Furthermore key life events like a loss of a loved one, major illness, personal loss, accident, or trauma, or drastic change in values, friend circles, or relationships can lead students to question God in the midst of suffering (theodicy) or quietness of God (a dark night of the soul). In light of these realities many pastors and parents ask the question of, “How can we engage students in their faith while also giving them space to grow up and experience the rawness of life?”
I would suggest that the answer is found both in the question and in the nature of our loving God.
God in suffering: Ask any college student whether of not they experience hard times and you would be hard pressed to find a student that says that 21st century higher education comes without pain, questioning, and suffering. Whether it be a break up, a bad grade, a fight with a friend, loss of a loved one, continuous rejection when engaging the job market, the reality of a bad choice, financial pressures, a family that is dysfunctional or breaking down, an emerging eating disorder, or a new bout of depression (the list goes on), young adults know suffering and within it they are asking big questions of why and how.
When congregations create space for honest lament and questing for all members, including college students, they are sending a message to young adults that it is ok to lament and ask key questions, be angry, and talk about God’s place in it all. God knows suffering and is present in the grieving -while this reality of theology and the nature of God is true, I acknowledge that it may not always be comforting to hear – however it might be … and opening space to talk about this might help our students find God in an unexpected place – the pain of life.
God in the sacred/not sacred: We all know that people don’t need to be in a Wednesday night bible study to experience God (although these are great places for the fostering of spiritual growth and to engage in community). Some of our greatest interpersonal moments in engaging the Divine have been outside the church building– perhaps in nature, or with community, or at camp. The same is true for college and university students.
Never underestimate the spirit and what will become sacred to people on spiritual journeys. Whether it be late night conversations, a reading in English lit, opportunities for service or with local community partners, sitting around a fire with sorority sisters – God is amongst these things and students will see it, it will move them, and they will name it.
Ask the students in your community where they are seeing the sacred in their lives. Ask your students about the divine moments of the semester. Ask big questions about how these moments matter to the development of their faith. Ask them about things like church and small groups or bible studies and be prepared if their answers aren’t what you expected – they are on their journey, but remind them that you are there for them if they want/need you.
The magic of growing up: While many of today’s young adults and college students are deathly afraid to fail, they eventually will – and often (as most humans). Feeling the realities of this failure and working through acceptance, creating new plans, and moving onward is key to growing up. What do we do when things are hard or don’t go as needed/planed? These are the moments that grow our kids into young adults and then slowly move them into full-fledged adulthood.
While these moments are hard to watch as parents/communities/congregations, it is the stuff that is essential for growth, and best of all -God is not far from each one of them/us. God is in the magic of growing up – every good choice and every uncertain turn that these young adults make, God is with them- we only need remind our students – without judgment or casting guilt, that God is with them “though they cannot see the road ahead of them” and “God will not allow them to face their perils alone (Thomas Merton).”
Many believe that college is a time when young adults “loose their faith,” and some research will point to findings that could support that thought. I would suggest that the context that encourages questioning, exploration, and inquiry about God and fosters the start of self-awareness might be a rich soil for students to start to find God in unexpected places. Help your students on their journey to find God in this way this year.