It is the end of the summer semester, and the fall one begins soon, and the sunrise-sunset nature of it all always gets me thinking (seems appropriate for a professor). I have been involved now in the education of college students for about a decade, and most of that has been spent in some way with Faith Formation or Campus Ministry. All this wistful nostalgia prompts a question: why do I stick with it? My all-too-easy answer: because it is important. But that of course is not really an answer, because one would immediately ask: why is it important? Let me make a feeble attempt to explain.
The truth of the matter is this: I wrote a version of this essay much earlier in my career, promoted by an assignment asking the same question be answered for a newspaper article, directed my way by my boss at the time.
It was summarily rejected.
Various reasons were given, but the main gist was that it was weird, and not the answer folks would expect. You can decide for yourself if that is indeed the case. And with more years under my belt, I understand that philosophical musings are not the best draw when raising money and awareness is involved (this is obvious to everyone but we philosophy majors). But as this essay is not now expected to raise a dime, I can freely admit: I still feel the same way, and hope to feel so for many years to come.
For you see, the importance of a thing rests not in what it does, but what it is for. So a great amount of money spent on some frivolous thing is worthless compared to the momentous giving of the widow’s mite. While what a school or a ministry IS depends largely on what it does, why they are important depends on WHOM these things are done for.
And who are all these classes and programs and formation opportunities for? The easy answer would seem to be the many college students served by a host of staff and volunteers. College ministries are important then because the students they minister to are important. All this is true enough in its own way, but I think it confuses the issue, and does a disservice both to the staff and students of the various ministries throughout the Church.
First of all, in putting the students “first,” we are prone to set the dynamic of ministry squarely in the consumer-based model of our work-a-day world. Thus, staff members become customer service representatives that provide student-clients with a product. If the clients are not satisfied with this product, then they will take their “business” elsewhere.
This is unfair to both parties. First of all, the Ministerial staff will never outdo the allure of the modern entertainment juggernaut. Nor did they sign up to put on a show—they signed up to be a part of an Apostolate. Secondly, it is unfair to the students as well—this model does not challenge them, does not treat them like adults, nor does it act like they have anything positive to contribute to the aforementioned Apostolate.
In fact, the fundamental “problem” with how we conceive of Young Adult Ministry rests in this fact: we deal with this group like it is a problem, a riddle within the Church to be solved! We throw ministries at them because they are a “lost generation,” or because they are “addicted to the modern world,’ or because “the future of the Church is bleak without them,” etc., etc.
But we who work with Young Adults can attest to a different reality, that the real reason we choose to work with this group is not because they are a problem to be solved. We choose to work with Young Adults because they are beautiful. (This is where the weird, unpopular part of the essay really picks up steam!)
Look, young Children are beautiful too, but in their own way: their heads-too-big-for-their-bodies, wide eyes, and silly smiles are cute in precisely the same manner a fat, fuzzy caterpillar is cute—not so much like the beauty of a butterfly per se! Similarly, we “Non-Young” Adults are beautiful in our own way as well, but in a way more like the Grand Canyon: “look how time has eroded the rocks to show the majestic, weathered layers underneath!”
But Young Adults, they are beautiful in the proper and fullest sense, like the first flowers that bloom in Springtime. They are pleasant to observe, wonderful to talk to, fun to listen to, and refreshing to be around. They may give us “old folks” our fair share of grey hair, but they make us feel young all the same.
They are, in a word, beautiful.
By now you can see how this answer does not strike a fundraising note, nor even an easily digestible introduction to a ministry. It is undoubtedly off-kilter, and easy to misunderstand. To be blunt, I am saying much more than the simple fact that most of us wish we looked like our 20-something selves. (This is also a stinging commentary on our paltry sense of the word "beauty," but I digress). However, without such an answer, I do not know how to explain my commitment to this wonderful, blessed calling.
Why is college ministry important? Because beautiful things warrant that we should attend to them, that they should not be left to mere chance. We tend gardens, we curate museums, and we, too, should have places for Young Adults to grow. It is the glory of Christendom that Universities took root in the soil of its culture, and the happy lot of all ministers to young adults that we are grafted onto this every-growing vine.
And ultimately, we do this not for the students, the future, or even ourselves. We do this for the sake of God, who deserves to be praised with an offering most beautiful, a bouquet of our best and brightest. God deserves our Young Adults to fill His Choirs, and we owe it to God to offer as many Young People up to His throne as possible. Certainly He deserves them more than the world or the devil. This, and this only, is the true reason that working in college ministry is important. And it has been worth every moment.
It is even worth writing this essay twice!