Dorm Room Discipleship

I wrote a similar post on this theme a few years back.

Living in a tiny room with another person is one the greatest joys and greatest headaches of college life. I’m convinced that it is also the greatest opportunity for becoming a better Christian. [Read more…]

To a New College Freshman: An Open Letter from the University Chaplain


Dear Student,

This is one of the most exciting times of your life. You are moving out of mom and dad’s house. You’re done with answering to curfew. And you are meeting more new people and getting to know them better than you ever have.

But I know you are also really anxious. You’re afraid that you won’t get along with your roommate. You’re afraid you won’t be able to pay the bills. You’re scared that you won’t fit in. You don’t know what to do when your car breaks down, your bank account is empty, or even when your clothes need washed. Most of all, you’re afraid that you will disappoint people when you don’t live up to expectations.

[Read more…]

To the Parents of a College Freshman: An Open Letter From Their Chaplain

Dear Parent,

I know that this can be a really difficult day/week/month. Sometimes it is made sad by your son/daughter’s excitement. It is always ridden with anxiety.

Today your relationship changes. You are still their parent. You always will be. You don’t have to worry about “losing” them. And don’t let the fear of losing them cause you to not let them grow up. They are ready to not have curfew, ask permission to stay up until 2 AM, or tell you whether they did their homework. They NEED to make decisions about majors, classes, and roommate choices on their own. If you give them enough freedom on these decisions then they may even take joy in asking your opinion. And they may even learn to do that for big decisions for their entire life.

[Read more…]

My Unremarkable Ministry Among College Students

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.

Religious Conversion and Emerging Adults

This is a little bit different post than I usually do on my blog, but these are things worth thinking about.  I hope you think so too.

Christianity Today recently selected Christian Smith’s book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, as a book of the year. Smith has done a follow project on the study previously released as Soul Searching.  The first book was a survey of American teens, this book is a follow-up study on those same teens as they enter early young adulthood (18-23).

The part I want to talk about here has to do with how denominations are doing among this age group.  Other sections of the book would reveal that emerging adults in every denomination are less likely to attend worship weekly, pray on their own, or read the bible on their own.  But the kind of Christianity which they find attractive is also significant. The four categories of Christians discussed in Smith’s book in the section on religious conversion are Conservative Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, and Roman Catholic.

Here are some summaries.

Of those who were Mainline Protestants at age 13-17, by age 18-23 they will be
51% Mainline Protestant
19% Conservative Protestant
1% Black Protestant
1% Roman Catholic
26% Non-religious or indeterminate

Conservative Protestant teens will be
64% CP
10% MP
2% BP
3% RC
20% Non or Ind

Black Protestant teens will be
55% BP
21% CP
2% MP
3% RC
19% Non or Ind

Roman Catholic teens will be
66% RC
6% CP
3% MP
<1% BP
23% Non or Ind

These are all rounding to the nearest percent, so the numbers may not add up to 100%.  I also didn’t include the other religions because combined they equal less than 1%.  (Except for, interestingly, Mainline Protestants who were 2% likely to be a non-Christian but religious person.) He also includes some denomination specific numbers, but frankly these numbers are insignificant because the representative sample from any given denomination is small.  Some relatively large samples that changed are (Methodists decreased by about 23%, Baptist lost 19%, independent/nondenominational increased by 44%).

(All of these numbers come from my calculations based on the weighted numbers from his chart on 109.)

The first observation is that all of these groups have a net loss, which isn’t reflected in these percentages but is in Smith’s chart.

The rest of it is not very surprising.  Only about 1/2 of Mainliners will stay there.  Roughly the same amount will become a more “conservative” Christian as will leave religion altogether.  My conservative friends have long said that the lack of teaching and commitment among Mainline Protestants will leave young people spiritually bankrupt.  But they may be surprised to find that these young Mainliners are just as likely to find their way into a different kind of Christianity than to find their way out of it.  The inculturation of being a Christian worshiper, in any form, helps prepare them for the evangelical message of more conservative Christians. This may not be of any comfort to Mainline churches who are struggling to survive however.  The fact that they are being faithfully Christian somewhere else doesn’t help keep the lights on.

