Why College Students/Young Adults?

On Sunday May 27, exactly one week after I receive my diploma from Wofford College, I will officially turn the page and start a new chapter in my life. That Sunday I will begin my first ministerial post at Frazer UMC where I will be serving as the Minister to College Students &Young Adults. When people talk about ministry they often talk about a calling. I’ll confess that I didn’t feel called so much to return to Montgomery but rather there is, inside of me, a deep calling to serve along side college students and young adults (CS/YA).

Many might reasonably argue that 18-25 year olds are the most sinful demographic in America but I am convinced that they are, in fact, the most sinned against demographic by the Church. For too long, the Church has neglected CS/YA and allowed them to remain outside it’s walls, resting assured that they will eventually return when they get married and have kids. This is a pattern that simply will not continue to work if the Church wishes to remain vibrant in a 21st century post-Christian context.

In what follows, I’d like to share 5 reasons why I feel called to accept the simultaneous joy and challenge of doing ministry alongside CS/YA.

1. WHERE CS/YA ARE IS WHERE THE CHURCH SHOULD BE…

That is, their needs, challenges, and desires happen to be the ones that Jesus actually cares about. I am often astonished at how easily the Church can become focused on the things we care about and neglect the things Jesus cares about.

For example, how many of the sermons the fill today’s sanctuaries are centered around topics like “finding purpose” or “achieving personal fulfillment?” Jesus doesn’t care about any of those things and from my experience neither do CS/YA.

I’ll never forget going to my first Passion Conference when an arena full of college students, most of whom live off of ramen noodles and frozen pizzas, raised 1.2 million dollars for global ministries and collected 18,000 towels and 88,000 pairs of socks for the homeless in the Atlanta area. CS/YA aren’t about personal fulfillment, but desire, instead, to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They are less interested in being filled up and more interested in being poured out.

How many of the prayer requests taken in our churches are about the physical deterioration of older family members?Let the record show that these are important things but they are also things Jesus seems to have little interest in. Jesus prays, instead, for things like daily bread and the forgiveness of enemies.

In fact, Jesus begins his earthly ministry by approaching presumably a group of young adults and saying, “Forget about your father. Let him worry about the fishing business [or] let the dead bury their own dead. You follow me” (paraphrased). CS/YA can resonate with that. This is something they are into. They possess an insatiable desire to step out of the status quo in the pursuit of something greater.

The Church, I’m afraid, lags behind.

2. CS/YA ARE A WONDERFULLY PROPHETIC CRITIQUE OF PREVIOUS GENERATIONS…

That is, they are often (maybe unintentionally) a prophetic critique of the world earlier generations have constructed and are handing over to them.

I believe that the Church has developed a theology of contentment, and as a result has found itself to be inadequate at speaking into discontent and suffering. From my experience, the Church has become very good at managing people’s contentment with God, but in the aftermath of the economic collapse and the ensuing social disease, the Church found itself unable to speak light into that darkness.

A little over a year ago I was handing out free meals with a friend of mine in the housing projects of inner city Spartanburg. This particular friend was conducting research in order to determine which students on the modern university campus were most likely to be open to the plans of the Gospel. The results showed that these particular students were ones that were either A) disgusted with contemporary American culture; B) from a broken home; or C) had a traumatic experience from their past. He believed that this data could also be applied to the wider society. I’ll never forget his conclusion which he shared with me.

“The reason evangelism is not driving the modern Church is not because we have the wrong message but because we are working the wrong neighborhoods. The Church, driven by its theology of contentment, has been working with those for whom the world, in all it’s glory, is already working for.”

CS/YA like my friend understand that Jesus had more success in Galilee than in Jerusalem. They get that Jesus focused on those in the margins and thus, as his people, we should be there too.

The Church is (or should be) in the business of truth telling and truth hearing. One of my suspicions is that CS/YA have been neglected by the Church because they are willing to tell the Church more than it would like to hear about itself.

3. CS/YA CAN BE THE ENGINE THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT DRIVES TO RENEW OUR CHURCHES.

There is something about this God that loves to work in people of this age. We know so little about Jesus’ infancy and youth. In fact, Jesus doesn’t get interesting to the Gospel until he becomes a young adult.

