Student Ministries Survive by Coping with Cultural, Denominational Changes

( [email protected] ) Oct 10, 2003 10:35 AM EDT

In today's marketplace of college ministry, students are shopping to fill their spiritual needs with little brand loyalty, according to Baptist collegiate ministers.

Following a pattern that mirrors many young adults' church-hopping spirituality, a student may turn to a non-denominational group for Christian fellowship, a Methodist ministry for Bible study and a Baptist effort to do missions.

The Baptist name carries little attraction for today's college generation, explained Allan Thompson, director of the Baptist Student Ministry at East Texas Baptist University. Most students do not see the value of denominations, he said. "Denominational loyalty is a thing of the past."

Instead, student ministries today must rely on relationships to draw students, according to Clif Mouser, director of student ministry at Baylor University. Students become part of ministries through their network of friends.

"In the '40s and '50s, the [Baptist] name drew people. Now relationships draw them," Mouser explained. "They get involved because they encounter other Christian students who want them to get involved."

Although the initial draw is different, students' needs largely remain the same, added Arliss Dickerson, director of Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Arkansas State University. "I don't think they've changed in what they want. I think they've changed in how they react," Dickerson said. "I think the No. 1 thing is they want to belong to a group that loves them and encourages them."

Last year, 886 Baptist collegiate ministries nationwide reached more than 248,618 students using many of the techniques that have been staples for decades, including free lunches and evening worship services.

Student work is gaining in diversity as well. More than 10 percent of the 87,000 students actively involved in student ministries last year were African-Americans, and nearly 8 percent were ethnics, according to statistics compiled by LifeWay Christian Resources. Another 10 percent were international students.

Campus ministries outside the Bible Belt -- such as in New England, California and the Northwest – are multiplying rapidly, thanks largely to the work of volunteers, said John Ramirez, director of collegiate ministries for the Baptist Convention of New England and a strategist for LifeWay.

College ministries also connect with students by easing the transition from high school to college. Campus ministers help students move in and get situated. They also often offer concerts and parties as social events.

But the biggest draw is a personal invitation from a friend, and today's Christian students are rising to that challenge, said Joel Bratcher, director of the Baptist Student Ministries at Texas A&M University.

"Christian students are more passionate about their faith than when I started in this work," he said.

Michael Ball, director of the Baptist Student Union at Mississippi State University, finds students are looking for meaning in their lives.

"At the heart of things, the needs are much the same," Ball said. "When I first started out, I didn't want a cookies-and-Kool-Aid ministry. I was intentionally trying to challenge them. I think they're really wanting purposeful commitments in their own lives."

In this search for meaning, students are interested in exploring Christianity, campus ministers said. They are closely examining the faith and asking questions.

"Students by and large are trying to find what life is about, and they're open to examining God," said Steve Masters, director of Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Louisiana State University.

While college ministries have been based on small-group studies in the past, many are building on the popularity of praise and worship services, which incorporate musical styles more reflective of popular culture. The intense emotion of the services intrigues non-believers who want to know this passion, Masters said.

This college generation's desire to participate in missions is extremely strong, campus ministers also reported. Overseas mission trips once seen as dangerous or exotic are a normal expression of the students' faith.

Masters sees more students than ever answering a call to vocational ministry, but most are interested in becoming missionaries rather than serving local churches.

"Servant evangelism" is a draw as well, particularly outside the Bible Belt. Such ventures vary from campus to campus, but examples include helping students move in to dorms and serving hot chocolate during the winter in an effort to share the gospel.

"This generation is more about experience than exposure," said Thompson of East Texas Baptist. "They don't just want to know what's going on or see what's going on. They want to do what's going on."

Like all generations, however, today's college students' strengths are balanced by their weaknesses, said Dickerson of Arkansas State. He noteed that students seem to have trouble applying their faith to their lives. Although the large worship service brings people in, there is a great need for small-group Bible studies, he reported.

Additionally, statistics have shown financial contributions from this generation are significantly down compared to previous generations, a trend that could have major implications for the church, Thompson said.

The speed of change in American life has increased so much that college students and younger generations are absorbing changes without having a chance to examine them, campus ministers said. Constant change is part of their lives, and it will only become a larger part as the pace of change accelerates.

Baptist collegiate ministers largely agree the changing world coupled with new stylistic expressions of Christianity will alter the church. The question is how much.

Several predicted churches will continue to use contemporary worship styles. The emotionality may decrease as today's students grow older, but the approach will remain, leaders said.

Thompson sees more dramatic changes, however. He envisions churches that are defined more by their practical ministries rather than their doctrinal distinctions. Believers will regularly fellowship with several congregations to meet their spiritual needs. Outreach will be global as well as local.

"If you think it's a wild ride now, just hold on," he said. "I think it's going to get a whole lot wilder."