Do youth ministry programs prepare young people for life after high school? We asked three college ministry experts to share how they see teenagers spiritually, theologically and intellectually prepared for college and beyond.
STEVEN GARBER has more than 30 years of college ministry experience. He directs The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture (www.washingtoninst.org), which has as its core conviction the idea that the church and society are renewed when a truer vision of calling is taught and practiced. He also is the author of the award-winning The Fabric of Faithfulness (IVP).
ALEC HILL is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a nondenominational ministry serving more than 35,000 students and faculty on nearly 550 college and university campuses nationwide. InterVarsity also operates InterVarsity Press and runs the triennial Urbana Student Missions Conference, which draws more than 20,000 students.
KELLY MONROE KULLBERG is the founder of the Veritas Forum (www.veritas.org), which she first organized at Harvard University in 1992. Veritas Forums are university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life. She served as a chaplain to the Harvard Graduate School Christian Fellowship from 1988 to 1997. She also is the editor of Finding God at Harvard (IVP) and the author of Finding God Beyond Harvard (IVP).
YWJ: What percentage of entering Christian freshmen would you estimate are preparedâ€”spiritually, theologically and intellectuallyâ€”for the challenges of college life?
ALEC HILL: I would say maybe 25 percent of the first-year students we see in InterVarsity are spiritually prepared for the rigors of college life.
KELLY MONROE KULLBERG: I’m thinking of my kids’ local Midwestern suburban high school. Ninety-three percent of graduates will go to college. Of those who are Christians (the minority of students) I’m guessing that 25 percent are prepared to succeed holistically in college, because that 25 percent has both met Christ personally and been given some worldview training by churches and/or parents.
STEVEN GARBER: I have no idea of the numbers. My experience over the years is that most are not. They have no idea how hard it will be. And sadly, watching even very healthy, holy churchesâ€”who care profoundly for their youngâ€”they often don’t seem to understand the character of the challenge facing freshmen as they enter their university years.
YWJ: Why do young people who have attended years of youth ministry programs struggle spiritually once they leave high school?
HILL: First, biblical literacy is a huge issue. Many freshmen simply don’t know the Scriptures very well. Second, if students are not “missional” in high schoolâ€”that is, reaching out via evangelism and exercising their leadership giftsâ€”they expect to be cared for. This creates a dependency mode which is lethal in college. Third, since tolerance appears to be the overarching value of this generation, it is very difficult for them to take hard stands. Fourth, the university is a seductive place. Professors are smart; parties are fun (for a season); freshmen want to impress.
GARBER: The world and the flesh and the devilâ€”to put it simply. And yet, of course, to answer in that way is also to acknowledge the tremendous complexity that is involved in training up a child in the way he or she should go. Our longing is that our dear ones will not depart from that way, and yet we all know that so many do. I will say this: it dismays me how lightweight the high school discipleship curriculums typically are. It seems that there is little sense of the overwhelming nature of the secularizing, pluralizing world that our young [people] enter into, either in college or after. And sadly, many are not prepared, theologically, philosophically, sociologically, with an understanding of what they believe, and why they believe what they believe, that will sustain them through their university years and beyond.
KULLBERG: They haven’t thought and lived through confusing ideas, images, and choices. We adults need to learn how to think and to know, and we need to teach others how to think and to know, based on God’s Words (“revelation”) of creation, Scripture, and Jesus. Proper knowledge yields humble confidence and action. We need to be raising up “Daniels” who learn to seeâ€”and therefore place in contextâ€”pagan and secular thought and culture as stories among the greater Story of God’s Kingdom advancing on the earth.
YWJ: What would you like to see strengthened, changed or eliminated in junior high and senior high youth ministry programs?
GARBER: I have a great respect and affection for those who have the amazing, unusual gift of helping kids laugh their way into the most serious things of life. There is a lot about being an adolescent that needs laughter, just to keep the angst at bay. But I do want to hold those two together: to laugh and to think seriously. My guess is that we too often fall off the table on either side, not engaging on the one hand by a failure to laugh enough, and not being worth all the time and energy on the other by a failure to offer enough substance that honors that image of God in the adolescent heart. It never ceases to amaze me how often I am reminded that people want to be taken seriously; we hunger and ache for that as human beings. And I would say that is not only true relationally, but intellectually; and not only true for adults but for adolescents too.
HILL: Students should be tasked with leading Bible studies with their peers, preferably non-Christians. InterVarsity has used investigative Bible studies with nonbelievers for a long while. Not only does it bring the gospel to a new audience, but it greatly strengthens the believer’s faith.
YWJ: What are the main challenges to the spiritual formation of today’s young people, and how have you addressed them in your work?
HILL: Holiness is a dirty word with this generation. We have to recapture the transcendent, the pure, and the exclusive. Students need to better grasp that the gospel has a hard edge and requires sacrifices. I recommend that every youth group study Jesus’ parable about obedience in Luke 17:7-10. It is so countercultural.
KULLBERG: [Young people] haven’t learned to think well. Friends and I began the Harvard Veritas Forum in order to raise the hardest questions of our culture, and to explore them with the mind and story of Jesus Christ, for whom Harvard was founded. Questions about truth, suffering, evil, the body, justice. [On the first night] I expected 100 people; 700 came. Now Veritas is in 75 universities with a quarter million participants. People are still hungry for true life. On the local level, I’m teaching a Classics in English Lit [class] for 24 high school students now. Prince Hamlet knew a little about God’s Word, but when suffering he didn’t think and act with the mind of Christ. If he had, his tragedy could have been redeemed. I want teenagers to think through their own lives as stories, and follow the motions of grace to redemption. “To be or not to be” becomes Paul’s “To live is Christ, to die is gain…” and [Paul] decides to stick around in order to love God, his world, spread the gospel, advance the Kingdom, and play his role in the Great Story with courage
GARBER: We could spend hours on this, but I will focus on one phenomenon: the info-glut culture, the 24/7 barrage of the information age. One longtime and very gifted minister to high school students recently lamented about the “iPod-ization” of high school kids, and said that he found it harder and harder to engage even his best students in serious conversation. They were so plugged into the “noise” of the culture that they were decreasingly able to look someone in the face and have a real conversation. That is frightening.
YWJ:What else would you like to say about the challenges of “Life after High School”?
GARBER: Just this. Over the last few years I have chosen to take up sexuality as the way in with high school and college students.
My conviction is this: Unless a young person is persuaded that the biblical vision of life and the world makes sense of what seems most central to who I am as a boy-becoming-a-man, a girl-becoming-a-womanâ€”helping me to understand the roiling emotions and desires, hopes and griefs that are all bound up with my sexualityâ€”then it will be awfully difficult [for that young person] to believe that the Christian vision can make sense of anything elseâ€”like politics, the arts, business, globalization. And because I eventually want to get them to explore the meaning of faith for all the rest of life, I work very hard to explore the meaning of faith in the swirl of a sexualizing society, hoping that by God’s grace they will begin to have confidence that the Word of God honestly makes sense of the world made by God.
KULLBERG: Following Jesus means becoming your truest selfâ€”everything you’re meant to be. The gospel is the greatest adventure.
HILL: It is a very delicate balance to both build an apologetic that reaches this generation and to proclaim the gospel without compromise. But we must do so.
DEREK MELLEBY works for both the campus ministry organization The Coalition for Christian Outreach (www.ccojubilee.org), and The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, where he is the director of their College Transition Initiative (www.cpyu.org). He is the coauthor of The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness: A Guide for Students, forthcoming from Brazos Press.