Imagine What's Next: College students serving God and neighbor

November 12th, 2014

We hear lots of gloom and doom around the topic of young people and the church. The usual articles focus on declining church involvement, decreased giving, and the rise of the “nones” as a religious category. But this past weekend, I discovered there is more reason to celebrate than to lament.

On November 7-9, I attended Imagine What’s Next, a United Methodist conference for college students held in Denver, CO. Sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry and organized by an amazing launch team, Next 2014 focused on the “spaces where church/world and present/future meet.” I went as a representative of The United Methodist Publishing House, and was blessed to connect with 600 college students and collegiate ministers from around the country.

Let me share with you some of what I witnessed this weekend, some of the ways God is working among our United Methodist college students.

I saw powerful, moving worship. Worship was thoughtful and enthusiastic, and it regularly went over schedule (in the very best way). It continued afterwards out into the common areas, as people kept right on singing, praying, and speaking God’s word to one another. It was as if we feasted on God’s presence together and nobody wanted to be the first to leave the table.

I saw our connectional church at its best. Every student I met has a deep desire to serve God and neighbor. Many of them connected with the agencies and seminaries of the United Methodist Church to explore what that will look like in their future. This is how our connectional church is supposed to work: men and women with a passion for the church’s mission are finding support and direction through our denomination.

I saw technology used responsibly and effectively. Online interaction enhanced, not hindered, our real-world experience of Christian community. Event organizers used Livecube to manage the event’s social media presence, enabling participants to interact in real time and share insights and celebrations with one another throughout the weekend. It was a look at how social media can be done right to build up our churches.

I saw the Spirit moving. The hotel’s atrium, our main gathering space, had a piano off to one side. More than once, two or three would begin playing and singing hymns, and others would quickly join in. A small group quickly would become 15, then 20, then 30, playing the piano, drumming on chairs, and singing loudly and beautifully in praise of God. Spontaneous worship in response to the Holy Spirit is a wonderful thing to be a part of.

I saw students thinking deeply and theologically about the future of the church. One student is interested in communications, and he spoke with me about the foundational role communication plays in the church’s identity. What are we called to do, after all, beyond proclaim—communicate—the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ? I high-fived him. Then he took it a step beyond that, reminding me that creation itself is God’s communication. God spoke the world into being, and Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh. Carry on, my friend. You are doing good work.

I spoke with several women and men who have a knack for writing, and who feel God calling them to serve with this gift. Their talents are diverse, some with creative fiction and nonfiction, others with curriculum for youth or adults. But what impressed me most was their keen insight into things that must be written. They all have a clear sense of the conversations that Christians need to be having today and in the future. And they have a willingness to tackle those conversations head-on.

I saw ministers and student leaders guiding the body of Christ within college communities. One Wesley Foundation celebrates communion weekly and builds their life together around worship. Another gathers it students into intentional Christian communities within their college campus, making their Christian walk a daily lived experience. It is not easy being a Christian in a college community, but these students and leaders are living out their faith boldly and with deep commitment.

I saw ordinary Christians being faithful. My favorite moment was speaking with two 20-year-olds who attend church every week, without fail. They want to serve God in other ways as well, but I was struck most by their steadfast, ordinary faithfulness. One talked about how she spends her Saturday nights differently than her peers, because Sunday morning church is non-negotiable. The other regularly offers rides to fellow church members, especially the youth she works with. “I’m the only 20-year-old there,” she said with a smile. “They love me.” Such regular commitment is rare for any demographic in 2014, especially college students. I want to write their churches and tell them what a gift they have. “Keep it up,” I tell them both. “You have no idea how important you are to them.”

The weekend’s conference invited participants to “Imagine What’s Next.” What’s next, I believe, is faithful, informed, and energetic Christians following God and leading the church. And from what I saw this weekend, that is not at all a stretch of the imagination.

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