Campus student ministry offers ‘silence’ and ‘incense’

On Wednesday, I was driving through the campus of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., when I saw a sign that provided additional evidence for what young people want in worship services.

I believe it was the Lutheran Student Center that had a sign out front with three big words on it. Passing by in a car, I was only able to catch the first two: “Silence” and “Incense.” These words were presented on the sign as offerings for hungry students.

As another writer has recent noted, college-age students already have access to popular music and entertainment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What’s drawing them to worship services is not more of the same, despite the complete inability of just about every minister to understand that.

What’s really awful about the “contemporary worship services” and the “outreach ministries” are their failure to know the people they’re trying to reach. I remember, while I was on my way out of evangelicalism and toward mainline Protestantism, noticing how evangelistic and apologetic efforts were always ginned-up from within the circled wagons of churches, believers, and seminaries. The people creating these moves seemed to be saying, “If I was a non-believer, I would probably think and believe something like . . . .”

However, they weren’t non-believers, and they had little understanding of people. The better folks doing the ginning-up had gained an understanding of cultural forces and the impact of ideas, but few knew and genuinely befriended people. When they did get to know people, it had all the genuine-ness of multi-level marketing sales. (Remember Amway salespeople of recent decades?) The individual was not an interesting person to the evangelist or apologist, but rather a prospect, a target, a challenge. Not primarily a friend or a person.

But to come back to my original point, I remember a story from a student at the campus where I teach, Coastal Carolina University. A young, zealous, Southern, evangelical student invited some Northeastern cradle-Catholics to a local rock-and-roll church — you know, one of the churches with “high-energy” worship, guaranteed never to be boring.

How did the Northeastern cradle-Catholics react to the rock-and-roll church? Were they surprised that church could be so cool? Were they delighted to hear a backbeat in the worship songs? Did they feel at ease around casual clothing?

No. Their response was simple: “That’s not church,” they said.

I figure they had expected something a little less like the rest of their lives.

8 responses to “Campus student ministry offers ‘silence’ and ‘incense’

  1. Colin, I’m one of those people who needed a quiet contemplative service to find a comfortable place to interact with the gospel. That being said, there’s no magic bullet in terms of worship style that causes college students to suddenly take their faith seriously. Rather, it usually has much more to do with a network of relationships where the gospel is displayed as an alternative and joyous way of life. In my opinion, the worship service is the last hurdle in getting a college student to engage with the Christian faith. In that vein, the importance of the worship service is not that we “wow” college students with how cool we are because our church has guitars or how deep we are because our church has incense. Like you said, taking a genuine interest in people as people is what truly makes a difference. Whether you’re holding a thurible or a guitar really doesn’t matter.


  2. Oh, no, the point was not that there is a magic bullet that makes students take their faith seriously. The point was that they might prefer contemplative and tradition services to contemporary services. There’s a difference between prescribing a solution and meeting a desire. That distinction, too, has been lost. The students simply might be something different than ministries expect them to be — the ones who want traditional services might already take their faith seriously. Furthermore, I’m not sure I agree with your final point. I do agree that good, Gospel-centered relationships change people in good ways more than abstract knowledge or a style of worship. But if the question is between rock and roll (as much as I love it) and classical music, and its attendant contemporary versus traditional, there is only one choice, and not for aesthetic reasons. Rock and roll and the entertainment culture is the fuel of modernity’s individualism and isolation, and modernity is the enemy of community, Christian community or any human community. Part of the discussions I heard while at L’Abri Fellowship stemmed from Os Guinness’s book “Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.” Medium is part of the message. Symbolism is substance.


    • Colin, my point has less to do with results than simply to say that ‘young people’ are not a monolithic people group with all the same tastes (jello pudding, rock n roll, blue jeans, video games, etc.) Perhaps we’re making the same point there. It is foolish to assume that because you play an electric guitar, students will flock to your church. Rather, if we want to talk about what college students prefer, I don’t think you can lump all young adults together without actually getting to know individuals. Put simply, different college students have different preferences.
      Fuethermore, I am having trouble with your reasoning at two more points. First, it seems a huge logical leap from ‘I saw a sign for contemplative worship on a college campus’ to ‘young people on that cpus desire contemplative worship’. Unless you went inside the service and spoke to the participants and spoke to other folks on the campus, you really can’t draw the conclusion you are drawing. Second, I don’t see that the choice lies between rock and roll and classical music. Most of the churches I know with vibrant student ministries fall somewhere between the two, singing good old hymns in settings that unchurched people find less daunting. I do agree with you about the dangers of entertainment culture, but people can be entertained by classical music as well as more modern forms. Likewise, just as I have seen both ‘worship leaders’ hailed because they fit the celebrity culture and i have seen traditional worship leaders hailed because they fit a similar category of superstar where culture is the value instead of coolness.
      Each worship/church culture presents its own particular problems and pitfalls because our problem lies not in our lack of musical taste, but in our lack of spiritual tastes. Plenty of people value Bach and Mozart and not righteousness, mercy, and peace.
      My point about relationships has much more to do with how unchurched college students are attracted to Christ. Perhaps that’s not what you’re discussing.


