“So what do you want to do when you grow-up?”

It is a question asked time and time again of kids as they get older. The ever present and ever perennial question doesn’t go away once a student walks across the high school graduation stage and prepares to enter college. Some come to college with a definite plan in place. Others have a couple of ideas, and then still others have no clue. The reality is that while liberal arts universities, in particular, are interested in shaping students “holistically,” the unfortunate reality is that the “career question” seems to be the dominating factor for a college education.

Sociology professor Tim Clydesdale in his book The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School noticed in his research that two factors incoming freshmen focus in on are economic and cultural.[1] The economic factor echoes the question above. There is pressure to do well financially in life, which means completing post-High School education and seeking a job that will let students live the “American Dream.” As one who works in campus ministry and teaches freshmen, my personal experience can attest to the truthfulness of this factor. Naively, when I entered into higher education ten years ago I thought that I was coming into an environment where the students were highly interested in wrestling with the intellectual pursuits of life. Quickly I realized that the most pressing question on many of their minds was, “What must I do to get a passing grade?” Of course the reason behind asking such a question is due to economic reasons. Getting passing grades is linked to getting a degree, which then is connected to getting that good paying job.

The common economic quest is a bit at odds with the ancient foundation of a liberal arts university. Since Medieval times a liberal arts education was about holistic formation.[2] But the overwhelming pressure on students to get good jobs means that any type of “holistic formation” takes a back seat to economic pressures. Clydesdale’s research on freshmen college students backs this up as he notes that, “Most of the mainstream American teens I had spoken with neither liberated themselves intellectually nor broadened themselves socially during their first year out.”[3]

The secondary focus for incoming freshman, that Clydesdale discovered, was cultural in nature. Clydesdale defines the cultural factor here as  “popular American moral culture,” which he further defines as a culture that “celebrates personal effort and individual achievement; demonstrates patriotism; believes in God and a spiritual afterlife; values loyalty to family, friends, and coworkers; expects personal moral freedom; distrusts large organizations and bureaucracies [which include universities]; and conveys the message that happiness and fulfillment are found primarily in personal relationships and individual consumption.”[4] As already noted, universities are viewed as those “large organizations and bureaucracies” to be suspicious of, outside of their degree-granting capabilities.[5]

Clydesdale concludes that due to the economic and cultural factors students tend to not engage in the formative nature of a liberal arts education, because it might well “put them out-of-step with the communities that shaped them or hinder their efforts to pursue the individual achievement they have always envisioned for themselves.”[6] What this results in, according to Clydesdale, is students putting their identities into what he refers to as an “identity lock-box” during those years in college.[7]

Now you might be thinking: “How does this information help me in my work to help high school students successfully transition into college life?” A good question. So let’s turn to what this means for your ministry.

For starters it is my hope that your ministry is one in which you seek to combat the accepted popular American moral cultural narrative in your midst intentionally and regularly. While we might think that the popular American moral cultural story has some similarities to Christianity, especially in regards to discussion about God and the afterlife, a closer examination shows how the “spiritual” aspect to this story is really a deistic reflection that goes back to colonial times and tends to fit well within a religiously pluralistic context. Our gospel story with an emphasis on the exclusivity of Christ alone as the way of salvation (John 14:6) does not fit within a religiously pluralistic framework. A truly Biblical and Confessional Christian education is always going to be at odds with this particular American moral story.

Secondly, Clydesdale’s research points out that overall church attendance lessens during this time in life. His argument for this goes back to his theory of “lockbox identity.”[8] We therefore want to ingrain in our youth the need for the continuation of being in church during their college years. The one place where they are guaranteed to receive the gospel is in church. But let’s be frank about this. Not all Christian churches or campus-based ministries will be places that focus on giving the gospel to students on a regular basis. Not all ministries that call themselves “Christian” focus on proclaiming the grace of God to students on a regular basis. Nor does their theology support the receiving of God’s grace in the Sacrament. Therefore we should guide students to local LCMS churches and college ministries where they should be able to receive the balm of the gospel on a regular basis. But we also need to make sure we are teaching the importance of this to our students as well. When they fall into sin during their time at college they need to make sure they go to places where they are going to be restored by the gospel. If they are only attending churches or ministries that put an emphasis on the third use of the law (which quickly turns to second use) then they will always be drowning with no hope of rescue in sight.

In addition to this point I want to talk briefly about spiritual warfare. Satan is always seeking to destroy our faith (1 Peter 5:8). He will use whatever means and whatever temptations necessary to do so. Many of our youth are not prepared for the onslaught of the devil when they come to college (even those going to one of our Concordias). Clydesdale’s research show how college can be a time of experimentation in regards to substance abuse and sex.[9] These temptations can function as dominoes in a chain that leads to unbelief. We read in Scripture that the means to combat these attacks is through the Word of God and prayer (Ephesians 6:10-18). Not just individual time in devotion and prayer, but corporate time as well, in order to be with fellow brothers and sisters in the faith who also face such attacks. In this regards there is some truth to the phrase: “There is strength in numbers.”

Thirdly, it is important that we help to foster in our youth a yearning for growth. We want them to stretch and grow in their knowledge of God’s world, the reality of how sin has affected that world, and the ever-present eternal hope that is firmly founded in Christ Jesus. A college education is indeed a time for that stretching and growth to occur. We shouldn’t be content for students to lock their faith away in college and then pick up where it was left when they are done. Faith needs to breathe and grow. It needs to continually be fed by the Word and Sacrament in order for it to face up to the challenges of life. A faith that is shelved or locked away is a faith that is sickly and weak and one that will not stand up to even the tiniest wind of resistance that blows its way. So the challenge is for you to design your youth ministry as a place where you continue to build on a catechetical foundation. Study the various “isms” that run rampant in our world (ex. “scientism”). Teach them to think critically about these “isms” with the gift of reason. Teach them what Scripture and the catechism has to say to these “isms.” Show them how Christ, Lord of all, has conquered all things through His death and His resurrection and how they are placed under his feet (Eph. 1:20-23/Col. 1:15-20).

A few last practical notes need to be said.

  • Be a church that seeks to maintain connection with your students while they are gone. Don’t practice an “out of sight/out of mind” ministry with these students in that you only care about them when they are back in town. Make it a priority to at least send them a monthly text, Facebook, or e-mail message asking them how they are doing and letting them know that you are praying for them. Also, at least once a semester, send them a church care package that is tailored to them. For example a student who is in a biology or philosophy class – where their faith is being challenged – might appreciate an apologetics text to read that is related to the issue they are struggling with.
  • Then, before they go away to school, do the research and find out what LCMS churches and campus ministries are in the area. Share with the pastors, DCE, etc. of those ministries the name and contact information (as long as you ask your students first) of your students who will be coming to their local universities (LCMSU is a good starting place for your research).
  • Lastly, keep your students on your church’s prayer list. As a congregation continually lift up these saints in prayer.

God’s gracious blessings as you continue to raise up the saints of God in the faith throughout their various transitions in life.

[1] Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School, Morality and Society Series, Alan Wolfe, ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 3

[2] Klassen, Norman & Jens Zimmermann, The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 47ff.

[3] Clydesdale, 2

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Clydesdale, 3

[7] Clydesdale, 4

[8] Clydesdale, 59-60

[9] Clydesdale, 2