My sophomore year of college I went on a mission trip to New Orleans. There, we partnered with a unique inner-city church plant that met in a bar off of Magazine St. We arrived on Saturday night and on Sunday morning the pastor gave a message about being a witness to Jesus and sharing the Gospel with the least of these. After church we boarded a bus and rode into the worst parts of NOLA to do just that. They let us out to meet strangers and share Jesus with them.

After wandering aimlessly for a few minutes, I took a deep breath  and decided to enter into this tenement housing complex. Upon entering, I immediately heard a baby crying and, following the noise, I walked around a corner and knocked on a door. The door jerked open and standing there was a woman holding a naked baby.

“What to you want?” she said.

“I want to tell you about Jesus.”

That woman proceeded to curse me out all the way down the hall, around the corner and told me she better not ever see me there again. Crushed and feeling inadequate of the calling to share Jesus I began to pray about what to do. As I did, I noticed an old boarded up, mom&pop-style convenient store. I entered the store, looked around, and ended up buying a pack of cigarettes and a package of Pampers because the woman was smoking and the baby was naked.

So I returned to the housing complex and knocked on the door once again. Before she could shut the door in my face (or worse) I slipped the bag of cigarettes and diapers through the door.

“Come in,” she said.

I had a seat on an old worn in sofa. She lit a cigarette and proceeded to offer me one….

…I smoked my first cigarette.

I then opened the package of Pampers and offered to put one on her baby. I remained in her apartment for about 2 hours, just making small talk an getting to know each other.

Finally she asked, “What is someone like you doing in a place like this?”

“I was sent,” I replied.

“By who?” she asked.

“Jesus.”

She then asked, “How did Jesus know about me and my baby?”

“He notices. He cares. His heart breaks. That is why I am here.”

Before I left, she asked me to pray that she and her baby would one day make it out of there. When I got back on the bus, our leader asked me, “Did you share Jesus?” “No,” I said. “I met Jesus.”

I thought I was going to convert someone but I, in fact, became the converted. In retrospect the cigarettes were probably not a good idea but that is not the point. The point is that my story is not unique. CS/YA possess enough energy with just enough insight and courage with just enough foolishness that when combined they can remind the Church of the adventure of being Christian and infuse that attitude of adventure into the multitudes of those filling our pews that have been living off of spiritual capital that they accrued when they were 12. In doing so, CS/YA can make the Church anew.

4. JESUS IS CALLING CS/YA TO BE DISCIPLES AND TO DO GREAT THINGS…

I was recently discussing with some college students the story of the Rich Young Ruler found in the Gospel of Luke. There are not a lot of stories about young adults in scripture but here, Jesus is approached by an explicitly young person who asks a theological question.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”

Jesus responds, “Obey all the commandments” (paraphrased).

The young adult explains that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth. So Jesus adds something else.

“Sell everything you have and distribute it to the poor.”

Depressed by what he heard, the young man walked away.

I said to my friends, “I don’t know why Jesus beats up on successful young people, but relative to the rest of the world, I am afraid we fall into that category.”

I then received a very interesting question.

“Had Jesus ever met him?”

“Nothing in the text indicates that. Why do you ask?”

“I am just wondering if Jesus knew something about him that would have given Jesus that much faith in him. After all, Jesus doesn’t demand this of everyone he meets. I wonder if Jesus asked him to do this because he thought he may have the guts to actually do it. And if so, I wander if Jesus would ever look at me as someone with enough boldness to move when he speaks. I wonder if I would be able to give up all of the resources that my parents use to keep me attached to their world.”

I think the point of the story may be that he does and you can.

WOW! An otherwise tough and insoluble text, in the eyes of CS/YA is Gospel. To them, it is good news that a savior is on the loose who may ask them to move in mighty ways or require them to leave everything behind.

Which leads me to my final point…

5. CS/YA ARE NOT AFRAID TO WRESTLE WITH THE TRUTH…

It is widely regarded that the decisions you make between the ages of 18-25 are the most important because they will often times be the decisions that shape the rest of your life. Because of this pressure, CS/YA are often caught up in a relentless pursuit of truth. That is, they possess an insatiable desire to know what is real and what is true and then base their lives off of that truth. They are not afraid to ask tough questions and receive even tougher answers. For this reason, and others, I cannot wait to embrace the joy and challenge of pursuing truth alongside the future leaders of the Church. That truth that we seek – a Jew from Nazareth who lived graciously, died violently, and resurrected miraculously – will be the guidepost that marks our journey as we do life together and proclaim the coming of his kingdom.

I can’t wait!

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