Christ-centered campus ministries bring Gospel to America’s secular generation
Rusty Benson
Rusty Benson
AFA Journal associate editor

April 2005 –“My parents don’t understand me!” This common lament of young people is generally shrugged off by parents who know that within a few short years Mom and Dad will suddenly seem much wiser.

However, for many now in their late teens and early 20s – from churched and unchurched backgrounds – that classic complaint may have more veracity than in earlier generations. What makes the “boom echo” generation (born between 1977-2000) different from their parents and grandparents?

“The way moral foundations have traditionally been formed is gone,” says Rev. Greg Thompson, Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) campus minister at the University of Virginia (UVA). “Students have basically learned how to be human beings by watching television.” RUF is the campus ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America. 

Thompson says there was a time when even unchurched young people were influenced by the Christian culture. Increasingly that is not the case, resulting in a national student body in which, to many, the claims of Christ are not even a category to be considered.

In addition, students from churched backgrounds – including many who consider themselves Christians – hold a shallow view of what it means to be a follower of Christ living in a secular culture, Thompson says. 

Is it any wonder that when their foundations are shaken by new challenging philosophies, so many students turn away from the faith of their families?

Yet for some, the college years are the time when Christ makes His deepest mark and sets a course that lasts into eternity. Frequently His claims are heard with new ears and embraced with new hearts through faithful college ministries. Leaders in these campus ministry organizations offer remarkable insights on America’s first secular generation.

Spiritual climate
On college campuses across the nation there is a growing spiritual openess, campus ministers say. However, that openess is toward all religions, according to Inter-Varsity campus minister Nikki Toyama. She says that at the University of California at Berkeley – near San Franciso – where she minsters, students are open to Jesus, but closed to Christianity as an organized religion.

Bill Wade, national collegiate ministries specialist with the Southern Baptist Convention, perceives students as very skeptical about Christianity. “They see Christianity as condemning and judgmental,” he says. 

Students particularly have difficulty with Christ being the exclusive way of salvation, Wade says. But still they are looking for “something bigger than themselves to believe in.” And that search is leading many toward eastern religions.

Intervarsity staffer John Lundgren says two other issues add to the skepticism on campus about Christianity: scandal in church leadership and disenchantment with the future. “We Baby Boomers were optimistic that if we applied our great minds to problems, we could solve them. These students are our children, and they don’t see the problems getting any better,” he says.

Along with what Toyama characterizes as the “question-everything-and-trust-nothing” attitude, she says there is a strong sense of personal entitlement among students. To non-Christians that may mean a perceived right to personal wealth and well-being. Among Christians it’s the attitude that “I’m entitled to a good life because I follow God,” she says.

Thompson says he sees the same thing among many UVA students from Christian homes. “What I frequently see is a ‘personalist’ understanding of their relationship with Jesus. It’s only about me getting on the heaven bus.”

Among athletes, Dan Britton with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) says, “Their relationship to God is often seen as a turbo booster: God can help me do great things for Him, and therefore, He is going to bless me and give me victories.” 

So on one hand, students display skeptical and self-centered attitudes toward spiritual matters. At the same time, they search for authenticity, meaning and purpose. It is between these ambivalent notions that campus ministers bring the claims of Christ to college students. 

Planet dorm
“More than ever, we have to approach each person as an individual,” says Tony Arnold, media relations director for Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), “reaching them in their unique setting in unique ways. Every dorm room is its own universe.”

For Toyama that means a strong focus on “incarnational ministry.” “Jesus is our model. He incarnated in a human body, so that we might have access to God. So we become part of campus and dorm life. We try to bring fellowship that wears the clothes of a college student to make the Gospel accessible.” 

Thompson’s methodology relies heavily on engaging students from the Scripture about universal issues. For example, his recent teaching series from the book of Revelation raised questions such as: Who governs your life? What do you do with your shame? Does your life matter? 

Students repond to such questions, Thompson says. “I’ve seen that part of Gospel ministry is taking people’s deepest yearnings seriously. And when you get to something as intimate as a yearning, it’s really hard for people to be ironic and cynical.”

Another dimension to reaching students with the Gospel is a genuine respect for their beliefs, Lundgren said. “Recently I was meeting with another person who was very religious, but would not agree with evangelical Christianity. I told him that it was really important that I understand what he believed and that he not feel like I have blown him off. He got a tear in his eye and said, ‘I can’t believe you said that.’ At that point we were off and running. We were into deep stuff. And for me when you get into deep stuff, you finally get into Jesus.”  

Along with respect, authenticity is also key. “Ministry on campus is very effective when it moves beyond the stereotypes that the unbeliever may have as to what a Christian looks like or says or sounds like,” Arnold says. “But when a believer is winsome, articulate, knows what he or she believes and lives it out in daily life, that is persuasive and unique. Students flock to it.”

Students also respond to simple Biblical hospitality. “I’m beginning to learn how important hospitality is,” Thompson says. “When you invite someone into your home they begin to understand what it means to be welcomed by Christ.”

The harvest
With slightly different emphases, campus ministers express similar hopes for the impact of their ministries in the lives of students.

“The thing that I most long for in my students is that they get a bigger picture of their faith,” says Toyama. “I want them to see that it’s not just a Sunday faith that is compartimentalized into things that are just spiritual issues. I want them to see every aspect of their lives as an act of worship to God.”

Likewise, Wade says, “My hope is that our students understand that their lives are not for themselves, but for Kingdom involvement. So we are trying to be intentional in communicating to students that they are not here to get an education, but to be a witness for Christ; and that the great job they may get is seen as an another opportunity to invest in the Kingdom of God.”

“I hope Campus Crusade’s ministry leads students to be captivated by their relationship with Jesus,” says Arnold, “that they love Him and follow and serve Him throughout their life no matter what they are doing, and  that they have a sense that they are being sent.”

Britton outlines FCA’s vision in ministry using the words share, seek, lead and love. “We want to see our athletes share Christ boldly; passionately seek a more intimate relationship with Christ; lead others by using their gifts and abilities to impact their community for Christ; and love others unconditionally.”

“Basically I want them to love God and their neighbor,” says Thompson. He explained that Jesus’ summary of God’s law has implications in every area of life including being a spouse, parent, employee and church member. “I want to talk to them in 10 years and hear about how God is using them to build his Kingdom.”  undefined

Resources on the Web
•  Campus Crusade for Christ
• – Fellowship of Christian Athletes
• – Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA
• – Reformed University Ministries
• – Southern Baptist Collegiate Ministries
• – Online magazine for college students published by Focus on the Family