I spend my days working with and for people who go to church, govern the church, promote the church, care about the church, worry about the church. That has been so, with relatively brief breaks, since 1977 when I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. My contact with and knowledge about “unchurched” people comes from articles and surveys I read. (The “dechurched” and “believers not belongers” are a different story.) Even when I worked for a law firm in the late ‘70s, my employer was a respected Presbyterian elder, and the secretary was a faithful Roman Catholic.

I grew up in a very religious home. Bibles everywhere. Nightly devotionals led by my dad. Sunday school plus worship twice on Sunday from the time I was a kid. No liquor. Strict morals. Disapproving looks and stern lectures.

What a surprise then to discover in my late mother’s diary that as a child and teen she was unchurched. And also what an insight into how someone who comes to faith as an adult regards the rituals that I have taken for granted all my life.

She recounts how when she was 19, in late February 1951, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Albany, GA came by her home, following up on word from “someone” that she wanted to join the church. She recounts how the next Sunday she was “baptisted” (Freudian slip or simply poor spelling, I’m not sure). Apparently in that day in the Presbyterian Church in the South there were no classes required, no examination by the session, no preparation of any kind. Or maybe Mama simply didn’t consider any of that important to mention.

In that era, the Presbyterian Church did not emphasize the sacraments much at all, so “the Lord’s Supper” as the Eucharist was always called, was “observed” or “administered” (never “celebrated”) only quarterly. And always by passing trays in the pews, with little pillow-shaped pieces of cracker and shot glasses of grape juice. Mama’s comment on her first Communion, which wasn’t until the summer after her “baptisting” was one word: “interesting.” (That was the same thing she said when she first saw a TV show.)

I’m not sure what to make of that relatively emotionally flat assessment, though I think for her it was high praise. At least she didn’t say Communion was boring or incomprehensible or frightening. And knowing Presbyterian practice in that day, “interesting” was probably the best one could say. “Celebratory,” “joyful” or “spiritually uplifting” would not have fit the somber ritual of dark-suited old men serving the congregation while sad music played on the organ. (The Lord’s Supper in the Presbyterian Church of that day was always a reminder of the death of Jesus, at which the appropriate action was to weep over one’s sins that killed him.)

Reading Mama’s comment on her first Communion started me thinking about how someone brand new to faith or an unchurched person simply coming to observe these days would regard Holy Communion, the Eucharist, in my congregation. Would it merely elicit a non-committal, emotionally void response? Would it puzzle or perturb? Or would it inspire; amaze; delight; nourish; bring tears, not of sorrow, but of joy; invite an entrance into mystery?

If somehow I found out, that would be interesting.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


This post is dedicated to my niece Page and nephew Julian, both of whom begin college this month, and to all in the Class of 2013.

"The future of ‘mainline’ Christianity in North America, as well as the future of the university, will be profoundly affected by the way in which Christians, among others, relate to the intellectual project of the West at this crucial juncture in its history (postmodernity)”—(Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith).


This Sunday, August 16th, is Higher Education Sunday across the Presbyterian Church (USA). In this post, I want to offer some practical suggestions for observing the day, my “three R’s” for campus ministry.

First, ritual. Holy Communion and Baptism are both sorely neglected in the PC(USA), despite the call in our standards for frequent Communion (Book of Order W-2.4009) and for remembering the grace of God at work in Baptism (W-2.3009). Yet both sacraments can be a tremendous resource of strength, encouragement, and community building for college students, faculty, and staff. So I long for the day when each congregation located in a university or college town provides a weekly opportunity for receiving Holy Communion. And I would be thrilled if those same congregations would emphasize the call and the comfort of God in Baptism somehow in those same services and in every time of worship. One great way to do this is to offer an ancient/future or a contemporary service on a Sunday or Wednesday evening for students and others. In those times, the community can remember Baptism in some creative way upon entering the sanctuary, then later celebrate together as all come to the Table.

Second, reminders. Let us remember that God is already on campus; we don’t “take” him there nor do we need to “take back” the campus for God. None of us possesses God. The highest heaven cannot contain him; how much less the church, the university, any human construct or institution (see 1 Kings 8:27)! God is already at work on campus in the lives of his people there and by the Spirit in ways both hidden and open in the institution itself. Our task is to discern where and how God is acting and join him!

Let us also recall that our college students are the Church now. Well-meaning people often speak of them as “the future of the Church,” and I try to hear the words of support of campus ministry in such comments. But too often ministry in higher education is seen as a way to grow congregations or ensure new blood for leadership tomorrow. I am firmly convinced that God will not honor such viewpoints. He will give success when we begin to see college students as valuable in their own right, for their ideas, their leadership, and ther commitment now, and give them meaningful opportunities to serve and to bear witness.

We need also to pay attention to faculty and staff. They are living out their baptismal vocation in the college and university. These faithful people are seeking to serve our Lord through their engagement with ideas, their guidance of students, their help with procedures and problems, and in so many other ways. In any celebration of higher education ministry, they need to be remembered. Perhaps they could be commissioned in worship at the start of the school year for their work. (See the Book of Occasional Services.)

Finally, resources. Let me simply point you to some helpful websites, then give a few suggestions about ways individuals can remember college students. To find out more about PC(USA) collegiate ministries, go to http://www.pcusa.org/collegiate/index.htm and also to www.pachem.org (Presbyterian Association for Collegiate and Higher Education Ministries; some of the resources on this site reguire registration, but that’s free). For a wonderful resource for progressive young adult Christians, visit www.livingthequestions.com and click on “Dream, Think, Be, Do.” Note that this curriculum piece costs about $300. Finally, if you are in a community college town, check out www.listeningpostinc.org, a well-established and respected franchise program that promotes listening among generations.

Or how about these simple ideas? Recruit one or a few interested people in your congregation to keep in touch with students, faculty, and staff, doing things like remembering birthdays or other anniversaries (a parent’s death, for example), sending exam snack bags, and keeping up by Facebook. Establish a program linking students with older folk in the church who can be a local resource for them. And finally, pray for students, faculty, and staff and all who minister with and to them.

I trust these ideas will be helpful to you as you celebrate Higher Education Sunday. It’s my fervent hope and prayer that our Church can recover its vision for ministry in higher education. And that begins with you and me. May God bless our efforts!

© 2009 Tom Cheatham