By Benjie Shaw
Collegiate ministry specialist, Tennessee Baptist Mission Board
Working with college students and young adults is great because it affords an opportunity to influence a person in what is probably the most formative timeframe in their spiritual and personal development.
When we enter into a student’s world during their college years, we have the opportunity to easily influence their life-trajectory before it ever blasts off.
I’m in my mid-30s now. I’ve got a wife, two kids, a car note, a mortgage, and a host of other bills. Changing my life trajectory, while not impossible, is complicated.
Students, when influenced during their college years, can make seemingly radical decisions out of obedience to Christ that will drastically influence their course of life going forward more easily than mid-career or even near-end career folks.
But make no mistake, this is difficult work. Students are smarter, more skeptical and less willing to give people like me the time of day.
There is no benefit of the doubt because of the office I occupy. Instead, I’m viewed as biased. I have had students referred to me to discuss issues with which I am intimately familiar who have declined to proceed with a conversation when they found out that I’m a minister.
Their presupposition was that they knew what I would say because it would be what I had to say to perform my job and to maintain my supposed power.
One of the verses that was repeatedly shared with me when I initially began discerning my call to ministry and was repeated ad nauseam during my time in seminary encouraged me to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (I Peter 3:15).
A couple of notes on that verse. We tend to jump straight to the “prepared to make a defense” part while overlooking the introductory clause. We are initially commanded to “honor Christ the Lord as holy” as we prepare our defenses and state our reasons. I take that to mean that, no matter the issue, we should be Jesus-centered in our response.
We need to demonstrate through reason how Jesus is different. How Jesus is better. How Jesus is the most complete explanation for whatever issue is raised. First, honor Christ the Lord as holy. Then, be prepared to make a defense. We also leave off an important post script in the verse. I intentionally omitted it above to demonstrate how thoroughly we’ve neglected it.
I Peter 3:15 ends with the phrase, “yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Start with Jesus, give a reason and be kind about it.
If you want to work with college students, young adults or skeptics, you will do well to keep this particular biblical admonition in mind.
You can pretty easily accomplish the first (honor Christ as Lord) and last (be gentle and respectful) with the tools that you already have.
But emphasizing these components does not minimize the “give a reason” aspect. You’ve got to have good reasons.
And if you want to work with students, being conversant in the following areas is increasingly important:
(1) Issues around sexuality: homosexuality, bisexuality, co-habitation, pornography, and building/maintaining a personal/biblical sexual ethic are all important areas of conversation.
(2) Issues around gender: Can you define “transgender?” Can you give a reasoned, nuanced explanation for your viewpoint? What is gender, anyway? This is an increasingly common area of discussion amongst young adults.
(3) Why trust the Bible: Are you familiar with why notable skeptics disbelieve the Bible? Can you give a response that goes beyond, “You just have to believe”? Students are willing to consider our claims, but our common defenses show that we’re almost completely ignorant of the claims of skeptics that resonate with students.
(4) The claims of pluralism: Students have grown up around people who believe differently than they do whom they still consider to be “good people.” Surely God wouldn’t punish someone just because they were born into a different faith? And don’t all religions essentially teach the same thing anyway? We don’t have enough knowledge to conclude who’s right or wrong. And what is “right” for that matter anyway?
(5) Science and faith are contradictory: Well-intentioned people of faith have made this bed. For a long time, we have implied or explicitly stated that, at some level, we have to choose if we will believe the Bible or science. While emphasizing the importance of academics, we have asked students to not think about this one area too much. As a result, they conclude that faith is rooted in ignorance and science is the only authentic arbiter of truth.
(6) Mental health issues: Young adults are diagnosed with mental health issues at an exponentially higher rate than previous generations. You are, of course, not a counselor and should not act as such. But familiarizing yourself with common symptoms of afflictions such as anxiety and depression and making an intentional effort to be empathetic with those suffering from them is helpful. B&R