As the needs of college-age young people change, United Methodist collegiate ministries discover new ways to provide spiritual experiences to help students grow in their faith.
From college chaplains to Wesley Foundations to local church-related ministries, students find safe places where they can seek nonjudgmental answers to their questions and an outlet for their desire to serve others.
At Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, a historically black liberal arts college for women affiliated with The United Methodist Church, the Rev. Natalie McLean has served as chaplain for 13 years.
McLean advises students and provides leadership-development training for Christian groups on campus, while she encourages students to discover and use their spiritual gifts. Much of her chaplaincy is just being available to students and helping them develop by offering opportunities for critical thinking about issues.
"Students need to have safe places where they can discover who they are," she said. "They need someone they can talk to openly, confidentially, in a relational way – someone who is not judgmental, who understands what it's like to be a college student between the ages of 18 and 22."
In addition to her open-door policy, McLean uses Bible studies to reach out to students. "I will ask them, ‘What do you want to talk about in Bible study? What needs do you think you ... or your sisters have that we can address?'" she said.
The Wesley Foundation at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, has grown and changed during the eight years the Rev. Jodi McCullah has been director. The four-year public university is a blend of traditional and nontraditional students, with about 40 percent commuting to class and 20 percent connected in some way to the nearby Army post at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Many students are married and have children, which changes the tenor of the group's activities, including weekly worship services. "On Sunday morning, we have people who are in uniforms and students who walked across the street half asleep. We have families with small children, and they are all students or family members of students," she said.
Discovering God is relevant
Like Wesley Foundations and campus ministries at many colleges, the operational model for her group has changed, McCullah said. "We used to do most of our activities in our building, and now we do most of our activities on campus because it just seems to work better for the students," she said.
Since moving Bible studies, potluck meals and concerts to campus, attendance has doubled, she said. The ministry also expanded its presence on campus by working with students who must participate in service projects for classwork. Those students are introduced to the center's other activities while working on their projects.
In addition, Austin Peay's Wesley Foundation also opened its doors to area young people who attend other schools or churches that lack college-age groups.
McCullah said the students with whom she interfaces believe in God, but find it difficult to understand that God is important and relevant to them.
"The thing campus ministers struggle with the most," she said, "is getting [students] to have a sense that there is a reason for them to have a relationship with God that's more than just, ‘Oh yeah, I know God is there.'"
Several years ago, when the Missouri Annual Conference dissolved most of its Wesley Foundations and decided to connect college-age ministry to local churches, Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia became the focal point for University of Missouri students.
The Rev. Trista Soendker Nicholson, New Generations pastor, said college-age young people are seeking a safe place that is "fully inclusive and welcoming to a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs – a place where people can wrestle with not only their own identity, but [also] who they are as God's children."
About 40 to 50 people typically attend a Sunday evening service called Emergent, and as many more attend traditional services and an informal gathering called Spirit on Tap each week at a popular pizza parlor.
"We're finding ... that they want to move beyond talking and move into action," Nicholson said. "The biggest way we have grown as a campus ministry ... is through our mission and service." Mission work includes participation in a clean-water initiative in Haiti and local outreach ministries such as feeding homeless people and working in partnership with the Ronald McDonald House.
"We have people who connect with us to serve that probably will never engage in a traditional worship experience, or it would take them a large amount of engagement with us through mission and through things like Spirit on Tap before they are willing to step into a traditional church building," Nicholson said.
'A vibrant community of faith'
After almost 50 years serving James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the Wesley Foundation there was transformed in 2010 to a new, autonomous United Methodist faith community called RISE. Led by the Rev. Amanda Miller Garber, RISE is a hybrid new-church plant that serves as a campus ministry for James Madison and three other area colleges.
"When we started really listening, deep listening, to what young adults and college students were saying, it changed everything from a glorified dinner club to a vibrant, life-changing community of faith," she said.
When schools are in session, the average worship attendance for RISE is 170 to 180, but local mission events typically draw 300 to 500 young people. RISE describes mission work as "mending God's creation" – words that Garber said really resonate with young people.
"We talk a lot about how mending God's creation together begins right here, right now – in your classroom, in your apartment, in your dorm room – and try to give them really tangible, easy-to-grasp ways that they can mend creation together."
RISE has sent mission teams to Guatemala and Boston, but most mission projects are local. Participants grow a community garden and pack more than 100 backpacks of food each week for hungry children at local elementary schools.
"We're very much a space for young adults who have never been connected with a church to come and begin that journey," Garber said. "They often can't articulate it, but they know there's got to be more to life than Netflix. They come and start their journey with us because we're safe. We are a safe place, and I am adamant about saying it is a faithful thing to ask questions."
Tom Gillem is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in Brentwood, Tennessee.