Religion Takes Root on Campus

The 1995-96 academic year will be remembered as a time when campus ministry came into its own - again.

Many folks recall with wistfulness the religious activism of the late '60s and early '70s. Today, colleges and universities throughout the United States are reporting significant increases in the number of students participating in religious-life activities. The National Association of College and University Chaplains has discussed this phenomenon, but members are unsure about the reasons. Is it a new age - the death of cynicism? Or is it that the end of the millennium has caused people to focus more on their spiritual destiny?

Perhaps the answer lies in a culture that has tired of greediness, one in which young people are looking for lasting values. Campus ministry has been here all along, with its doors open and arms outstretched. Now students, faced with enormous competitive pressures and stress, are searching for an anchor. There are no membership requirements to be in campus ministry, no grade-point average to maintain. Few campus organizations can make such a claim.

This increase in activity has not gone unnoticed by college and university administrations. Several have decided to reinstate or strengthen campus ministry programs. Columbia University, Vanderbilt University, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, for example, have either reestablished dean of chaplaincy positions or have strengthened programs already in place.

Allegheny College's campus ministry is a microcosm of the activity nationwide. Participation is up in all facets of our religious program, with at least 1 in 6 students touched by religious programming. The number of worshippers has doubled at our ecumenical Sunday morning service, and attendance is strong at the Sunday evening Catholic Mass. These groups have been encouraged to think of themselves as a "church" at Allegheny, rather than just chapel gatherings. The students are beginning to see themselves as a part of a faith community, with obligations to the larger college community and beyond.

But involvement extends beyond weekly services. Groups that demand an extra measure of devotion and effort, such as Covenant Discipleship, are thriving. This program, based on the model of John Wesley's class meeting, requires a maximum of seven students per group to formulate a covenant whose clauses reflect an obligation to observe or perform acts of justice, compassion, piety, and worship each week. Another group, Sojourners Christian Fellowship, was established for students who don't feel they fit into existing programs.

Religious-life groups have embraced community-service programs as part of their outreach. Allegheny Christian Outreach sponsors an annual mission trip to Jamaica; Allegheny Newman participates in an annual Kentucky mission trip; and students from all groups participate in an alternative spring-break program.

Campus ministry has not suddenly changed its programming. Rather, students today have an interest in the principles and activities that campus ministry has always represented. Many are looking for depth, commitment, and challenge. Campus ministry provides that.

My hope is that this renewal will take root in communities nationwide as today's students graduate and assume their places in society. How these young people function in the workplace, the home, and in the church or synagogue will provide evidence of the success or shallowness of this current trend.

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