The Lantz Center for Christian Vocation and Formation is one of the programs of great depth in the Christian faith at the University of Indianapolis. UIndy, as we refer to the university, is not a “Christian university” in the way that many persons think of them. We don’t require chapel or a commitment to Christianity to attend. But we have always been affiliated with the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations and we take seriously our opportunity and responsibility to prepare our students (United Methodist and otherwise) for religious leadership. In the Lantz Center we do that by way of a two year program in ecumenical spiritual formation, where we teach prayer practices, study a theology of vocation and the place of God’s call in the students’ lives, and we form a small covenanted community of followers of the Way. The students that go through the program are of the minority of students that grow deeply in the Christian faith while in college, even while so many are walking away from their religious commitments.
In my work as a University Chaplain, I talk a lot with students about having a good mentor and becoming a good mentor to another. One of the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion is that only committed religious parents can have more impact on the religious faithfulness of young people than adult mentors. Mentors matter.
If you are going to spend 6 years of your life on something, you better learn more from doing it than the information that you are researching. I think I’ve learned a few things from working on one project for so long. So here are 6 things that I learned during my 6 year project.
After a couple of years of diving into the depths of theology, it had become clear that the “Sunday school faith” I had absorbed from my local congregation would not be enough to answer my difficult questions. At the same time, the deeply liberal theology of my college professors projected a God that was too weak and too far from the Jesus of Scripture for me to accept. Was I going to have to choose between being faithful to the God that I loved and having intellectual integrity?
I rarely enjoy a wedding as much as I did the wedding of Phil and Kelly Hassman. Part of it was my relationship with each of them. Kelly was one of my first students when I started teaching at the University of Indianapolis. She isn’t like every other college student. She speaks with depth and conviction about her commitment to Jesus. And she makes these terribly grounded decisions well beyond the maturity of woman in her early 20’s. She is the kind of young adult that makes you ready for where the church is heading.
She married this brilliant young man that I have had the joy of sharing life with for these last four years. Phil is one of the rare students that understood a call on his life to minister to me even as I ministered to him. His smile blesses me and his difficult questions challenge me. To think of these two amazing young people in mission and witness together is a hopeful thing.
But the pure joy that I get from my friendship with these two wasn’t the only reason that this weekend was so special for me. Both Kelly and Phil were commissioned by the Lantz Center for Christian Vocation that I serve as director. The climax of this formation process is a commissioning service just before they graduate in which I and my chaplain colleague, Lang Brownlee, wash the feet of the commissioned students following the example of Christ and calling them to follow Christ’s example as well.
I have washed both Kelly and Phil’s feet. I don’t know if they have ever washed one another’s feet. But I know that both of them have washed other’s feet both literally and spiritually many times. All of the high school students from Herron High School’s YoungLife, where Phil and Kelly serve, was a great testament to their commitment to service.
The pastor that married them, Jeff Krajewski, brought the image of foot-washing right to fore of their wedding. He challenged Phil and Kelly that one of the greatest ministries that they can have will be the proclamation of Jesus’ Good News as they wash one another’s feet. It will be the ground of their marriage. And their service to one another will tell us all something about Jesus’ love for the Church.
I haven’t had a chance to talk with Phil and Kelly about what was going through their mind as he talked about washing feet. I suspect that they were thinking a great deal more about the person that they were about to marry and wondering what they looked like as they stood in front of those several hundred people gathered. But I’d like to think that as Jeff challenged these two with the Gospel that is both embracing them and calling them to a deeper life, they were remembering the times when they have stooped at another person’s feet, washed their feet, and carefully wrapped a towel with care and compassion.
The call that Jeff gave to Phil and Kelly was also a call for me and lots of other pastors that the mundane things that we do to form persons….eating bread, drinking juice, serving soup, saying the Lord’s Prayer, memorizing Scripture, confessing sins, and washing feet…may come back into their lives as the most opportune time. Don’t forsake the disciplines of the faith, because washing feet may be the best way to learn how to model Christ love for the Church.
