May is the month for college graduations. It is a time of new beginnings for Orthodox Christian college students across the country as they transition out of campus life and into adulthood. Graduation season is also an opportunity to look at Orthodox campus ministry in America and its well-being. The health of campus ministry is a key indicator of the future health of Orthodoxy in America.
College students are by far one of the most at-risk groups in the Orthodox Church today. Young men and women on college campuses are confronted with an environment that is increasingly hostile to Orthodox Christianity. Living Orthodox beliefs on a college campus often means presenting oneself as a subject of ridicule. At many colleges, an Orthodox Christian worldview is considered at best a superstitious relic and at worst a form of bigotry.
The peer pressure that Orthodox Christian college students face to set aside their beliefs and remain silent about their faith has never been greater.
This is the reality facing Orthodox campus ministry today
On the surface, everything appears well with campus ministry. There are conferences, mission trips, and retreats throughout the year. Social media is alive with updates. One would think that college students are doing just fine when it comes to staying connected to the Church. However, appearances can often disguise more serious concerns.
The Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in the United States has produced a 114-page research study of Orthodox Campus Fellowship. A study of the facts presented in this report shows a number of challenges when it comes to Orthodox college students. These issues demonstrate that the present model of Orthodox campus ministry is struggling to fulfill its mission. Compared to other Christian groups on campus, the Orthodox Church has been underperforming for years when it comes to ministering to college students.
Orthodox Campus ministry efforts have been downsized considerably over the years. Today there are only two dedicated staff for North American ministry which is a 75% reduction in program staffing from June of 2012. A review of campus ministry’s strategic plan shows a series of goals that have gone unmet for years with the most significant failure being the neglect of the regional coordinator program as well as regional chaplaincies Campus ministry also provides scarce stewardship information to alumni, donors and volunteers Organizational by-laws, minutes from board meetings, annual reports, and regular financial information are all unavailable on the national website. The Board of Directors has been reduced from 19 diverse members in 2010 to 9 members in 2016 with little effort made to recruit leaders who can bring new perspectives to campus ministry.
The reality of campus ministry is that despite the best of intentions, renewal is needed if Orthodox Christianity is to be a viable presence on college campuses in the years to come.
Here are some facts from the report of the Assembly of Bishops on the current state of Orthodox Christian College students that point to the need for change when it comes to campus ministry:
- According to the Assembly of Bishops, there are approximately 800,000 adherents to Orthodox Christianity in the USA and 1,350 college students who participate in campus ministry (p13). This means that among all Orthodox Christians in America who attend church regularly, less than 2 in every 1000 are college students who participate in campus ministry.
- Campus ministry chapters face a precarious existence and are in perpetual flux (p5). 29% of chapters report less than 5 members. 73% of chapters report less than 10 members (p14). Given the reality of little or no growth, the simple loss of a few students or an advisor in any of these chapters can literally mean the end of a given campus ministry. Campus ministry also fluctuates significantly. There is no guarantee that a ministry chapter will remain active let alone flourish during any given school year.
- Membership in campus ministry shows a decline from 2012-2014 (p13). This confirms that the statistic of 60% of college students leaving the Orthodox faith is very much a reality that is not going away anytime soon. The Orthodox Church consistently loses six college students for every four its keeps.
- Only half of campus ministry student leaders take seriously the essential Orthodox Church practice of regular church attendance and agree with the statement: ʺI think the person has to go to the church regularly to be a good Orthodox Christian; ʺ (p52) Campus ministry programs are struggling to create lasting liturgical connections to the Church. All the more troubling is the observation that if 50% of student leaders do not take regular church attendance seriously, one can imagine how much larger the percentage is among less involved Orthodox college students.
- Among Orthodox student leaders, 44% believe that how one lives is more important than being Orthodox.(p52) At a time when more and more young people report their religious affiliation as “none”, this presents a clear challenge as to whether or not the present outlook of campus ministry helps form active Orthodox Christian adults. Every college student seeks truth, beauty, and goodness, but more and more students fail to connect that search with the Orthodox Christian Faith.