      • We are saying the same thing about an age category not being monolithic.

        My reasoning wasn’t based on the campus sign at William & Mary but also a new blog post by a young Catholic writer from who-knows-where, and a story recounted to me at CCU, and my own ongoing contentions in the thousand-plus posts on this blog.

        But that strictly anecdotal evidence was offered simply to say young people aren’t monolithic, and that some want traditional worship, and that maybe the reason they want traditional worship has something to do with the genuine difference between a traditional service and the rest of their lives. The quick, glandular appeal of everything else in all of our lives — advertising prompts, marketing campaigns, 3-minute instantly downloadable songs, taste-bud engineered immediate food, and crises resolved in 30-minute and 60-minute increments — makes some styles of worship distinct and perhaps appealing only because they are distinct.

        I can agree with you that people like Bach more than righteousness, peace, and joy, but we only go about that far together, and this opens a point that, to me, is significant.

        A belief worked into me both at L’Abri Fellowship and through listening to Mars Hill Audio Journal is that ordering our lives in some ways are more godly and more humane than others. Liturgies and church calendars and lectionaries are options in that ordering.

        If someone is already convinced of the gospel, what’s next? Feast on mass culture and keep thanking God for grace?

        Allow me a few more moments to air this out with you.

        I simply do not agree with anyone who says that a believer — someone already convinced of the gospel — is equally prepared to hear from God with The Ramones as he would be with Bach. It has nothing to do with magical beliefs about music. It has everything to do with brain science. Classical music just better corresponds to us as creatures placed in a created order by a Creator. And with the predicate of that last sentence, I’ve stumbled upon why L’Abri is still so radical in Presbyterian circles: Because they don’t see the Bible and the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit as infinite and ongoing contrarians to being a created human in a created order (borrowing “infinite contrarian” from David Bentley Hart). There’s a difference between restoration and destruction of people.

        I’m not saying you exactly believe that God is the contrarian to being human etc., but I’m genuinely afraid that’s where your thinking and much of the contemporary Reformed crowd will wind up with a little extension of thought.

        Look at your statement above — “righteousness, peace, and joy” are abstractions and/or spiritual values, certainly intangibles, set in opposition to the sensory experience of listening to Bach, which (I will always maintain) certainly does a better job at pointing toward heaven than Slayer or Lady Gaga. I think Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio would go along with that.

        (We’d have a better lunch appointment with the Bach fan, given the alternatives, to be sure!)

        I readily understand your intentions might not have been in the direction of creating that opposition, yet I think we can just be objective in saying that at least some veins of Reformed would feed the kinds of comments that create infinite contrariness between God and his world.

        I know L’Abri cannot stand on its own as an absolute and infallible source of authority; I also know that most of the people in that Reformed organization would never have smashed as much churchy stuff as the English Puritans did. The reason why they wouldn’t? Again, they don’t try to make God’s redemptive work the enemy of what God promised to redeem, namely, all things, which include human culture, creativity, and so forth.

        If you think we’re talking past each other, that might not be a problem. Let me be clear: All of the above is exactly what matters to me. Alister McGrath once said Christians should become more human. Some applications of the Christian faith in America, as you know, call for us to become less human. I hate that and I want to fight it.

        I see in those young people, however few, who want older forms of liturgical worship a bit of hope against the mass culture overtaking everything beautiful and replacing it with something disposable and plastic and quickly consumed and lost.

        History, tradition, symbols, music, art, and other cultural expressions are ways of expressing and embodying — dare I say, incarnating — the intangibles of belief and hope within the created order. The real risky and controversial thing to say here is that because we are made in certain ways and because the Creator is who he is, some ways of worship (and living) better correspond to reality than others. Even if someone has a heart for God and great intentions, that does not negate the created order or our state as creatures. That’s what makes some ways better than others — we aren’t souls stranded in bodies; we are promised resurrected bodies. We aren’t “spirits in a material world,” as much as I like The Police. We are created beings within a created order.

        So some approaches, I think, are just going to be better. C.S. Lewis once said God might cause a man of another faith to start thinking on the things of his faith that best correspond to Christianity. God takes what’s available in that person’s life and starts to shape it. Maybe, similarly, God will cause the person who likes Bach (much more than righteousness, peace, and joy) to start thinking on the God being worshiped in Bach. But I find it hard to believe God could work through other forms as easily, including rock generally, including Slayer and Lady Gaga and The Ramones particularly. Maybe that’s the direction of our Western culture right now: to eventually wind up with no embodied anything for God to work with.

        And for the record, yes, I like The Ramones quite a bit!

        Thanks for listening.


  3. “while I was on my way out of evangelicalism and toward mainline Protestantism” – Do you have a past post where you “tell your story” or just focus more specifically on your move from evangelicalism to mainline protestantism? If so, give me the link. I’ve considered leaving evangelicalism for the mainline for awhile now, and visited a mainline church the last couple Sundays. After thinking about it so long, I thought it would be an easy transition but now I’m full of trepidation.


