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The Changing Landscape of

Lutheran Campus Ministry

Reflections on the Literature (2016), by Jacob Sorenson, PhD and Roland Martinson, STD

College and university campuses are in rhythmic flux, as older students graduate and new age cohorts enter the community with different cultural sensibilities. The struggle to understand each successive age cohort brings expansive research, predictions, and conjectures about their characteristics, along with strategies for working with them. Wading through the massive amount of material is a daunting task.

This brief overview seeks to get at the complexity of the literature in ways that might be instructive for ministers who are navigating these waters. The three parts of the overview coincide with five domains of literature laid out in the accompanying annotated bibliography. The Lives of Emerging Adults offers an overview of the cultural realities facing today’s emerging adults (Annotated Bibliography Domain 1). Ministry with Emerging Adults offers theological perspectives that might well inform Lutheran campus ministry (Annotated Bibliography Domain 2); it also examines the literature about ministry with this age group (Annotated Bibliography Domain 3). Lutheran Campus Ministry in Practice focuses on ministry’s role on campus (Annotated Bibliography Domain 4) and explores models of campus ministry (Annotated Bibliography Domain 5).

The Lives of Emerging Adults

Recent societal changes may not be fundamentally more consequential than those of the past, but the rate of change has accelerated. Global societies have gone from personal computers to the Internet to cell phones to smart phones in two decades, the span of a single generation. These rapid changes are the native landscape of young people.

Generation theory, popularized by Strauss and Howe (2000), makes broad generalizations based on birth year and common experiences during certain stages of life. Talk of generations is so ubiquitous that terms like Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials have become common parlance. There is now great attention to the emergence of a new Generation Z; with attention comes confusion regarding its starting date, which ranges from 1995 to 2004. Though there is confusion and a tendency to sensationalize Generation Z, there are commonly cited characteristics that ring with a certain authenticity to many observers and ministry professionals. This new age cohort tends to be more pragmatic than early Millennials (having grown up during the war on terror and in the wake of the Great Recession), more media savvy, and more entrepreneurial (whereas, their predecessors tended to focus on causes to champion).

It is noteworthy that many scholars are skeptical of generation theory (Wuthnow, 2007), or they intentionally avoid it (Smith, 2009). The concern centers on the tendency to paint a deterministic picture of an entire age cohort and the way those pictures are used for predicting the future. Generational labels have proven helpful in tracking large societal changes over time, but they tend to gloss over other important demographic markers such as socio-economic class, race, and gender identity. Moreover, accelerated cultural change means that dividing age cohorts into 20-year generational categories is no longer as helpful as it once might have been. It is at least as important and may be more useful to consider broad cultural shifts such as the new life stage called emerging adulthood and the impacts of new technology.

College and university populations often constitute the beginning of a new stage of human development called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004). This life stage consists of a transitional period during which people gradually assume responsibilities of adult members of society. Many young people delay the traditional markers of adulthood like starting a family, attaining financial independence, and choosing a career in order that they might explore their personal identity and keep their options open. This often results in a persistent state of instability and feeling in between. The exploration results in many emerging adults setting aside their childhood and adolescent values, including religious practices, in an identity lockbox (Clydesdale, 2007) so that they might fulfill an obligation to experience new things. Wuthnow (2007) describes this life stage as a period of tinkering, during which emerging adults are experimenting with new identities and religious beliefs in hopes of discovering something that works for them. Ministering with this age group involves accompanying young people during this period of uncertainty and exploration.

The acceleration in generational shifts is largely due to the rapid pace of technological advancement in both hardware (robotics, smart phones, and wearable technology) and software (social media and online encyclopedias). Young people are accustomed to being constantly plugged in, available, and watched. Smart phones and wearable technology have become appendages of sorts that allow them to access friends and information at will, making separation by time and space less important (Rainie and Wellman, 2012). There is expectation for constant awareness of what is going on in the lives of their friends, and they bring this ambient awareness (Ito) with them everywhere.

Warnings that technology or robotics might replace genuine human relationships (Turkle, 2011) have not come to pass. The more compelling evidence is that human relationships are adapting to include technology as a means for connecting and interacting in new, often powerful ways. Social media platforms become networked publics (Boyd, 2014) facilitating human relationships and often enhancing face-to-face relationships. The availability of information and diverse social connections is leading to an increased expectation of individual agency and collaborative approaches to learning and problem solving. Campus ministers might well take these sensibilities into account as they incorporate technology into their ministries and seek to empower young people.

The combination of the emerging adulthood life stage and the evolving technological realities magnify the effects of other cultural forces such as globalization, secularity, and pluralism. College students are calling into question their assumed identity and the reliability of institutions that nurtured them as children, while at the same time having unprecedented access to diverse ideas and expansive relationships. To the extent that institutions like the church have tried to insulate or restrict them from diverse viewpoints, young people are increasingly skeptical about the relevance of these institutions.