Conservative Protestants have a higher retention, but they are far more likely to move to non-religious than to another kind of Christianity.  This is likely due to the premature “crisis” of faith which evangelical Christianity often creates when they pressure young people to make a commitment of faith.  It introduces an either-or proposition that will sometimes lead to a negative.  Imagine the teenager who experiences a weekly altar call for 18 years, but is not yet sure of their faith.  It becomes pretty easy to simply run when they are no longer required to attend church by their parents.

Roman Catholics have similar retention to the Conservative Protestants, but their young people are far more likely to be non-religious young adults, almost to the same extent as Mainline Protestants.  While they too have a more clear either-or distinction which creates a certain amount of loyalty, Christian education among Catholics and Mainliners is not emphasized nearly as much as among conservatives.  The religious education seems to make a difference in retention.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about Black Protestantism to make significant contribution, except to say that sociological barriers  mean that the small number of converts to Roman Catholicism or Mainline Protestantism is not surprising to me.

Looking at these numbers from another perspective can also be illuminating.

of the Mainline Protestants at age 18-23, when they were age 13-17 they were from
53% Mainline Protestant
29% Conservative Protestant
2% Black Protestant
9% Roman Catholic
1% Non-religious or indeterminate

Conservative Protestant emerging adults were
71% CP
8% MP
8% BP
6% RC
7% Non or Ind

Black Protestant emerging adults were
79% BP
10% CP
2% MP
2% RC
6% Non or Ind

Roman Catholic emerging adults were
90% RC
4% CP
1% MP
1% BP
4% Non or Ind

The most surprising thing here was that almost no one converts to Roman Catholicism during this age group.  Experience tells me that the 4% of Conservative Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism do so on very heady and theological grounds.  Roman Catholicism long history of theological discourse is appealing to some evangelicals who have experienced relatively shallow theological discourse.

Almost no non-religious persons find their way into Mainline Protestantism.  Some Conservative Protestants will land there after being disillusioned with their own tradition (which is my reading of the significant number that come to Mainline Protestantism from Conservative Protestantism).  But nearly no young people  who are non-religious find enough appealing in Mainline Protestantism to be converted.  This is not a good sign for MP leadership.  If MP leaders are going to take “church growth” seriously among these young people, it seems that “catching” falling Conservative Protestants is a legitimate call. I know that many become disillusioned with their bible churches or charismatic churches and they need somewhere to go if they are not to give up the faith altogether.  I think Mainline Protestants just need to embrace that calling at this time in their history and make what they can of it.  The plus side for them is that many of these people have been patterned into high levels of commitment and involvement, both of which are needed among young adults in Mainline churches right now.

Of course, the non-religious people didn’t convert to ANY of these traditions in significant numbers.  The higher numbers among more evangelical churches (BP and CP) is not a surprise. But even they saw relatively small numbers (6% and 7%, respectively). At the same time, the nonreligious and indeterminate categories together more than doubled (324 as teens to 690 as emerging adults).

Its hard to say much about Conservative Protestants in this regard, except to say that they are equally likely to see their potential converts come from Mainline Protestantism or Catholicism as they are non-religious.

OK….this data seemed more interesting when I started it.  Now that I have done some analyzing, it seems that the only significant thing that I learned is that Mainline Protestantism has a significant ministry among the 36% of Conservative Protestants that leave that category.  This may be the most important growth opportunity among young Mainliners as well.  They actually need these CP folks who come into MP churches.  How will Mainline churches reach out to them?  How will they cast their nets in that direction.  The other thing that I learned: Roman Catholicism either needs to take their “new evangelization” more seriously or change their tactics.  Again, I don’t know enough about RC to say for sure.  My hunch is that Roman Catholics are doing very little to evangelize non-Catholics.  Its time.

What other observations do you have that I have left out?  Do you think any of my analysis is off base?