Campus ministry is a different matter

February 26th, 2015

She was a student from a church in our district, located near enough to us that they serve dinners to students each year. She grew up in that church and she was involved in the Wesley Foundation all four years of college, serving as a leader here in a variety of roles. And she stopped me cold with her observation. I had asked her to reflect on what makes Wesley different and valuable as a faith community for college students and she said, “No one at my home church would ever let me lead anything.”

I appreciate Tom Fuerst’s helpful reorientation this week on the topic of millennials’ engagement in church (Why Aren’t Millenials Attending Your Church?). He offers an antidote to the impotency of constant worry, and he gives one central thing every worshipping community could implement. I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that removing children and youth from worship, in favor of age-restricted and so-called age-appropriate activities, is misguided, has backfired, and has taken us too long to notice.

When he lumps campus ministry into the mix, I think he gets it wrong. In my experience, the majority of students involved in campus ministries also regularly attend worship in local churches. In fact, it’s encouraged. But young adults need the practical things campus ministry offers (meetings at “strange” times that fit an academic schedule rather than a work or family schedule, topics of particular relevance to their developmental and life stage, worthwhile ways to spend spring break), as well as what appears to be the unique thing — opportunities to try on new leadership roles in the church.

If any church should have “gotten it” my student’s home church should have. They are close enough to witness campus ministry first-hand and with one of their own. So the fact that a confident leader in her last year of college would say about her church that they’d never “let” her lead anything is telling. I have even heard a campus ministry board member say with exasperation how inappropriate it is for twentysomethings to join a church and then expect to serve in certain roles “without paying their dues.”

That’s where I see the bigger and more tenacious problem, with regard to young adults and the church. Many of our church communities seem stuck — even and especially when young adults do show up to be part of the congregation. Some seem stuck trying to hand over long-held systems and responsibilities, intact, to a younger generation living very different lives (no women’s group to handle all the hospitality needs because most women aren’t homemakers now). Others seem stuck in their stubbornness about the proper order of things (first you serve on the trustees committee then you …) Either way, you get the people you invite and make welcome to stay — whether you understand their life/job/relationships/leisure activities or not. You get the people you let lead (and allow yourself to follow) in new ways and directions. You get thoughtful, creative, newly experienced leaders for this generation, fresh from the campus ministries that helped form them. Or you don’t.

Deborah blogs at

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