When Faith Goes to College . . . And Joins the Wrestling Team

Considering the amount of online commentary available concerning the millennial generation and the future of the church, the relative dearth of attention paid to young adults’ experience of faith and college is surprising. After all, college changes people.

The 18-year-old who steps foot on campus during orientation week is, as students today would say, “super different” from the graduate four-plus years later. Among other changes, students’ faith claims shift over that time. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, college students must make active decisions about whether and how to live out their faith without the support of their parents.

Academic study pushes students to engage life’s big questions of existence, life together, and how to get a job. Further, the diversity of views students encounter in college—both religious and secular—can lead students to ask a wide range of questions themselves:

  • What am I supposed to do with my life?
  • Is that girl/boy into me?
  • What do you mean Paul didn’t write Ephesians?
  • How is that atheist in my philosophy class so darn nice?
  • What will my parents say if they find out I’m gay?

When I was in seminary, I remember taking education classes that focused on childhood development, emphasizing learning stages and the appropriate programming for congregational life. When it came to address college-aged students, though, the class trailed off. We each had ideas of what we might do with college students to support their faith, but few of us could point to vibrant campuses where it was happening.

I know now that we could have found many places where God is working in and through college ministries, but like most good ministry, it’s not easily replicable in other contexts. Ministry with college students calls us to carefully examine each college ministry context aware of the existing faith communities in the area, the ministry already happening on campus, and of course, the students themselves.

From Generalizations to Specific Stories

When those of us in the Church speak of young people today we often move to generalizations rather quickly. Out of good intentions, we read the latest studies on millennials and try to wrap our heads around what twentysomethings think, act, and believe. We invite speakers and sign up bloggers who tell us how to reach the unchurched and the uninterested. More rarely, though, do we actually hear from young people themselves.

When it comes to the church and college students today, students aren’t “out of sight, out of mind,” they’re “out of sight and on our minds.”

I recently edited a collection of essays, Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College, that aims to address this void. The volume is a collection of twenty-one essays written by college students, or recent college graduates, reflecting on their experiences of faith and college. The reflections touch on a wide range of deep, powerful, dangerous, and sometimes head-scratching college-related experiences. And though my position as editor of the volume surely makes me a touch partial, I think nonetheless that Church can learn much from these students’ stories.

Stories of Wrestling with Faith, College & Life

Hillary Martinez, a student at Duke University, struggled with her sense of direction in college. She notes that, growing up, students perceive adults as having their lives all figured out so that they’ll progress in a smooth career path that’s just right for them. Though Hillary took a battery of career and personality tests, like many students, she couldn’t discern the perfect path forward. She wondered: if God had a plan for her life, why was God making it so hard to discover?

What if our congregations intentionally walked alongside students, mentoring them and helping them to discover God’s sometimes-surprising calling for their lives?

20150320_Copeland_Cherry_TreeEventually, a summer internship at a tutoring center exposed Hillary to adults who saw their work as their vocation. She writes, “Until that summer, I assumed that only a few people were actually called to ministry,” but after a discussion with her supervisor she “began wondering if ‘ministry’ might be a more everyday concept that I had previously imagined.”

What if our congregations intentionally walked alongside students like Hillary, mentoring them and helping them to discover God’s sometimes-surprising calling for their lives?

Many students in college wrestle with the joy and pain, connection and disruption of sex and sexuality in college culture. Steven Porter, a closeted gay man studying at a church-related, evangelical college, writes of the enormous pressure he felt to keep his sexuality hidden. Steven’s freshman year, he even co-wrote a paper suggesting how Christian churches should respond to questions of sexuality; it did not advocate full welcome for gay and lesbian members like himself. Over the next few years, Steven’s views changed, but coming out in that culture remained incredibly difficult. If a young person is part of a faith community that claims the sinfulness of homosexuality as a pillar of the faith, where does the questioning stop when one comes to understand God’s love, and biblical witness, as fully welcoming of gays and lesbians?

While Steven’s sexuality-related questioning in college had to do with homosexuality, other students’ experiences run the gambit from how to deal with a tough breakup, to sexual assault (and the culture surrounding it), to more foundational questions of concerning love and body image.

What if our congregations talked more openly about sex and sexuality, moving beyond stances for or against homosexuality or extra-marital sex, and towards open, honest dialogue about God’s gift of sexuality?

In an era when, for good reason, we’re examining the potential dangers of fraternity and sorority culture, Michael Casey W. Woolf writes an essay entitled “Finding God on Frat Row.” For Michael, fraternity experience at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville showed him a glimpse of the best of life together in intentional community. At his fraternity, Michael felt a sense of spiritual connection absent from his congregation. His reflections raise important questions for congregations interested in remaining in relationship with students as they move from the comforts (and confines) of family life at home to the sometimes-isolating experience of college life in dorms and other forms of student housing.

What if congregations modeled our life together after the best of communal living? How might we partner with colleges to support and learn from students’ experience of living together in new ways?

In another essay, “Christians Suffer from Depression Too,” Andrea Campo describes her experience with clinical depression in the midst of a church-related college campus suspicious of the condition. After much struggle and a decision to begin medication, Andrea came to believe, “Making the decision to get treatment for something you can’t overcome on your own is actually very strong. I certainly didn’t think that way at first, but I’ve come to think of my pills as little 100-mg doses of God’s grace.”

Andrea’s experience points to questions that congregations must ask for all of the people they serve, but the challenge for college students with depression in a transitional stage of their lives is particularly acute.

How does your congregation support those with depression? If you rarely address it, what does your silence communicate?

So what?

Why do these stories, these students, matter for the church today? I think they make clear the need for the Church to think in very focused ways about the experiences and needs of college students and other young adults as these shape particular challenges and calls to faith. Too often, if we’re honest, congregations welcome young people so they bring down the average age of worshipers.

When we build faith communities of thoughtful, authentic, compelling, action-oriented followers of Jesus Christ, college students—like all people—become interested in what they see. They want to become a part of that.

However, when we build faith communities of thoughtful, authentic, compelling, action-oriented followers of Jesus Christ, college students—like all people—become interested in what they see. They want to become a part of that.

But ministry isn’t only about being seen—showing forth the blessings of community and service in the world. It’s also about listening. We need to craft faith communities genuinely interested in the lives of college students and young adults. Too often, congregations want college students to join them in worship, to hear what we have to teach, without actually being open to their questions and experiences—to what they can teach us about how God is acting in their young lives.

To see the work of the Spirit in college students today, we must be open to students’ whole lives, welcoming them in as sisters and brothers, young adult pilgrims on the lifelong journey of faith. At our best, congregations welcome young people so that we can learn what God is doing in their lives and what that means for the Church in a rapidly changing world.


Adam Copeland

Adam J. Copeland teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota where he is director of the Center for Stewardship Leaders. An ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he is editor of Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College (2014) and author of several book chapters on ministry and culture. Follow him at @ajc123 and visit his blog http://adamjcopeland.com.

Photo credits:

Evan,” by Brik, 2010. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 / cropped from original.

Mazzard Cherry with Balliol Chapel and Croquet Players,” Piers Nye,  2013. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND/ cropped from original.