This is the second article by church planter, Robin Waller. Every church and ministry can learn from his insights into the questions today’s students are struggling to answer.
Over the last 13 years I have served in a church involved in the discipleship of thousands of students across a number of major university campuses in Canada. Our mission, as LIFT Church, is to see people made fully alive in the hope of Jesus, by being the Church on college and university campuses. Our interactions across these thirteen years have led to a great deal of first-hand experience with the hopes, dreams, struggles and questions that university and college students are currently facing.
Questioning identity, belonging and purpose
At a baptism service this past summer, we baptized five people. This group included a former Muslim, a Hindu, an Atheist and two people raised with exposure to the church. Those baptisms were a microcosm of the current broader climate of the university: the campus is diverse, post-Christian and in no way dominated by the edifice of Christendom.
While many in the church could view this climate as a key threat to our faith, diversity and postmodernism are perhaps some of the greatest gifts that the church has received. Despite the intellectual and philosophical pitfalls of postmodernism, it has created an environment where the individual in search of truth and meaning is dominant. Each person is deeply wrestling with questions of identity, belonging and purpose. Who am I? Who are my people? Where are we going?
The Gospel speaks
The Gospel speaks with great power and precision to all three of these questions, providing a light that shines in the many dark corners of university life. These are not new questions by any stretch of the imagination. Though there are nuances that are specific in our technologically-fueled climate, the Gospel, as it always has, transcends both time and culture to speak life and hope.
University students are not afraid to confront the broken reality of our world; something that Christians through the ages have simply called sin. This brokenness is self-evident to them. But they are anxious, alone and in desperate search of a secure identity. This is evidenced by the 65% of students who self-report as feeling overwhelmingly anxious, and by the 13% that have contemplated suicide. In a generation that has been raised to believe they can be anything they want, they must now choose to be something specific. The choice is overwhelming. Into this frantic search for an identity, many potential solutions present themselves: athletics, academics, politics or sexuality. The result is university students who are wracked with anxiety in a culture where performance and value are intrinsically and inexorably linked.
The Grace of Jesus
However, the Gospel speaks both to the profound sinfulness of humanity and the supreme and amazing grace of Jesus who, despite our brokenness, has invited us to be whole. To the question “who am I” it says, you are loved, valued and invited into relationship by a God who is wholly and entirely good! The Gospel defines who we are by first establishing that there is a good and great God who loves his creation. In his sovereignty we are invited to be true sons and daughters of the King of Kings! That truth is not just religious jargon; it is like a drink of fresh water in a desert to many university students. The basics of the Gospel, our sin and God’s grace, are the most powerful message we have. The Gospel answers the question “who am I?” with an emphatic statement: you are fully alive in Jesus! What could be better?
Any church that wants to seriously engage the university campus must offer the fullness of the Christian Gospel. This is because the Gospel does not invite us to define ourselves by what is in us or even what we are for or against. Reception into the Kingdom of God is not predicated on anything that we do, rather it is built upon Jesus’ grace. In the same way we are called to surrender our lives to Jesus and receive his grace to become sons and daughters. We are also invited to build a community under his name and become brothers and sisters. For this reason, a meaningful, and sacrificial church witness is essential to engaging university students. Programs and events will simply not cut it; we must go deeper and actually embody the Bride of Christ – the Church.
A framework for belonging
Group identity has always been a major part of what it means to be human. In the current university context there is intense pressure to associate and define ourselves by individual identity and thereby find or create the distinct group to which we belong. In this way, the Gospel provides a framework for belonging that is not based on fitting our individual identifiers, be they liberal, conservative, Black, White, Asian, or otherwise, but on the person of Jesus who died for all. For there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This empowers students to understand and live in unity, rather than experience division due to individual social, economic, racial, and gender lines.
However, community by itself is an insufficient cause for existence. The mandate of the church is not to exist for its own sake but rather the benefit of others. We were created for partnership in the mission and purpose of God to see creation restored to relationship with him (2 Corinthians 5:20). Without a doubt the Christian life is hard and will involve great trials. In those trials, rather than responding with the assumption that something is wrong, we can invite students to persevere in their work to see Christ glorified in their lives. In that perseverance, they develop grit and faithfulness to pursue a purpose beyond themselves. They learn to be satisfied in a life given to the glory of Christ. What could be more beautiful and fulfilling than to see the Creator of the Universe glorified in us?
The yearning for meaning and purpose is as real today as it has ever been. It is a search that will inevitably include trials, tribulations and suffering. When a student encounters these challenges they are wired and taught that something is inherently wrong. This leads to a desperate search for purpose without suffering, challenges or trials and the accompanying anxiety created by the fear that their lives will amount to nothing. The Gospel releases the pressure of performance and value by providing students with the mandate that all of our efforts are for the glory of Jesus and not ourselves.
At LIFT Church we disciple thousands of students in the way of Jesus and believe that they are asking incredible questions to which the Gospel not only provides answers but also offers a “fully alive” life of wholeness, unity and purpose in which Jesus is King. We would love to see every church engage the university students around them in the same way.
 College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Ontario Canada Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016. Hanover, MD