Culture Shock

Saturday evening was warm and clear when I arrived on the college campus.  Arriving right on time for set up, there were only two tables left open – both facing directly into the blinding evening sunlight.  How long would it be before the sun dropped below the tops of the tall trees that ringed the small, grassy commons?  However long, it was going to be blinding and toasty until then.

I spent close to 20 years in a campus ministry setting.  Yes, it took me nearly that long to graduate, wise-acre.  Some of us are late bloomers.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.  
That campus ministry sat on the edge of a major university with 40,000 students on site (those were the figures when I started college there.  Now the student population is over 50,000).  I soon moved into a part-time campus liaison position for the congregation.  Each fall there was a major information fair for incoming students.  All of the official campus organizations as well as many other local businesses sat in a maze of tables as students filed through and picked up information as they saw fit.
We never got much interest from participating in that event, and I quickly dismissed it as rather pointless and quit doing it.  But this past Saturday, I revisited that environment at a much smaller liberal arts college nestled in the foothills above town.  I had debated even going, but I had received an e-mail from an incoming freshman’s parents several weeks ago, and we had arranged that we would make contact at this event and arrange for transportation for her to worship with us.  
I arrived with a handful of flyers that I had put together earlier in the afternoon, a small pile of business cards, and a sign-up sheet in case students wanted to be contacted with more information.  I was about the lowest-tech church represented at this gathering.  Perhaps 20 or so local congregations were out to meet, greet, and schmooze the incoming students.  Some tables had cooler full of iced-sodas.  Home made cupcakes.  Freshly popped popcorn.  One church was handing out sunglasses with their logo on them.  Another had frisbees with their church name on them.  Another table had a raffle going.  Most of the tables had young people there.  Engaging, attractive, quirky.  
Almost all of them had at least a table-banner for their church.  Many had whiteboards, standards, and display boards touting all of their activities and benefits.  It was definitely a surreal environment.  I was reminded of how strange it is for a stranger to walk up to you and ask you to describe your church.  In our denominational circles, most folks either know about us somehow already, or are lost.  We aren’t generally in the habit of trying to convince someone that they should come to one of our churches instead of another one because we have better tasting coffee or a better band.  
It was extremely surreal.  I made contact with the student and arranged to give her a ride the next morning.  I left shortly after, just over halfway through the 2-hour event.  I walked away wondering what had just happened there, and what I thought of it all.
It struck me that this is an interesting commentary on youth ministry, perhaps.  Is it a matter of bells and whistles, who has the best retreats, who has the flashiest materials, who has the food?  Is this what high school youth are being raised with in their churches?  Is this what a church is all about to these kids?  I’m sure not uniformly.  But if these young people were selecting churches based on who had the coolest bling to hand out, or where their friends seemed to really want them to attend, I suppose part of me isn’t too shocked at the appalling statistics about how many young Christians leave the faith during their college years.   
Only a few students stopped by my table.  Several were being polite – they had stopped at the table next to me and you could tell that they wanted to be nice and would pause and chit chat for a few seconds before moving on.  It was fascinating, struggling with what to say to someone who not only had no idea what a Lutheran church might be about (not necessarily surprising!), but who also seemed to be relatively open to the idea of any Christian congregation, as though teachings about the doctrines of the Christian faith didn’t exist, or didn’t matter.  
Nobody asked me if we were Trinitarian.  Nobody asked me what our stance on Baptism or Holy Communion was, or whether we subscribed to the ecumenical creeds.  It seemed to be based a lot on personality.  A lot on where the crowds were gathered and where the cool stuff was to be had.  
I don’t suspect that all of the swag handed out translated into new members or attenders for those congregations.  I suspect that as the new students get to know one another, they’ll gravitate in clumps to congregations where a majority of their peers are going, or to one of the numerous non-denominational congregations.  And I pray that wherever they end up going, they’ll be taught that it isn’t the fluff that matters.  It isn’t the flash and the glitz and the bling.  I hope they demand something deeper, and I pray they receive it.  They’re going to need it.

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