The expectations of emerging adulthood and constant connectivity place increasing pressure on young college and university students. In addition, the increasing costs of higher education are having dramatic effects on the financial wellbeing of those who feel compelled to attend college without the financial resources to do so or a clear vocational path enabling them to repay their debts. These combined pressures are often overwhelming, leading to risky behavior (Smith, 2011) and numerous health concerns (ACHA-NCHA, 2014). There has been a steady increase in mental health concerns, particularly anxiety and depression, among incoming college students in recent years, conditions for which they are reticent to find help (Tanner, 2010).

Ministry with Emerging Adults

There are numerous research projects and reports chronicling the changes and sounding alarms regarding the decreased religiosity in the emerging adult years, often describing the younger generations as lost (Kinnamon, 2011) or their faith as hemorrhaging (Penner et al, 2013). The most commonly cited indicator of decreased religiosity is the expanding demographic of those claiming no particular religious affiliation, the so-called nones, who made up 25% of all American adults in 2016 and 30% to 40% among younger age cohorts. Responses to these changes on the part of some in ministry involve buttressing young Christians against the forces of secularity and pluralism that surround them in emerging adulthood. In the language of one study, they want to make faith sticky so that it will not rub off at college (Powell & Clark, 2011).

This buttressing contributes to the growing perception on the part of some emerging adults that institutionalized religion is out of touch, hiding something from people, or trying to control them. Several research projects (e.g. Kinnaman, 2011) reveal that many emerging adults see the Christian Church as anti-science, anti-homosexual, anti-doubt, and other widespread opposition views. The most recent research (Seemiller & Grace, 2016) suggests that young college students are less concerned about issues like gay rights and climate change than students of a decade ago because they view them as largely resolved. This means they increasingly see opposition to matters like gay marriage and evolution no longer as ideologies to oppose but rather as signs that the Church is out of touch with reality. Furthermore, they are predisposed to distrust institutions, relying instead on their social networks and readily accessible online information as lenses through which to view and interpret reality. Adding to the overall alienation, many see all of Christianity as a monolith, meaning they may not understand the distinctions between Lutheran Campus Ministries and Evangelical groups.

Many sources provide categories for religious preferences that are oversimplified and overgeneralized, damaging not only the individuality but also the important nuances among spiritual and religious groups. The nones and spiritual but not religious are two such “categories” or “labels” that are oversimplified (Flory and Miller, 2008). Drescher’s (2016) research complexifies the viewpoints of those claiming no particular religious affiliation, showing their incredible diversity. Because institutions and ideologies hold less sway than they did a few decades ago, Drescher argues that relationships and networks of people are increasingly influential regarding religious belief and practices.

Refining or perhaps discarding the simplistic categories of religiosity is essential for understanding what is a rapidly changing young adult religious landscape. Toward this end, a large national study of effective ministry with millennials that included an extensive literature review and qualitative interviews with ministry leaders, proposes a nuanced description of religious engagement among young people that is neither directional nor exclusive; they suggest an eight-part typology: scoffers, philosophers, samplers, servers, tribers, leaders, believers, and disciplers (Edwards, Reinders, Bural and De Master, 2015). Moreover, Flory and Miller (2008), Edwards et al (2015), and Smith (2011) offer helpful typologies that do not foreclose on faith based on institutional affiliation.

The numerous research projects reveal that exemplary young adult ministry practices include a wide range of faith perspectives, points of engagement, relationships and activities (Stetzer, Stanley, & Hayes, 2009; Setran & Kiesling, 2013).  At minimum, four aspects of effective ministry consistently appear across the research: intentional relational engagement (both in person and through networked spaces), genuine agency, collaborative exploration, and practices that involve putting faith into action.

A growing cadre of theologians of praxis provides grounding and frameworks for ministry with emerging adults and, most particularly, Lutheran Campus Ministry. Bass (2015) offers a hopeful perspective on young adults’ changing religious landscape, arguing that their present disaffiliation from religion is part of a spiritual revolution that is shifting faith from a fixation on a distant God in heaven to a personal, incarnate God working in the present world. Brian McLaren (2011) calls for ministry that theologically and strategically addresses ecological concerns, the widening gap between rich and poor, security in a world of escalating violence, and the spiritual crises that accompany these broad concerns. Jim Norlie (2014) and Kathryn Kleinhans (2005) provide distinctly Lutheran perspectives that are valuable in developing a common calling to robust Lutheran Campus Ministry focused on abundant life and vocation.

