Given that most growing mainline denominations began to shrink around 1964, what was it that made that year such an unhappy turning point? In the Outlook’s “Just the Stats” issue (Sept. 11), columnist Tom Ehrlich says, “‘What happened in 1964 … was that post-war Baby Boomers began to graduate from high school.'”
What did they do after graduating from high school? One thing they did not do was to wake up before noon on Sundays. Some attended on-campus Bible studies that fit into the eyes-open hours on their body clocks. Like 10:30 p.m. Others squeezed a chapel service between classes in their church-related colleges. Way too many simply suffered spiritual starvation. Years later, when they felt a need to return to worship they found other, non-mainline, churches more to their liking.
As we have owned the reality of young adults’ absences from our Presbyterian pews, we have coped by doing what most people do. We’ve looked for scapegoats. As Ehrlich says, we “blam[ed] their absence on whatever we didn’t like.” Our forefingers have pointed to those troublemakers in the church, those sheep-stealing churches down the street, and those temptations outside the faith.
But the real blame is ours to own. For the past 40-plus years, the youth nurtured in the parish have become the students neglected in the college and young adult years.
Most Presbyterian campus ministries have shrunk or shut down or redefined or merged themselves into irrelevance.
Through recent decades some of the colleges founded to form thoughtful, Presbyterian disciples have been earning C’s, D’s, and even F’s. Oh, some do earn A’s. College of the Ozarks ranks among the Princeton Review’s top-ten most religious colleges. Grove City College ranks 15th. Many others earnestly try to integrate head with heart and soul. But on the other end of the spectrum, Macalester College ranks 14th among colleges where “Students Ignore God on a Regular Basis.”
Can we reclaim our place as nurturers of intelligent faith among the new generation of collegians?
Sure we can. All it will take is a huge investment of time and resources.
First, we can learn from ministries that work. Presbyterian campus ministries are thriving at UC Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and elsewhere. Non-denominational campus ministries, many of which are staffed by Presbyterian leaders, will happily partner with us. What are they doing that’s working? One common denominator: they are proclaiming unapologetically the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Second, we can promote book publishing and scholar development that will provide every academic discipline the cutting edge thought-leaders that Christ-centered scholarship is capable of generating. George Marsden and others have been pressing for this kind of integrative leadership for years. Today, the Emerging Scholars Network, a multi-denominational fellowship of more than 2,000, is striving to cultivate such leadership. Let’s join them.
Third, we can provide major funding for our church-related colleges. The Carnegie Foundation has secularized church-related colleges by its generous funding–stipulating a disconnect from church controls. How about a few Christian Carnegies forming foundations to endow campus chaplains or Bible professors or chairs of integrative studies–stipulating that the respective professors be persons of active Christian faith? The Methodists’ Foundation for Evangelism has done similarly in seminaries here and abroad.
Presbyterians have the resources–money, academic proficiency, and curiosity–to push higher formative Christian education of young adults. Can we find the will to do so? If so, one of these years could bring a happy turning point.