dominated the campus ministry scene. They played invisible football games through the campus to draw attention to how much fun they were having. Students spent hours packing in the entertainment and pizza until the leaders would slip in a Bible Study and the “four spiritual laws.” College ministries looked a lot like youth groups, with overgrown participants.

I don’t see too many invisible football games any more, at least not in our setting. I’ve been involved with campus ministry, in one way or another, in all of those years, and I’ve watched it change dramatically.

Why are things so different? Well, it’s because the average college student in America is changing. I always thought of the average student as 19 years old. He was (perhaps) working part-time for a bit of entertainment money, but he had a lot of free hours between his classes. He was just as likely to be a Republican as he was to be a Democrat.

Now the average undergrad in the United States looks much different. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, she (there are more women than men enrolled) is twenty-six and will probably not be able to attend school full time for four years (51 percent of students attend part-time for a period of their enrollment). Over 80 percent of all students work an average of 32 hours per week. Thirty-seven percent of students are not able to complete their degree. If she does graduate from a four-year college, she will typically have $24,000 in student loans and credit card debt on top of that.

As far as political standing, college students are not painted in red or blue; although in 2005, 60 percent were traditional liberals while only 16 percent were traditional conservatives (Harvard Institute of Politics, 2006). These statistics also don’t reflect the values of conservative ministries like Campus Crusade and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Over all, students look a lot less like older teenagers, and a lot more like young professionals.

I watch our students, juggling four jobs at a time and feeling thankful when they get a degree with “only” 50k of personal debt (GW’s the most expensive school in the country).

For our crowd, pizza doesn’t always pack them in–changing the world does. Time is precious for the young women and men who gather here, and when we give them compelling reasons to show up, they make time. And so we program things like talking about peacemaking, the environment, human rights in Burma, and gun-control laws. Then we can slip in a bit of dodgeball or volleyball….

From what I can tell, on many campuses we would be doing our greatest ministry by providing free childcare for college students. I would love to see campus ministries begin economic justice groups for students, groups who would pressure the credit card companies who charge 30% interest to students to quit enticing teenagers with t-shirts and trinkets. I would love to see students become organized in backing health care issues, since young adults in our country are the ones who are the least likely to be covered by insurance.

With the changing face of students, there are so many opportunities for us to make a huge difference in the way we reach out to them. So, what would you want to see?


13 thoughts on “Changing students/the world

  1. Up north of you, Campus Crusade continues to pack ’em in. I haven’t seen invisible football, but there’s lots of “youth groupy” activities. I don’t know how they are managing to get such a big group.

    One of our PCUSA colleges, a college where I once worked, has started a “women with children” program where younger female students come to college–with kids–special dorms, special everything. Almost everything is kid-friendly.

  2. I staff the National Network of Presbyterian College Women, a ministry of the PC(USA) whose mission it is to be a community of young women seeking what it means to claim a Christian faith that empowers women. The Network (mainly known by its acronym, NNPCW) is about 15 years old, and as I have only been its staff person for a little over a year I think it’s okay for me to brag about it a bit.

    NNPCW reaches out to college women in a couple of authentic, creative ways. The most important, in my opinion, is that we meet women where they are, and we offer them a place to really explore their faith. They come with their doubts, they come with their disappointments, they come with their fears, and somehow (I’m still not quite sure how exactly this happens), in coming together with other women who are doing the same thing, they discover faith, and hope, and love. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard members and alumnae of NNPCW say, “If it weren’t for NNPCW, I wouldn’t be in the church.” And what is so amazing to me is that while they find faith, and hope, and love through coming together with other women just as they are, while so many of them decide to stick it out with the institutional (mainline!) church, the faith they claim is so authentically their own. They create and claim a space within the church that resists dogma and exclusivity, and in so doing, they become my model for evangelism.

    That being said, NNPCW also needs to take note of the “changing face of students,” as you put it. The women of NNPCW are primarily white, middle class, four-year college students. At the last meeting of our Coordinating Committee, however, we began to talk about how to reach out to a more diverse demographic, including more women of color, more women at two-year schools, more older students, and even women between the ages of 18-25 who for one reason or another do not attend college.

    While I have to admit that the women of NNPCW aren’t above a free pizza, that’s not what keeps them in the Network. Like your students, they are passionate about understanding and changing the world, mostly from a feminist/liberationist perspective. They want to engage in life-changing discussions and relationships. They want to talk about what matters most in their own lives. They want to help address the injustices that matter most in their communities. And, again, to my amazement, they continually struggle to create a church that is relevant to them and their peers.

    I will be interested to hear what other ideas your readers have to reach out to students. I really like your suggestions of providing childcare to students or organizing around economic injustices.

    On another note, have you seen the ads developed by the PC(USA) to reach out to young adults? I’d be curious to hear your perspective on them:

    Thanks for making it through my lengthly comment!

