One of my favorite people in the world is Ron. Ron retired after a long and successful career as a chemist. He spends his retirement on campus at Penn State Berks, tutoring students in chemistry. Ron does this because of his Christian faith: he is using his gifts to connect with young people and speak truth into their lives. When he first began tutoring on campus he was so well-received that he was asked to join the faculty, teaching chemistry. While he enjoyed this, he later resigned saying it was hard to minister to students when you were grading their papers! So he went back to his spot in the library, tutoring.
I do not know Ron very well, but I have learned one thing from him: use your gifts to meet students where they are at.
Connecting with students one-on-one is not glamorous. It will not lead to a report before a church mission board about multitudes getting saved on campus. But what people like Ron do is help students move beyond a shallow faith.
David Kinnaman, in the book You Lost Me, says that one reason young people walk away from the faith is that they see it as shallow. He writes:
I think the next generation’s disconnection stems ultimately from the failure of the church to impart Christianity as a comprehensive way of understanding reality and living fully in today’s culture. To many young people who grew up in Christian churches, Christianity seems boring, irrelevant, sidelined from the real issues people face. It seems shallow (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 1841-1844). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition).
One of the cornerstones of this shallow faith is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a label given by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. Kinnaman quotes their book Soul Searching in defining this: “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
Moral Therapeutic Deism contributes to the shallow faith found among young Christians. One of the interesting things Kinnaman brings up is that while their faith is shallow, they are quite confident in themselves. Part of the reason for this overconfidence is the influence of our youth-worshiping culture. We shun the wisdom of the old and look to the young and beautiful as our examples for how to live and think. Kinnaman concludes:
If you already know all there is to know, if you’ve been told your entire life that you’re “just right” exactly the way you are, if the main job of the god you believe in is to make you feel good about yourself (because you’re entitled to great self-esteem, along with everything else), then there are not a lot of compelling reasons to sit in the dirt at the feet of Jesus and live the humble life of a disciple” (Kinnaman, David (2011-04-01). You Lost Me (Kindle Locations 1917-1920). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition).
The problem is not just that young people have a shallow faith. They learned it from the previous generation, who also had a shallow faith. Christianity in in the United States could be characterized, in general, as shallow. Yet, as Kinnaman notes, the USA has the most developed “spiritual infrastructure” in the world. We are inundated with Christian books, media, conferences, churches, camps, retreats, seminars and every other resource you could want. Yet this infrastructure is almost like a factory, mass-producing Christians. And this mass-producing may yield a large quantity, with most identifying as Christian, but a shallow quality.
Kinnaman does not get into it, but I suspect a part of this is the American evangelical desire to get people saved. If everyone is destined for hell and believing in Jesus is the only thing that will save them then having them confess Christ is all that matters. Historically the Christian culture in America has been good at getting people to believe in Christ. But then you have a lot of people just standing around, waiting to die and go to heaven.
This may be one reason why many are rethinking hell (is it annihilation? is there a hell at all?). As interesting a discussion as that is, I think there is an even deeper root cause: fear. We live in fear: fear that God is going to punish us if we don’t tell enough people about Jesus, fear that we’re not really accepted by God, fear that those closest to us will spend eternity in hell. From that fear is often used as the chief evangelism tool: believe or burn. In contrast to this, I am struck by the absolute lack of fear that Jesus and the early Christians had.
The flip side of fear is a trust in God’s sovereignty. That is, to trust that it is not your job to save the world, that is God’s job! It is okay to invest your time in a few people, working hard to help them grow into mature Christians. Hey, that’s what Jesus did!
This is encouraging to me because as I look back in my years at campus ministry so far…well, there has not been much quantity! But I think of students I still keep in touch with and relationships I have built. I recall a conversation on the phone with a man who is preparing for marriage and navigating family issues. Then there was a lunch at a diner with a recent grad preparing to move to Pittsburgh for a new job. I smile as I think of that one couple who always visits Emily and I when they are in the area. I look back at all that and pray that though the quantity of persons I have influenced may not be as high as I had hoped when I started, the quality in those I have managed to help along the way, by God’s grace, has been life-changing.
Overcoming a shallow faith cannot happen on a mass scale, but that’s okay, its not our job to save the world. It may be our job to deeply invest in a few people though.