Emerging adults who are struggling to work out life and faith are facing challenges related to diversity, secularity, and pluralism. Patel (2012) articulates the difference between diversity (the fact of differences) and pluralism (a constructive co-existence hard-won through diligent effort).  He calls for interfaith leadership grounded in interfaith literacy. McLaren (2013) proposes an approach to diversity by which Christians form a religious identity that is both graciously open and yet strong. Wuthnow (2005) notes that these challenges are different from the past because young people are now likely to encounter truly other religions rather than diversity limited to other forms of Christianity.

Lutheran Campus Ministry in Practice and Context

Over the past twenty-five years, higher education has engaged a major conversation regarding the relationships of religion within the academy and the role of religiosity on college and university campuses. This wide-ranging discourse has progressed on multiple levels and impacted all aspects of college and university institutional life. Jacobsen and Husedt (2008) aptly summarize the discussion’s concerns in six key questions: Can religions have a positive role in higher education? Is religion antithetical to critical inquiry? Can religion and religious questions be in classrooms without being disruptive? How do multiple religions and their traditions co-exist in academia? How religious or irreligious are students? What level of religious literacy should be expected?

  Within this robust discussion, many viewpoints are at work and multiple patterns of thought and practices are emerging.  Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen (2007) identify three patterns emerging from the research regarding the current role of faith on campuses: Accommodation (becoming a participant in the full-bodied search for truth); Resistance (becoming a critical, prophetic voice in a pagan wilderness); and Intentional Reframing (working the “middle way” of intentionally asking provocative questions and providing “added value” to the quality of student’s lives). The challenges for Lutheran Campus Ministry are discerning the lenses for interpreting what is occurring on campus and the pattern for participating in the discourse.

Several researchers explore campus ministries’ challenges of engaging the institution and the students, given the ongoing changes in higher education and pressures on student life. Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen (2012) present a promising framework for understanding the emerging terrain on campuses in a manner that can be effectively attended and engaged. They posit six “sites of engagement:” 1) religious literacy; 2) interfaith etiquette; 3) framing knowledge; 4) civic engagement; 5) convictions; and, 6) character and vocation. More specifically, Chickering, Dalton and Stamm (2006) identify ways of knowing, being and doing that can be integrated into college and university curricula, student services, community partnerships and assessment. There might well be material in these proposals for Lutheran Campus Ministry as leaders work their peculiar, contextual strategies and practices of ministry.

Program Director Don Romsa’s ELCA Campus Ministry Annual Report reflects significant data from a newly developed survey process combined with a longstanding structure of ten highlights. The ten highlights include: 1) Worship; 2) Evangelism/Outreach; 3) Faith Formation and Christian Education; 4) Creating a Caring Community; 5) Service, Justice and Advocacy; 6) Leadership Development; 7) Stewardship and Fundraising; 8) Connecting with the Broader Academic Community; 9) Ecumenical and Interfaith Connections; and, 10) Connections with the Wider Lutheran Community. The raw quantitative and qualitative data of the survey (over 100 pages) and the succinct snapshot of LCM activities in the report provide a thick description and framework for considering the current focus, scope and impact of Lutheran Campus Ministry. One might begin study of these materials by considering whether the ten highlights provide a proper lens through which to view faithful, effective and sustainable Lutheran Campus Ministry.

A study of campuses engaged in The Lilly Vocation Projects (PTEV) revealed marked differences between students who participated in the project and students who did not. The PTEV students were more broadly satisfied with their lives, possessed greater equanimity in facing current life circumstances, held more positive long-term perspectives and were more resilient. The author of the study termed them grounded idealists and proposed that all colleges and universities develop activities to engage students in questions of meaning and difference making (Clydesdale, 2015).  Many of the suggested efforts and assertions regarding vocation are at the core of Lutheran Campus Ministry’s theological commitments.

Based on the landmark study of student spirituality and their ongoing study of first year college students, HERI leadership continues to explore implications of their learnings for promising spiritual practices. A Guidebook of Promising Practices (2011) draws upon over 400 college and university campuses to provide dozens of suggested spiritual practices in three distinct categories: 1) curricular initiatives and teaching strategies; 2) co-curricular programs and services; and 3) campus-wide efforts and events. In this guide, along with other articles, the HERI center describes the positive role of spirituality in the mental health of students, especially in regard to anxiety and depression.


This brief introduction is formulated to whet the appetite and feed imaginations for diving deeply into the dynamics of the Spirit-filled turnings occurring in Lutheran Campus Ministry. Enjoy the discoveries, the dialog, and the formulation of your convictions and ministry practice, confident that you will have new questions, new ideas and new materials. Use as your doorway into the conversations and your contributions to the Spirit’s leading the Church to new truth and practice.

Lumin Staff

Author Lumin Staff

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