What should we cut; what should we cut?
That’s the question many religious communities, like many families, are asking. They want to reduce spending by eliminating all that is inessential.
In theory, that is a great idea, of course. To put the theory into practice, however, the operative question is “What is essential?”
One area often targeted by religious communities to cut is ministry with college students. I’m not sure why, though I think it has to do with college students being so transient, so irregular in their attendance and so minimal in their volunteering and giving.
Recently I was asked to address this trend. My response was that ministry with college students should be amplified, not diminished. Now, I bet you are wondering “Why did he say that?” Since I like you, I’ll tell you.
First, during the college years, there is a distinct openness to new ideas and to the exploration of faith. This openness allows college ministry the opportunity to soothe some and stir up others searching to connect their spiritual hunger, social commitments and academic pursuits. In college, many choices and challenges are raised — be they moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, economic or other — which should be held in dialogical tension to create a healthy and whole person.
Second, college ministry can provide tools to live a faithful and informed life. It is unfair for college ministers to create false security, a sheltered environment where every question is answered, and all needs are met. The more appropriate approach is to invite students to be honest with questions about faith, to take a critical look at their inherited faith and then to begin the task of clarifying what is helpful and what is not. There may be periods when the ground of one’s faith is shaky; into that uncertainty, however, can come recognition that life is uncertain, and that faith is grounded in a reality that embraces such times and tells us the truth about those times. What seems to be endless wilderness may be an opportunity to go farther and deeper with one’s faith.
Third, college ministers have important opportunities as pastors to bring word of hope and peace in times of crisis, whether personal, institutional, national or worldwide. College ministers are blessed with opportunities for pastoral counseling: the great privilege of being invited into the sanctuary of someone else’s soul.
Fourth, college ministers have important opportunities as prophets. In the midst of an academic community, college ministers can prod others to deeper engagement of issues that matter, to more honestly asking how we should respond. College ministers should always complement “cogito ergo sum” with “amo ergo sum,” challenging the community to love as well as think.
Fifth, when done well, college worship informs and inspires. What is worship that is done well? It is worship that is genuinely ecumenical; emphasizing that God’s grace is wide enough to receive us all. It is worship that allows room for the Holy Spirit to affirm our gifts, challenge our frailties and enlarge our perceptions. It is worship that reminds us that the strength of love reaches us wherever we are and brings us together. It is worship with order and flow, but is not stale or stiff. It is worship filled with songs and images from all over the world, with prayers and proclamation, with drama and dance, with art and flowers. Most of all, it is worship filled with the gifts of the gathered community.
Finally for now, college ministry can simply be fun! It should be. The college years should be challenging; they should be formative; they should be a bit confusing, at least from time to time. Amid all that, college should be this fun time of trying on ideas and perspectives, learning everything possible, figuring out how to save the world, playing hard, working hard and more.
Any metabolizing minister could not help but love to be in that mix!