By Megan Brandrud
More than 240 Lutheran campus ministries provide an ELCA presence at state and private colleges and universities across the country. They minister to everyone in their academic settings—not just students and not just Lutherans—as they seek to engage people in what it means to be a community that reflects the life of Christ.
This mission is lived out in various ways from ministry to ministry and is shaped by many factors, including regional demographics, leadership and even the ministry’s physical context. A ministry that operates out of its own campus center or a shared space with ecumenical partners functions differently from those that are parish-based or that work out of houses on campus.
To echo a common phrase among campus ministry: “If you’ve seen one campus ministry setting, you’ve seen one.”
Despite these differences, a common denominator among Lutheran campus ministries is that they serve among one of the largest communities of young adults in the country aside from the military. Hoping to learn the impact of these programs and what young adults are saying about their lives, their faith and the church, the Lutheran Campus Ministry Network (LuMin) conducted a two-year research project that culminated in 2018.
The first-of-its-kind study consisted of a literature review, site visits and in-person interviews on six campuses. LuMin surveyed 845 students participating in campus ministry and conducted phone interviews with 10 campus pastors and ministers.
The findings provided information that’s valuable not only for campus ministry practitioners but also for congregations across the country that wonder why young adults aren’t filling their pews.
Roland Martinson, professor emeritus of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., was a lead researcher for the Lutheran Campus Ministry Study. He said the results reveal that Lutheran campus ministries make an impact, and the most common characteristic students referenced as being transformative was the sense of a quality, anchoring community. In fact, 97% of students said Lutheran campus ministry provides a welcoming, inclusive and safe place.
“I think it’s true that the campus ministries live out this principle of having a very welcoming, open, diverse, affirming community in ways that are really quite profound,” said Don Romsa, who retired in August as ELCA director for campus ministry. “On some campuses we are one of the only Christian ministries to be openly welcoming of students who are LGBTQ.
“Both in my work as a campus pastor but also in getting around to others over the past five years, I’ve seen it over and over again: students who were disillusioned by the church or put off by other religious groups found a place that was welcoming.”
Megan Kleen, a sophomore at the University of Montana in Missoula, said the emphasis on everyone being welcome is what drew her to Emmaus, the campus ministry. “Growing up in an LCMS (Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) church, I can get a little spooked about church, but the community [at Emmaus] kept me coming back,” she said.
“The thing that struck me about Emmaus is no one tried to invalidate others’ stories and fully accepted them. If it was sad or concerning, they were there for you if you needed it, but they didn’t try to say, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way’ about a certain issue. There is open, inclusive conversation. It’s safe. People aren’t going to judge me, which is incredible.”
Emma Schmick, a junior at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, said she had a challenging roommate situation and was considering transferring schools until she found the Lutheran campus ministry. Now she’s on her second year of living in the campus ministry house. “I was nervous going into a new setting, but it was a super-welcoming community, and felt safe and comfortable,” she said. “I like that everyone who lives here is different but has the same core values.”
The community, she added, made her feel comfortable to open up, ask questions and learn more about herself: “I think because it is such a safe place and you’re with people you know have similar values, it gives you the opportunity to find yourself and your voice and have confidence to use it.”
The kind of safe, welcoming community that students said they find in campus ministry creates an environment where they feel they can talk openly about challenges and find support. This can be especially meaningful as it relates to mental health concerns.
Several national studies over the past few years have reported that mental health issues on campuses continue to rise, and students who were surveyed for the LuMin study were no exception: 49% reported feeling overwhelming anxiety at least monthly, and 23% said they have seriously considered suicide.
Lutheran Campus Ministry–Clemson, a parish-based ministry, took the research findings seriously and started the Mood Disorders Support Group, where students meet with a member of the congregation who is a licensed social worker.
“Suicide is way too pervasive and, on campuses, in many of our minds, is an epidemic,” said Chris Heavner, who retired in August as pastor of the Clemson ministry. “We are very aware of the way in which students come onto campus these days with more pressure on them than they can handle. They’re overwhelmed by the realities of the world. Campus ministry is faithfully addressing and caring for that.”
“I think because it is such a safe place and you’re with people you know have similar values, it gives you the opportunity to find yourself and your voice and have confidence to use it.”
John Lund, pastor of Emmaus, said Lutheran campus ministry is one of the only contexts in which students, even those who grew up in the ELCA, have space to talk about complex subjects.
“It’s different across the country, but we don’t have a lot of youth groups or even camps where they’re talking about things like ethics or sexuality or race,” he said. “And those are the conversations they’re dying to have. There’s a desire to have this place where [they can say], ‘I can feel like myself and these are my people, and we’re going to talk about important things to help figure out who I am and what I’m about.”
Many of the students surveyed, especially those who had an active faith life at home, reported that Lutheran campus ministry offered a continuation and an expansion of their faith journey. Of those surveyed, 76% said growing their faith was an important reason for being involved in campus ministry, and 62% said they pray weekly or more.
