I spent much of my career until 2007 in campus ministry. I first fell in love with working with college students, faculty, and staff at the University of Montevallo outside Birmingham, beginning in 1982. Even as a pastor in Owensboro, KY, I was involved with higher education as chair of a state campus ministry board. I ended that phase of my ministry in 2007 when my position as Associate Executive for Campus Ministry for our presbytery came to an end due to funding cuts.

Campus ministry has for many years now been a rather peripheral and undervalued work in the Presbyterian Church (USA). We have been painfully slow on the uptake recognizing the special needs, gifts, and characteristics of today’s collegians. For a time, we had no national staff person exclusively devoted to higher education ministry. Fortunately, the 219th General Assembly last year corrected that mistake by re-establishing an office.

Despite that action, my colleague Jerry Beavers complains in the April 9, 2011 blog of the Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministry (PACHEM) that the PC(USA) has “high regard in the abstract and low regard in the tangible for collegiate ministry.” He asks: “When will we take seriously the notion that ministry on campus to college students is a missionary endeavor? When will we start treating campus ministers and chaplains as missionaries and colleges as a mission field?  Campus Ministry is not just an older youth group, able to provide nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, and perhaps a choir member. Campus Ministry is a missionary outreach to a different culture” (emphasis his). Obviously, what happened and happens at the national level did not and does not change the common perception and practice of congregations. Or not yet, anyway.

More recently, The Christian Century noted that mainline churches have had some success in building connections to social movements or even to people of other faiths. But, says the journal, “[a] bridge that has been harder to build is one that connects to a generation born outside the church—young people interested in spirituality but allergic to organized religion.” Echoing and confirming Jerry’s comments in his blog, the article goes on to quote Nadia Bolz-Weber of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. She says that young city dwellers have an indigenous culture that requires them to “‘culturally commute’’’ in order to attend most mainline churches (Jesse James DeConto, “Camp Meeting,” August 9, 2011: 13).

My experience with campus ministry over the years has made me hopeful and excited about the gifts and potential of collegians and all emerging adults (that is, ages 18-25), but deeply concerned about the understanding of, and outreach to, them inside and outside the church by congregations and my denomination. To so many churchgoers, I fear, this age group remain lumped in, as Jerry points out, with what a well-meaning but misinformed lady in one of our churches called “our youth.” (She introduced me to someone as “Tom Cheatham; he works with our youth” when I was a campus minister at Mississippi State.) Few will expend the effort even to seek to understand the difference betweeen youth and emerging adults and try to find creative ways of doing ministry in the culture of higher education and postmodern people.

August 14 is Higher Education Sunday across the PC(USA). Whether or not you are a Presbyterian, I encourage you to find out how you can be a part of and support ministries in higher education. There are lots of resources out there both about Millennials and emerging adults. For the latter, the place to go first is www.jeffreyarnett.com/articles.htm, which includes downloads of some materials. Presbyterians can begin to find out about current PC(USA) ministries with http://gamc.pcusa.org/ministries/collegiate . Jerry Beavers’ blog is at http://pachem.blogspot.com .

© 2011 Tom Cheatham