What can be done to renew Orthodox campus ministry and help college students grow into discerning disciples? First and foremost, Orthodox campus ministry must be willing to take substantial risks and work outside its comfort zone. Christ tells the Apostle Peter to “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) Orthodoxy is not simply an obligation or an ethnic inheritance –it is both a gift and a calling. Keeping connected to the Church means far more than keeping students in Church buildings or getting them to attend a college conference –it means helping them fall in love with the truth of Jesus Christ.
Let me explain more clearly.
The Orthodox Faith has not changed at all, but the world in which Orthodox Christian college students live has changed drastically. For many years, the response of Orthodox campus ministry has been to encourage polite conformity to the faith rather than help students acquire the Orthodox tools they need to navigate in the world.
What is polite conformity? It is a term coined by theologian Luigi Giussani. Polite conformity is the shallow water of our lives that Christ commands us to leave behind. It is adhering to all of the external rituals of Orthodox Christianity without taking the time to verify the Tradition on our own. It is a counterfeit form of witness. Polite conformity means accepting Orthodox Christianity without criticism. It gives lip service to the faith to please authority figures, family members, or a peer group. Polite conformity means nodding yes in Church while actually believing and behaving in a way that is contrary to the Orthodox Faith. When 6 out of 10 college students leave the faith and over 50% of Orthodox student leaders see no value in attending church regularly, then it is safe to say that a culture of polite conformity has prevailed among college students. Once the peer pressure to conform to Orthodoxy is removed from young people, there is no question that many are no longer motivated to be Orthodox and find the Church no longer meaningful. As a result, they choose to leave when they outgrow certain programs.
Orthodox Christians can reverse this trend by creating a campus ministry environment that is willing to sail into deep waters and get messy with our culture. College students need to encounter an Orthodox Christianity that is willing to honestly wrestle with the great questions of our culture and not politely avoid them for fear of offending people. This goes beyond simple question-and-answer sessions at chapter meetings or national conferences. It means pro-actively educating young people to seek answers from the Church on life’s most important questions. It means dealing with doubt.
College campuses are not neutral environments when it comes to the questions about life, and campus ministry should not be a neutral environment either. Campus ministry leaders need to confront the great questions of our culture by presenting Orthodoxy in its fullness. This means more than simply posing questions, it means giving honest answers that come from the heart of the Church’s Tradition. The Orthodox answer to questions about human life, forgiveness, marriage, sexuality, gender, work, family, vocation, love, and worship need to be compassionately and clearly presented. Why hide the Church’s most beautiful and healthy teachings when they have the power to change so many lives? Christ reminds us to “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
The second way to reverse this downward slide is to stress the difference between information and wisdom when it comes to our Faith. Our culture is saturated with information from a variety of outlets such as social media and 24-hour news services. It is the information age. Likewise, when it comes to Orthodox Christianity, campus programs often settle for presenting information about Orthodoxy rather than the wisdom of Orthodoxy. Information about Orthodoxy limits our knowledge to facts and ritual knowledge while the wisdom of Orthodox Christianity provides us with the ability to use our faith to live our vocation as human beings. Deep down, college students yearn for an experience of faith that is more than Facebook posts and YouTube videos. They yearn for the meaning that only Christ can give and an authentic sense of community that can only be found in the hospital of sinners that is Church.
A final way to reverse this trend is to stress Liturgical leadership. Orthodox leaders are not to be found solely in meetings, conferences, or Summer camps. They are -first and foremost- to be found at liturgy. If you want to be an Orthodox Christian Leader, you have to be a liturgical leader that is someone who sacrifices his time to consistently live and learn from the liturgical life of the Church. Liturgy is the first and best school of leadership in the Orthodox Church.
The challenges that confront campus ministry are no doubt serious. The good news is that the solutions to these problems are to be found on the ancient path that has been traveled by Orthodox Christians time and again. It is the path of seeking God with the questions that arise from the very depth of our being. It is the path of taking seriously those questions, being faithful to them, and seeking their answers in the Tradition of Church. St. Gregory of Sinai was correct when he wrote: “…if a man seeks God with obedience, questioning and wise humility, he will always be protected from harm by the grace of Christ, Who desires all men to be saved.”
Obedience, questioning, and humility. These are three tools every college student should receive from the Church to keep in their spiritual tool box. Our job as Orthodox Christians is to make sure we give them these tools so that they can explore the deep waters of the Orthodox Christian Faith not only on campus, but more importantly for the rest of their lives as adults.