    Noelle Tennis Gulden
    Associate for NNPCW

    P.S. I got a complementary copy of Tribal Church from Alban the other day. I called and thanked them, but thanks to you, too!

  3. Hey Noelle! Thanks for stopping by. I’m very familiar with NNPCW. I knew your predecessor. She came to see us one February, and while the service was snowed-out, for the most part, she still met with me and a group of students at a Thai Restaurant. I still wear my “Jesus hearts feminists” t-shirt. You do great work! Keep it up.

    But I’m not familiar with the ads. I’ll have a look…. I hope you like the book!

  4. Let me be clear that I’m not a fan of the ads. For many reasons. The main reason, though, is that they feel really sarcastic and inauthentic to me. There could be a whole blog post about them, I’m sure!

  5. Noelle,

    It was really interesting hearing what the NNPCW is doing. It has been a while since I have heard anything from your quarters.

    The one problem that I see with the ads developed by the PC(USA) is that the site lists Youth and Young Adults together. As Carol denotes the current age of college students is growing and expanding. In the PC(USA) lumping these two different groups together has meant treating two large groups the same that may have little to do with each other. I would like to see Seniors and Youth lumped together and see how long that lasts (although Seniors might have more in common with youth).

    I applaud your attempt to diversify the NNPCW’s membership. Hopefully, when these new women are given vital leadership roles in the NNPCW they will bring a wealth of wisdom and experiences. Good luck on leading an vital part of our church. It sounds like you are doing a good job.

  6. I read your post and then left to meet with a student from Lake Forest College. She is involved with the Habitat for Humanity chapter on campus. We recently started a Bible study on campus. When I asked the students when they would like to meet, they said Tuesdays at 7:15… A.M. I said A.M. One of the students had just come from seeing a documentary about Darfur.

    I would not have gone to see any documentary when I was in college, unless “This is Spinal Tap” counts. I would not have attended a Bible study, much less one at 7:15 a.m. (By the way, I felt called into ministry in high school.) The head of the HFH chapter at our college actually managed to bring a flatbed to campus, build a house on the trailer, and then moved the house to its site. Why? We were all too lazy to leave campus and go to an actual building site.

    Generalizing? Yes. But, wow how things have changed. When I was in school watching a war on television was not a big deal when it was over in 18 days and we could be comforted/amused by stories of “soldiers” surrendering to reporters.

    At this point I am playing no inivisible football. I am eating a lot and listening a lot and offering rides to the airport for the holidays. I am reluctant to prescribe much right now to a group who thinks email is outdated. I need to do a lot more listening.

  7. Patrick,

    Thank you for the reminder to listen. That hit me hard.

    I turn 30 this year, and while I don’t feel old (I’ve got a good 5 years left as a “young adult” in the PCUSA!), I have to remind myself that when I entered college, I didn’t have an email account. No one did. And the closest we got to texting was learning how to spell words using the numbers on a pager.

    I can’t assume that I know what college students need, even though I work with them everyday. I have to listen.

    (And yes, the hands are so strange…)

    Thanks again,

  8. Oh…the ads…oh no. Did the denomination hire someone to do them? Did they have any YAs look at them? I didn’t get to the hands. Were those on the tv commercials? I couldn’t download them.

    When I’ve listened to our students lately, they’ve been freaked out because there have been hate crimes on the campus, and at U of MD. And they’re close to Va Tech. Out of everyone, I think they were the most freaked out by the fire at Western. It’s been a really hard and scary year for them.

  9. Hey! I just joined the conversation and agree that things seem far more serious for our students today than they did for me back in the ’90’s. I attended a junior college for two years, then went to a “Christian University” for three, and have to admit that even though I was working between 20 and 40 hours a week my whole college career, I was also involved in a lot of activities. Today, my students are so stressed out from working and taking 18 hours that often we do schedule “fun” in order to remind them that there is joy and creativity in the life of discipleship as well as serious intentionality.

    In fact, we moved our worship service on campus to Wednesday nights at 9pm because Sunday evenings were so darn hard. Our attendance has gone from an average of 9 to 20-25 – there is something about mid-week gathering that seems to be working. We actually did a service on laughter and joy this week including creating silly hats for each other and taking a cupcake/chocolate after we took communion. (The sweetness of the spiritual life as well as just the fun of it all!) We are all denominations – from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, Baptist and Catholic – and we take communion every week in the midst of other changing liturgies.

    My students are as likely to go to a documentary as they are to come for counseling b/c of serious mental health issues – either for them or their families. They tend to be more concrete than I remember being at their age – I wanted to change the world and challenge the status quo! They seem to be waking up to themselves and the world with different questions, particularly about the war and how to live together in a world that says only one of their belief systems can be “right.”

    All in all, campus ministry is the most challenging work I have ever done as a pastor; and, when it’s good, also the most rewarding! And even when it’s bad – no one shows up even though they said they would – suicide attempt(s) on campus, couples facing really hard choices with no roadmap – it’s still rewarding. I just hope I’m up to the continued challenge!

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