Spiritual Thirst in a Barren Landscape: Offering Living Water to the College Crowd

When I was the minister at a chapel situated on the edge of the University of Michigan campus, I would prop open the door to the outside so that I could watch the students walk by. As I sat in my office preparing the Sunday service or working on some of our weekday activities, 1 would frequently glance out the door, wondering who these students were and what it would take to engage them with the good news of Jesus Christ.

So began my quest to listen to the voices of this generation of young adults—their attitudes about God, their perceptions of the church, the shape of their living.

The Lay of the Land

In the past thirty years a myriad of books and articles assessing the present cultural environment have been published. The one thing they all seem to agree on is that this era, which some have labeled "postmodern," and the two generations that have been shaped by it, Generation X and the Millennial, are not easily characterized. There is nothing neat, precise, or homogeneous about the world in which we live and the people wc encounter. No brief survey will capture the fact that some students spend an exorbitant number of hours in front of the TV or computer while others choose to cut themselves off from electronic media altogether. Or that some students are willing to give their whole lives in pursuit of a prestigious career and significant income, while others reject that notion in favor of a backpack and an airline ticket to the Amazon. There are simply very few norms that can be counted on, a significant comment on our culture. In other words, the landscape is varied, unpredictable, and unfamiliar.

Yet this landscape, with all its multiformity, shares one unique condition: barrenness. The topography of the land may take many forms, but what these forms share in common is an inability to sustain or reproduce life, in their song "High Life" the group Counting Crows aptly uses the metaphor of desert life to describe the life in which, and toward which, university students find themselves heading. "I wasn't made for this scene baby, but I was made in this scene." This is the truth of students today—while shaped by this postmodern world, they have a keen awareness that where they are and who they are are but a shadow of what life could be.

Broad Cultural Sweeps

What is it about American culture today that contributes to a desert mentality? Many would respond that postmodernity has swept across the land. The idealism of modernity intrinsic to the myth of progress has crumbled. We are no longer confident that human beings can solve human problems through human rationality. Moreover, the conviction that modernity is a myth constructed to support the powerful and oppress the weak has undermined the belief that humans can discover and give expression to truth or even that truth exists beyond our own construction of it. In the language of postmodern theorists, meta-narratives—grand stories from which we derive a sense of identity, purpose, morality, and direction—are mere constructions that perpetuate power structures rather than reflect reality.

The church needs to consider at least two important implications of this mentality as it reaches out to this generation of students. First, all claims to authority, whether institutional or biblical, are perceived as power grabs, reinforcing the status quo and thus the injustice and oppression of those without power. The church has been particularly suspect; it is often regarded with distrust and suspicion. Second, there is a heightened sensitivity to marginalized voices, paving the way for multiple beliefs to exist side by side. Pluralism has flourished, producing a collage of moral and religious options. But the peaceful coexistence of contradictory claims about the world has been bought with a price. Absolutes have become relative and perspcctival, and trutii has been put aside. Today's students rarely ask whether a particular moral code or religious belief is absolutely true. Instead, they determine the value of moral codes or religious beliefs and practices by how well they resonate with, engage, or enhance their personal experience in the moment.

The State of Higher Education

It seems appropriate to ask how the university, as a center of influence and innovation in our culture, has contributed to the barrenness of the land. Under the leadership of Henry Tappan in the 1850s, the University of Michigan sought to cultivate an environment where character and scholarship were united. Freedom in scholarship was the highest ideal as the pursuit of Truth became the goal of education and research (George Marsden, The Soul of the American University, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 102-110). Tappan recognized the unique role of the university to contribute significantly to enhancing its cultural context by promoting beauty, culture, truth, and even moral leadership.

One hundred and fifty years later, a recognizable shift has taken place. Responding to market forces rather than to a calling to enhance American culture, the university allocates budgetary increases for research in biomedicine, information technology, and nanotechnology. Conspicuous by its absence is funding for the humanities and social sciences, disciplines that address the ethical, existential, and aesthetic questions that scientific research generates.

The message communicated by the university is that financial security is the most we can hope for in this world of aesthetic and moral relativism. Thus, the university's role in promoting beauty, character, and culture, that which distinguishes abundant life from mere existence, is increasingly being displaced by career training (at the undergraduate level), research in lucrative fields, and a brokering of athletic idolatry. In this sense, the experience of wilderness resonates deep in the heart of the educational community and manifests itself in the disposition of the students.

The vacuum left by the absence of moral instruction and character development has contributed to the pervasiveness of fear, alienation, meaninglessness, and lack of direction that resides within the souls of students today. With no common understanding of who we are or where wc are going, no shared conception of right and wrong, no unified aspiration for the common good, students are forced to generate their own system of meaning and morality.

One tangible symptom of this educational crisis is the prevalence of consumerism among students today. William Willimon suggests that the consumption of material goods and services is an attempt to deal with the void of meaning that students experience and to give their lives value and purpose. Students are consumers of educational degrees to secure financially rewarding and/or reputable careers. They are consumers of information to ensure top grades in the classroom. They are consumers of alcohol to forget their emptiness and loneliness (The Abandoned Generation: Retliinking Higher Education, Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 38ff.). They are consumers because they haven't the strength of Identity, character, and motivation to see themselves as significant contributors to and beneficiaries of the development of a good and just society. Students today may know what to do when they graduate, but not why they are doing it.