    • His Laura! Here’s one essay I wrote a while back. Nothing brilliant, but it might help:

      Also, I recall from the New Testament that God will never leave you or forsake you, and an Old Testament passage that says, “The Lord will gather me in.” Plus, another Old Testament passage that said God hasn’t forgotten you; you are carved into his hand. Plus, I think Psalm 139 says, “If I rise on the wings of the morning and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me.” So risk the Protestant mainlines — “the far side of the sea”! — and see how things go. Be confident in grace and go forward, explore. You’ll gain what you’ll gain!


  4. Colin, I probably agree with you more than you might think. Most of the reformed circles I run in place a high value on human creativity and cultural expressions as signs of God’s general grace to humanity and the cultural mandate of genesis (the command to subdue the earth is much more accurately stated cultivate the earth). In fact, you have probably encountered this in Francis Schaeffer’s own works. I understand that not all reformed folks think that way. Oh well.
    I also agree that the church needs to be careful not to mindlessly adopt whatever cultural mediums happen to be popular. However, the God of the scriptures is the God who uses weak and shameful things to shame the wise. So, while Bach may be a better form for communicating spiritual truths, God is absolutely capable of using whatever means He chooses to cause us to draw near to Him (even the newsboys). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for more faithful means of expressing His glory and grandeur, rather, it means we should do so humbly giving deference to brothers and sisters who use media we find less palatable. I’m reminded of Whitefield’s response when asked if he thought he’d see his theological opponent Charles Wesley in heaven. “No” he responded, “he’ll be too much closer to Christ’s throne for me to be able to see him.”
    Your argument also begs the question for me whether a believer in a culture unexposed to classical (western) music has equal access to growth in godliness. What about an inner city kid in Philly who barely made it through high school? Or a rural Chinese believer? Poor Jesus. What kind of music did He have access to? My experience has been that believers with more humble means, whether they be cultural, financial, or intellectual, often seem to live in to the Gospel call more deeply.
    Finally, I’m concerned that many of your arguments would have precluded much of the music you value from being brought into the church in the first place. In Luther’s day, the organ was “the devil’s pipes” defiled by its popularity in the bars and unfit for Christian worship. “The king of love my shepherd is,” and all the other metrical psalms we enjoy today were written in order to break from the Romish past of chanted psalms. Isaac Watts’ hymns were called ‘whims’ and considered lighthearted and shallow. John Newton’s works were often considered doggerel. All that to say, our classical forms of worship were at one point in time radical departures from the accepted traditional status quo. I personally fear throwing the baby put with the bath water by being overcommitted to either the novel or the traditional. That being said, I doubt that any of today’s K-Love artists will make it into the hall of fame with the above mentioned saints, but I suspect that has much more to do with the shallow state of western thought today than anything. However, I don’t think that should stop us from seeking faithful ways of expressing God’s grandeur in our own cultural language.
    By the way, does this mean you aren’t listening to rock and roll anymore? That would make me sad. I know. It’s only rock and roll. But I like it!


    • Ha! Yes, I’ve been aware that I’ve been painting myself into a much higher-brow corner than I can live in. The arts and culture critics I appreciate, like Dave Hickey, want to salvage commercially viable art and even kitschy stuff. Then again, I like Roger Scruton’s clarity but he seems to draw the lines too narrowly.

      I appreciate your comments and your willingness to engage a long, long blog conversation. Eventually, we’ll get to sit down together. I’ll make a brief comment here that you can feel free to reply to now or at some other time in the future.

      I fear the potential for an endless peeling-back within some of your argument. The word “deconstruction” might be too grand for what I’m getting at, but it’s worth mentioning. Sure, God can use, has used, will use the smallest and least significant things of this world to accomplish what he wants, and individuals have been better off for it. However, this point eventually works out to the realization that God doesn’t need to use anything of this world. He calls the things that are not as if they are. Allegedly, Christ has appeared to Muslims in dreams and visions. God needs nothing of this world. Yet much of the Reformed position is centered around the Bible, which is a bundle of culture, language, symbol, history, etc. — in other words, it is the stuff of this world. However, some of what you said seems to arrange things in such as way that — there seems to be something “pure” within the meager vessel of words, that the pure spirit is only within or underneath or behind the words, and not part of the words, which sets up too much of an oil-and-water distinction for me. I could be wrong, and I could change with time, but if I’m going to embrace a conservative view of Scripture, it will be similar to how I see the two natures of the person of Jesus: not as oil and water, but more like water and wine well mixed together. I neither like nor believe in too much distinction between medium and message, and I realize that needs some working-out in light of your comments. Still, I don’t want to live as if the Bible stripped of all its literary elements would be more pure. In a sense, I don’t want to live as if Jesus’ spirit would be better than his body — because the two are supposed to be inseparable, fully God and fully man. So this works out to real-world values within the created order — even as God works with the small and shameful things, we still have qualities within the created order.