“I think our campus ministries do a really good job at nurturing what we would call the simple faith practices of young adults,” Romsa said. “Some young adults take on a prayer life that is pretty powerful as a result of being a part of Lutheran campus ministry.”
Students named other practices that made them feel connected to God, including time in nature, service projects, singing or playing an instrument, and sharing meals. But most cited worship as the No. 1 practice that connected them to God. And while 84% of the students said they worship weekly or more, Martinson said it’s important to note campus ministries don’t necessarily follow the traditional Lutheran service.
“They’re faithful yet innovative,” Martinson said. “They grow out of Lutheran theology and many employ its vocabulary of grace and vocation, and worship services are highly interactive and draw out experiences of students.”
Lund said Emmaus had to rethink its worship style after interest waned a lot. “The last couple of years we’ve done something called ‘Unplugged’ that has elements of worship, and we frame it differently,” he said. “We pull in art, stories, creativity. It’s just a different spiritual space.”
Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities experienced an opposite shift in worship interest a few years ago, said its pastor, Kate Reuer Welton.
“Around 2015, a class of students showed up,” she said. “They leaned in and were spiritually hungry in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Engagement and outreach programs that our ministry previously relied on were flopping, but all of the students were coming to worship.
“Generation Z has had to perform socially and academically since they were very young, and with the economic and political instability they’ve experienced, it’s apparent that nothing is a given. And that makes them hungry for the gospel.”
Students also indicated that campus ministry provides a space where they can ask challenging questions, express doubt and have conversations about faith that are relevant to their lives.
At the University of Minnesota ministry, students are placed into small groups where, Reuer Welton said, they can “have meaningful conversations and work together to figure out how to recognize God in their daily life.”
“They have a general sense about who God is and an idea about what faith in action looks like, but they don’t have a lot of practice saying what they believe about God, so we’re trying to give them words to speak into that,” she added.
Rachel Young Binter, pastor at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, said the campus ministry also helps students learn how to articulate their faith tradition. “We’re learning how to articulate to the world our deeply held beliefs around Scripture and the hope and love of God in Jesus Christ, and how that’s counter to some of the articulation of Christianity in the world,” she said, adding that she’s heard from several students that they’d rather say they’re Lutheran than say they’re Christian.
“I feel like, as the ELCA has taken more public and important stands, the young adults I’m working with want to identify with this church,” Binter said. “They’d rather say they’re Lutheran because it stands for something—a form of Christianity that has integrity and meaning and purpose in the world.”
Two substantial findings from the research project: 84% of students reported that Lutheran campus ministry had a significant impact on their lives, and 89% indicated that they plan to remain active in a religious community as adults.
Congregations lamenting that young people aren’t interested in church anymore might well note these figures and study the practices of Lutheran campus ministries to better involve young adults.
“I feel like, as the ELCA has taken more public and important stands, the young adults I’m working with want to identify with this church.”
“Young adults are very engaged and committed to the church, but they may not show that in the same way their grandparents did, by building buildings,” Heavner said. “We’ve learned [which] faith communities are more attractive to this generation of followers of Jesus, so what does this tell us about forming communities? We are Lutheran because the church was courageous to become something different, so let’s make sure we aren’t confined by a traditional idea of community.”
Binter agreed, saying young adults are looking for a radically welcoming community that models the life of Christ and gives them opportunity to be a leader in it. “I think young adults are calling us to be a church of integrity, and that’s a good thing for the church,” she said. “Eighty-three percent said they see themselves as important to the church and the world. They are getting our message that they have gifts to share, that they have leadership to give us.
“As young adults are visiting new congregations, are they being invited into leadership positions and are their ideas being welcomed?”
Lund sees young adult leadership being invested on a national level through programs such as Young Adults in Global Mission, but congregations are struggling to harness this power. “Our congregations might want to slot young adults into existing leadership, and I’m not seeing a lot of our young adults who are finding that terribly exciting,” he said. “Their perception is that congregations are set up to comfort people and it’s a community that feels primarily passive. No one has talked about climate change or immigration and these big questions they carry with them. It’s not true for all, but it’s what many young adults experience.”
Micah Drew, a recent graduate of the University of Montana, was active in Emmaus as a student, including living in one of the campus ministry houses and helping plan worship. But now that he’s left campus and returned to his hometown of Boise, Idaho, he’s having a difficult time finding a congregation to call home. Even the congregation he grew up in doesn’t feel like a good fit after his experience in a campus ministry context.
“A lot of the congregations don’t seem like they’re as in tune to the younger generations as much as they maybe think their church plan includes that kind of outreach,” he said. “I love going to a regular worship service every once in a while because it gives me a calming sense of peace because I grew up with it, but I don’t get the conversations there that I’m looking for.”
Reuer Welton hopes that some of the transferrable practices of Lutheran campus ministries can be catalysts for generational change and contribute to the overall flourishing of ELCA congregations across the country. “There are 50 to 60 students who tromp through the snow when it’s below zero at 9 o’clock at night to get to worship,” she said. “The church isn’t dead.
“This study points to ways it’s changing and may be different in the future, but the Holy Spirit is alive and well.”