Attitudes Toward Religion

The declining membership in churches around North America has caused pastors and parishioners alike to mourn the lack of religious interest of the younger generations. The sentiment within the churches is that young people have simply forgotten God. Yet Tom Beaudoin, author of Virtual Faith, argues that while young adults may be irreligious, they are certainly not unspiritual. Indifferent toward the Christian religion as traditionally conceived and bored with religious services, this generation is extremely interested in exploring their own spirituality. One has only to peruse the music or movie scene to see that it is saturated with religious and spiritual allusions.

The implication is that while traditional religion and church are simply not connecting with this generation, students are spiritually thirsty. What they find at the university is a plethora of religious options. A campus ministry down the road from Campus Chapel offers courses in "creating your own theology" for students who are eager to explore a syncretic system of beliefs. Traditional constructs of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism are surrendered for a witch's brew of experiential, functional, and sometimes logically contradictory beliefs and rituals.

One of the more difficult challenges is that today's students have no memory of Scripture or church. Most students have little understanding of what the Christian faith is about. Even fewer students (Christian or not) have read the Christian Scriptures. In addition, a growing number of academicians feel justified in debasing and misrepresenting the Christian faith to further dislodge it from its former position of privilege in American life. The result is that Christianity has a difficult time getting a fair hearing.

Where, in this landscape, will young adults have an opportunity to hear of God's love for them and the miracle of God's redeeming work through Jesus Christ in compelling ways that they can understand? Who will open up space for them to discover and celebrate the world that God has created within their scholarly pursuits? What can remedy the crisis of meaning in their lives created by moral relativism and individualism? How will they find the stream of living water?

Culturally and educationally, the landscape is barren. Increasingly students are asked to make decisions about what they believe and who they are and how they are going live without anyone or anything guiding them along the way Personal choice has not given way to freedom; instead it has led to paralysis in the midst of chaos. Institutions of higher education seek to distance themselves from the problem, using the pretext of the separation of church and state as a way to wash their hands of moral, spiritual, and metaphysical concerns. The consumerist mentality further contributes to the erosion of the land, encouraging students to believe that devouring material things and resources is the only means for survival.

Yet here in the wilderness, in the barrenness of the land, we find the Spirit hovering, preparing the landscape for God's creative word to bring life again. For nomads in the desert desperately looking for something to drink, the words of pop artist Sting resonate deeply: "Sweet desert rose/this memory of Eden haunts us all/this desert flower, this rare perfume/is the sweet intoxication of the fall."

For some reason, in the midst of the turmoil and chaos, this generation of students has not been lost to despair. They sense the presence of the desert rose. They intuit the lost Eden. They recognize their thirst. This is the challenge, opportunity, and invitation for campus ministers today. This is our vocation, our calling from God—the place, as Frederick Buechner said, where our deep joy and the world's deep hunger meet. It is to journey with these nomads to the stream of living water, giving testimony to God's recreative work along the way. The uncompromising truth is that these students need, even as we need, the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

Eat This Bread, Drink This Wine!

"Are you thirsty?" said the Lion.
"I'm dying of thirst," said Jill.
"Then drink," said the Lion___"There is no other stream."

—C. S. Lewis. Thn Silver Chair.

At the Chapel, we soon realized that if Christianity was to have any place in the lives of these young adults, it would have to address their spiritual thirst and reveal Jesus Christ as the living water in language, attitudes, and actions they could understand. Our strategy was to create hospitable space for students to gather and encounter the living Christ, trusting in the promise that where two or three are gathered, Jesus would meet us there. Worship was one very important gathering that served several purposes. It allowed people to escape the chaos for a short while and experience a taste of the new creation. It fostered a sense of community among those who gathered, mitigating loneliness and alienation. Worship connected people with a larger story rooted in history, giving them a sense of where they had come from and where they were going. It was a weekly reminder that God is God and we are not.


To accomplish these purposes in our worship, we asked ourselves a number of questions during the planning:

  • Does the worship service engage both the heart and mind? An appeal solely to the body would result in emotional manipulation and inauthentic worship. An appeal solely to the mind would result in the dissemination of information without an encounter with the living Christ.
  • Is the service experiential? To which of the body's five senses does it appeal? In what way are worshipers active participants (rather than passive observers)?
  • Does the service use language/images with which worshipers will resonate?
  • Does it connect people to each other? Build community?
  • Is our worship authen tic? Do we genuinely love God? Do we love each other? Is this evident in our worship planning and/or leadership?
  • Does our worship connect people to the universal church throughout history and around the world? Is there a sense of belonging to something that is anchored, that is significant, that has a story? The celebration of communion was an important part of our services. There is no more real encounter with the living Christ than eating bread and drinking wine with the body of believers.
  • Is the service relevant? Does it equip and empower worshipers to be people of character, people with a moral center, followers of Jesus Christ in their current setting?

In the midst of all these observations and reflections, there is one that stands above the rest and 1 tell it to you with joy in my heart. It is futile to plan worship for 20s and 30s. Much more effective and rewarding is planning worship with 20s and 30s. I imagine that the group of young adults who invested themselves in the worship at Chapel learned some things from me, but they taught me about commitment, freedom, and creativity in worship, a passion for God, honesty, and integrity. The more I let go of the worship planning, the more they seized the opportunity to express their thirst, their longings, their need for God, their love for Jesus, and their experience of the Holy Spirit in the worship. According to his power at work within them, God did more than I could ask or imagine through their efforts.


Amanda Benckhuysen (ajw.benckhuysen@utoronto.ca), formerly pastor at Campus Chapel, Ann Arbor, Michigan, is currently a Ph.D. student in Old Testament at the University of Toronto.


Reformed Worship 67 © March 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.