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Commentary: Campus spiritual revival is just in time

10/3/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

This commentary accompanies story #469. A photograph of the Rev. Harold V. Hartley III is available.

A Commentary By the Rev. Harold V. Hartley III*

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
It is the first Sunday night of the month and time for Crave. The youth-led, youth-planned worship service typically draws 100 to 300 young people from around northern Virginia. Fairfax Station Christ United Methodist Church hosts the event. A UMNS photo by Jay Mallin. Photo number 03-322, Accompanies UMNS #473, 10/1/03
Just as Methodism began as a renewal movement among college students, a new campus spiritual revival could bring much-needed renewal to the church today.

It remains to be seen if the church will embrace this work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of students, and be open to the passion, vision, and gifts a new generation seeks to offer.

Brothers John and Charles Wesley founded the Holy Club on the campus of Oxford University in 18th century England to provide spiritual nurture and accountable discipleship for a small band of students. Out of that little campus group sprang the Methodist movement that now encircles the globe.

Today, a new generation of college students in the United States is seeking in a similar vein to reunite, in Wesley's terms, "vital piety" and "social holiness." In so doing, they hope to bring renewal to a rapidly aging denomination that is searching for a way to reclaim its identity and perhaps its very soul.

Through the new United Methodist Student Movement, a growing number of student leaders are proudly claiming their Methodist identity and seeking a strong role within the denomination.

Founded in 1996, the UMSM is the first national network of college students in the United Methodist Church in nearly 30 years. It is powered by student leaders who meet annually at Student Forum, a national leadership conference, and at a growing number of local and regional UMSM gatherings. They come from vital campus ministries that have nurtured and prepared them for this opportunity to lead and serve.

Despite reports that this new generation is not interested in denominationalism, the UMSM provides evidence that a growing number of students are seeking vital connections to a deeply rooted tradition. They may not be blindly loyal to the denomination, but they are attracted to a Wesleyan tradition that combines passionate faith with service to those in need and is intellectually engaging while tolerant of the views of others.

The movement is capitalizing on the spiritual awakening on U.S. college campuses. A study of first-year students at 12 United Methodist-related colleges revealed that more than 80 percent desire to strengthen their religious beliefs and convictions. Campus ministers and chaplains report that student participation is up this fall, continuing a trend of several years. Also, increasing numbers of students graduating out of campus ministry programs are considering full-time professional ministry, as confirmed by younger entering classes in United Methodist seminaries.

This renewed interest in faith is occurring among the largest generation of young people in U.S. history - larger than the baby boomers. Furthermore, a higher percentage of young adults is going to college, with an anticipated 15 percent growth in the number of students by 2012.

The resurgence of interest in faith among young adults coincides with the rapid aging of the United Methodist Church. A recent study indicated that nearly 90 percent of United Methodist worshippers are over age 30.

While increasing numbers of students are being attracted to United Methodist campus ministries, there are also many who are seeking aimlessly. Although the United Methodist Church has the largest network of Protestant campus outreach, our church is represented on less than one-third of U.S. college and university campuses. A more intentional witness is needed to reach this generation of young seekers.

Several reports have noted the shortage of seminary-trained ordained clergy to fill church pulpits. Rather than commit to appointing the best and brightest clergy on the front lines of the campus to reach an expanding student population hungering for spiritual guidance, we are trying to fill empty pulpits.

The flourish of student religious engagement on campus is, paradoxically, coupled with a steep decline in church funding of campus ministry and church-related higher education. As a result, campus ministers are spending more time raising funds and less time raising disciples.

Our denomination is faced with difficult choices. At a time when new investment in ministries with college students is urgently needed, we are experiencing funding shortfalls across the denomination. Campus ministry, with its significant personnel and facility needs, is an inviting target for budget cuts. Instead of expanding programs and adding staff to reach "unchurched" students, we are slashing financial support for campus ministries.

No longer can we count on young adults to return to United Methodist churches when they reach their 30s and have young children. They are going where their presence is intentionally sought and their gifts are warmly welcomed. We cannot afford to lose this generation of students to para-church groups such as Campus Crusade or InterVarsity, which are investing heavily in campus ministry.

The United Methodist Church needs the gifts, passion and vision of young adults. The young adults I know who are active in the UMSM have a contagious faith. They possess a passionate faith in Jesus Christ, a desire to serve and a commitment to Wesleyan spirituality.

These young adults also tell me they are finding it difficult to feel at home in local churches that are set in traditional ways of worship and are not welcoming of the gifts that young leaders have to offer. Instead of finding open hearts, open minds and open doors, some are finding none of the above.

The church has much to learn from this new generation. The power of faithful and faith-filled young adults to effect change in the church should not be underestimated. The Wesleys were a prime example. The gifts today's young revivalists have to offer could not come at a better time for our denomination. The question remains, are we ready to receive them?
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*Hartley is director of student ministries, vocation and enlistment at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He can be reached at

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