The American Church is pretty anxious about the failure to reach young adults with the Gospel. As I enter my fourth year as University Chaplain at the University of Indianapolis, I have just a few reflections on my rather successful, but unremarkable ministry.
Our United Methodist-related university is very supportive of our work in campus ministry, but our student body is not any more Christian than the state universities in Indiana. I like it that way. I do ministry among regular college students. And God is doing something among those students.
I hope that my reflections, which are quite personal, will be helpful to some pastors out there who are trying to serve these everyday college students well.
I try very hard to not be cool. This isn’t particularly difficult for me. I was born “not cool” and I will probably retire even less cool than I am now. And I think my students would rather not see me with bleached hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and screaming guitar. I think they want me to speak slowly, listen carefully, and resist the temptation to shout platitudes and oversimplify the complexities of life and theology.
The most valuable ministry that I have done is listening to young adults talk about their dreams. I often go the extra step to put an opportunity before them that I know will form them into deeper discipleship (summer camping ministry staff, short-term missions, a seminary catalog, etc.). I eat a lot of meals with them–slowly. I ask them what they believe about complex theological concepts, and then I challenge them without trying to correct them. Not very flashy. I know you are disappointed.
I have almost completed my Ph.D in Theology from a major seminary (All But Dissertation). But I haven’t won these students by brilliant teaching. I suppose I may be a slightly above average preacher. Because our campus ministry creates lots of opportunities for students to preach for the first time, I don’t even preach that often anyway. I don’t dazzle them with powerful lectures or even book studies on great books. Most of the bible studies that I do are really just reading a single book of the bible really slowly. We read Ephesians through a semester and Hebrews for an academic year. We are reading Romans now and will take a year for that one. We ask hard questions of the text and then together struggle with what the text might be saying and how it might be calling us to live. But I do refuse to let the simple answers offered by those on the right and the left to go unchallenged. I refuse to get anxious about those who disagree with me. I trust that if God is real then I don’t need to change anyone’s mind…the Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than I.
I don’t preach something innovative. But my students seem to find the story I tell to be compelling. I simply talk about the power of the resurrection in everyday lives. I talk about the suffering of Jesus that was reversed by the power of the resurrection which promises a time in which all suffering will come to an end by the return of the King. I challenge them to join the story by fighting injustices across the globe and in our own city. I challenge them to witness to the truth of the Gospel without the anxiety of having to convert the whole world. The Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than them.
I challenge the places in their lives where I see inconsistencies (either with themselves or with the Gospel) and I give them confidence that our relationship is not dependent on accepting my challenges.
I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hurt a few students with things I’ve said these last few years. I always try to own the parts that are my fault and ask forgiveness. Others have simply not liked me. I’ve tried not to let those folks make me insecure about my work as a pastor.
I haven’t done a whole lot that is impressive. But I have seen that my students love me and trust me. They invite me to be part of their illnesses, their successes, and the decisions that determine their futures. I thank God for this opportunity. They don’t trust me because of my guitar skills or my hair style. But they do trust me to lead them toward the deepest kinds of discipleship. I imagine that 20 years from now they will not look back and see me as someone who changed their life.
I’m not suggesting that we minister from mediocrity. I hope that isn’t what I am doing. I’m suggesting that really excellent ministry is done every day by compiling a series of otherwise unremarkable but terribly consistent acts of ministry and discipleship.
Here is the Good News: if I can do this rather unremarkable ministry then so can you. Nothing I have done these last three years is something that any pastor couldn’t do among young adults. They are dying (spiritually, if not literally) for someone to authentically follow Jesus with transparency in close enough proximity to their lives for some of it to rub off. You can do that too. Just put the Gospel on display by serving students well
Maybe some of the young adults that have found my unremarkable ministry compelling can share some of why they have done so. Maybe they can teach us how to minister to them well. Add some comments that will help other pastors reach young adults.