Let’s get a few things straight: “Young people” do not like change any more than older generations. Our norms may be different; our expectations may vary; our hopes and preferences may seem “new” and full of possibility for “what’s next.” But those realities do not mean that young people are any better at handling change. In fact, our strategies for coping with and handling change are typically underdeveloped, despite the fact that it’s a present reality in our lives. We operate fairly freely in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, which can lead onlookers to believe that we are nimble, prepared, and ready for all the change that will come our way. But, those are all nice ways of masking the reality that change is difficult.
Whether we like change or not, however, young adults—and college students especially—live lives in a state of significant flux. I have the pleasure of serving in ministry on a college campus. Campus ministry is defined by a constant cycle of change—beginnings, endings, transitions and the accompanying unpacking, repacking, and moving required. It is rare for my students to live in the same place for more than eight months at a time. This chapter of students’ lives presents abundant opportunities for engaging the imagination with questions, hopes, and dreams. It is a brief period when the sky is the limit and students have the flexibility and the space to discern and change. Big questions, like “What do you want to do with your one holy and precious life?” and “Who are you, really?” and “Where do you find meaning and purpose in your life?” stir around in students’ minds all the time. There is a certain freedom in this time in life, when one is not expected to have everything sorted out. Yet, there is an accompanying fear that if one doesn’t take the right classes in the right order and perform perfectly that one’s meaning and purpose in life will crumble and the hopes and dreams one imagined will collapse. Change is difficult and risky, and though they live in the constant cycle of change, college students do not like change any more than the rest of us.
To be in ministry in this transitional space has taught me the difficulty and the importance of learning to navigate change with grace and gusto. I hold in tension the liberating affirmation that “nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” with the profound call to “go out into the world and make disciples.” I spend a lot of time helping students ask the vocational questions that rest at the heart of who they are, where their gifts and passions intersect, and how the call to engineering or photography or medicine or museum curation might actually enable them to be a witness to the good news of God’s love that has broken free in the world. Together we weather the joy of dreams fulfilled and the grief associated with stepping away from self (or parental) expectations in favor of a newly-discerned passion. The challenge of campus ministry is to provide theological grounding from which to explore, prepare, and serve; to help students hold in tension the assurance of God’s grace and claim on their lives with the challenge to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly in this fast-paced, ever-changing world.
If you’re still reading this, you may be asking, “What’s any of this got to do with the church?” As someone who ministers in the liminal, changing, murky world of non-parish ministry, I wonder whether today’s church—the body of Christ—is perhaps a lot like the college students in need of vocational discernment. “The church is in transition” is a recurring theme I hear in the congregations I visit and among the pastors I encounter. Incredible ink (or rather, web space) has been spilt naming this reality in recent years. I fear becoming another voice creating noise in the midst of transition. But perhaps the church needs to take seriously (or re-engage) the task of vocational discernment. If the church were attending college, I would invite it—just as I do my students—to explore a particular passion, to risk the unexpected, to encounter the risen Lord in the face of a stranger, to name its particular God-given gifts, and to look for places in the community and the world where those gifts can meet a particular need. Until the church—individual congregations and the denomination at large—can answer, “what gives you meaning and purpose?” or “what brings you joy?” or the classic (paraphrased) Buechner quote, “where does your deepest gladness meet the world’s deepest need?” then the church is like a college student changing its major again and again. This is a difficult, potentially frustrating task, but what young adults (and campus ministry) can offer the church are encounters of change, risk, and discovery that might aid the church in answering those questions today. After all, a church that is reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God never gives up these questions, so perhaps it’s time to prayerfully ask them once again.
KATIE Owen serves as the Presbyterian Campus Minister at Duke University in Durham, NC. Katie is a graduate of Duke University (2006) and Columbia Theological Seminary (MDiv 2011). She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching, and working with college students. In her spare time, she enjoys singing, baking cookies, reading novels, and watching college basketball (Go Blue Devils!). She originally hails from Topeka, KS, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado. You can read more about Duke PCM here.