To mainline Christian parents of rising college freshmen

"Parent Fans at Glen Ellyn Golden Eagles," Jim Larrison, Flickr C.C.
“Parent Fans at Glen Ellyn Golden Eagles,” Jim Larrison, Flickr C.C.

My campus ministry has been tabling at the parent resource fair that’s part of Tulane’s summer orientation process, since we’re not allowed to participate in the student orientation directly. So far out of several hundred sets of parents that have passed through, only one couple stopped at our table. This experience made me want to write an open letter to all you mainline Christian parents of rising college freshmen out there (in case there are any who actually read my blog). I know that when you send your children to college, they are full-blown adults who need to make decisions for themselves. But I’ve also found that parental encouragement is critical to student involvement in ministry.

I need to start off by acknowledging that I don’t really understand how you look at your faith and the world. Growing up evangelical, we were indoctrinated to define ourselves against you. We called you “country club Christians.” We thought that you weren’t as on fire for Jesus as we were. Not because we knew anything about your faith life. But because you didn’t put your hands in the air during worship. Because you read your prayers out of your church bulletin instead of speaking extemporaneously to God. Because you didn’t walk up to strangers on the sidewalk to ask if they knew where they were going when they died.

When I arrived at the University of Virginia twenty years ago, I was ready to take the campus for Christ. That’s what you do when you’re an evangelical college freshman. I went to three student worship services a week in addition to my small group Bible study. I organized an evangelism crusade called the Lovefest that we held on Valentine’s Day for which my mom baked a thousand rice krispie treats. I wrote my own evangelism tracts, printed them out in the  computer lab, and handed them to people on the sidewalk. All this is to say that I was in a radically different place in 1996 than I imagine a mainline college freshman would be in 2016.

The past twenty years of life have changed me a lot, largely because of the mainline Christians who nurtured me in the small “dying” churches I attended as an adult after I had my falling out with evangelicalism. I learned that what I thought was mainline “lukewarmness” as an evangelical could be better described as ambivalence. Some of my most important spiritual mentors have been very ambivalent about their Christian faith. Not because their hearts were sold out and corrupted by worldly idols. But because they were turned off by the political triumphalism of the religious right. Because they knew the ugly role that Christian evangelism had played in justifying European colonial conquest. Because they had worked in social justice coalitions side by side with virtuous atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists who were more Christlike than many Christians. Because they knew what they didn’t believe but they hadn’t found a robust alternative.

I believe ambivalence is what’s killing the mainline church more than anything. I don’t say this as a criticism. It goads my conscience as an evangelical to wonder how much my strident messianic zeal over the years has made other Christians ambivalent about their faith. What I do know is if you’re ambivalent about your faith as a parent, then you’re not going to feel comfortable pushing your kids too hard about their spiritual journey. And if your kids are rising college freshmen who don’t have a compelling reason to get involved in church, they will build their community elsewhere and leave the church, perhaps forever.

Here’s the other factor that I’ve found to be the case with this generation of college students. They don’t go to church on their own. Most of the students who are involved with our ministry are either there because their parents encouraged them to be or because they came with a friend. We live in an era when social awkwardness is at an all-time high due to our culture of social media and increasingly impossible standards of hipness. So if you’re a mainline Christian student who doesn’t happen to get paired up with a Christian roommate and the friend circles you form during the first two weeks of school don’t include any motivated Christians, then you’re probably not going to go to church when you’re in college. Which means Christianity has a good chance of getting phased out of your life entirely until you have babies and feel a strong enough sense of nostalgia to overcome your sense of guilt and ambivalence.

So why is this a big deal other than my job security as a campus minister? If our only concern as a church is to maintain a cultural institution and community service organization, then we deserve to die and be replaced by a social media app. If I were an unambivalent evangelical, I would use hell-fire and brimstone as my motivational speech. After my journey of the past twenty years since handing out evangelistic tracts on the sidewalk at UVA, I still believe eternal life is at stake, but I understand the meaning of that differently.

What I see around me on Tulane’s campus is a pressure-cooker meritocracy. Last year, I handed out donut holes every Wednesday morning right next to a huge billboard advertising a summer business minor program that said, “In a fiercely competitive job market, how will you stand out?” I’ve come to believe that hell is walking around with a question like that echoing in your mind all the time. Hell is believing that you have to fill a resume with accomplishments to justify your existence. I’ve counseled so many students who have resorted to casual sex and binge-drinking as their self-medication for the pressure they’re facing. The debauchery of college students on our campus is not primarily about seeking pleasure; it’s about drowning anxiety.

A great book I read recently, the Spirituality of Imperfection, talks about the way that the Latin word spiritus is the word used for both spirit and alcohol. Humans need spiritus in our lives, and we will find a way to have it one way or another. There are two ways to pray. There is the “prayer” of artificially induced dopamine in which we do things like drinking ourselves stupid and jumping into bed with strangers in order to satisfy our desperate need for belonging. The other form of prayer is to engage in intentional spiritual practices through which we gain an authentic connection with the ultimate reality of the universe we call God.

Now a lot of people these days talk about gaining their sense of spiritual connection from yoga class and practicing mindfulness. If I were still an unambivalent evangelical, I might say that Satan uses yoga and mindfulness to ensnare people in false religion. Where I am today, I don’t see anything sinister about them, but I do wonder about the spiritual authenticity of white middle-upper class people chanting in Sanskrit once a week without going all-in on a completely different religious metanarrative. I’ve tried it before. It just didn’t do much for me. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. But honestly I didn’t really need to.

The way that I seek the authentic belonging that I understand to be eternal life is to build my prayer life around being crucified and resurrected with Jesus Christ. I cannot imagine a more powerful engine of spiritual transformation than Jesus’ cross and resurrection. It’s the operative metaphor for my existence. There are two spiritual realities I seek every week: to be incorporated into the body of Christ and to taste the kingdom of God, because what I’ve found is that I can’t handle life otherwise. I seek these spiritual realities through Eucharist, singing, devotional scripture reading, fasting, listening to Taize music, working my prayer beads, walking through prayer labyrinths, journaling, and spiritually edifying conversation.

Jesus says discovering eternal life is like finding an incredibly beautiful pearl and selling everything else you own just to have it. I’ve discovered that to be the case in the incredible transcendent moments God has given me. The more that I gain the foundation of eternal life, the more I am able to love my neighbor without anxiety or resentment. I’m not saying that you have to be a prude teetotaler to have a joyful life. But I do think your life is going to be hell if your foundation is built upon the default “Work hard, play hard” ethos of American society. If your spiritual foundation is eternal, then you won’t have to drink yourself stupid to feel comfortable around other people and you won’t have to get straight A’s to feel like you deserve to exist.

So if you’re a mainline Christian parent who’s ambivalent about your faith and you’ve got a child who’s a rising college freshman, please at least set aside an hour sometime this summer to talk with them about how they will find a spiritual foundation when they’re in college. Do some research and figure out if there’s a campus ministry that seems compatible with the church where you currently worship. Chances are that campus ministry will probably have a worship service or meet and greet event during move-in weekend where parents and students are invited to come together. Ask your children if they’re comfortable going with you. I realize this is incredibly socially awkward. But it might make a huge difference in the spiritual trajectory of their adult lives.

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