Shall those demographics hold us captive to an uninterruptible downward slide? A thousand young adults at the recent Montreat College Conference (see pp. 6-7) suggest that we can do better. But if we’re going to do better we have to build some bridges.
Back in the 1950s, we weren’t merely enjoying a baby boom. Our local churches were attracting the post-war young parents who, in turn, were birthing babies. After their years of military service and/or college education (funded in large part by the GI bill), those young adults returned to the churches where they had been baptized — whether the exact congregation or another that shared the Presbyterian label.
We were bridging between their teen and young adult years by providing a continuum of nurture and faith-formation:
• A vital chaplain corps sustained faith for those in harm’s way.
• A cadre of church-related colleges reinforced the faith and values learned in Sunday School.
• And, on the non-Presbyterian campuses, vital campus ministries not only corralled the children of the covenant; they also won over unchurched folks.
As they started their families, they headed to the church they knew.
But in the intervening years, collective ambivalence has trimmed the number of PC(USA) chaplains. Many church-related colleges have drifted away from their moorings. Campus ministries have shrunk or disappeared. And the students who once would have attended PC(USA) fellowships now go to InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, and other para-church ministry meetings, and upon graduation tend to gravitate to churches that worship and nurture faith in the ways that became familiar to them in those campus groups.
We must rebuild our bridges.
For one thing, we can expand our chaplain corps in the military – reversing the recent trend of independent and free churches filling the chaplain offices we’ve vacated.
For another, we can encourage any and all efforts to revive church-and-campus partnerships with our PC(USA)-related colleges, including theological reflection in the classrooms, vital leadership in chapels, magnetic fellowship gatherings around campus, and significant service opportunities around the world.
We can reinvest our resources into campus ministries — reviving existing ones and launching new ones. Sure, we tend to have different names and labels for these groups on different campuses. While a single “brand” would be advantageous and ought to be sought, a ministry presence with significant service opportunities can be pursued right now. Is a college that lacks a Presbyterian witness located within ten miles of your church? Do any colleges existing within the bounds of your presbytery lack an active Presbyterian student organization? Then you have some work to do.
Finally, we can build bridges back to the churches for the post-college and post-military young adults. We can determine that either the church’s style of worship will change enough to look familiar to the graduates, and/or the local campus ministries will provide compelling worship in a style that at least leans in the direction of the local churches. And, with that, we can develop an aggressive program of referrals-and-contacts, so that all graduating students and all discharged military get invited, visited, and cajoled into attending a local church (or a few) – something done with thorough effort and great success by our South Carolina churches. And, we can provide fellowship and nurturing experiences matching their life stage challenges (beginning new careers, decompressing the military experience, beginning families).
We can intensify our gravitational pull. We can defy the demographics.
A thousand college students at a conference won’t reverse the downward trend by themselves. But all of us together could.