LCOHOL wasn’t easy to access on the small boarding academy campus that Megan1 had attended for four years. But here at her new college, it was practically coming out of the drinking fountains. At first she’d just taken small sips to appease her new “friends.” But after a couple of Saturday nights at a certain frat house, she’d decided that resistance was futile—and it didn’t take much to put her over the edge.
She staggered to the bathroom and grasped for one of three doorknobs before finally getting it right. Vision blurred, she sank to her knees and grasped the cold porcelain with her sweaty hands. Then her world went black.
Minutes later, the piercing shrill of her cell phone struck the air with enough force to wake the entire house. But she continued to lie motionless on the hard ceramic bathroom floor as the stench of vomit poisoned the small room with her every breath. Megan wouldn’t be waking up any time soon.
With each passing ring, her mom grew more and more worried. Despite the fact that Megan was more than 500 miles away, she knew something was wrong with her little girl. During the first couple months of Megan’s freshman year of college her mother had sensed a change in her daughter. She knew Megan would experience some culture shock after being in Adventist schools her entire life, but this was more than that. Call it mother’s intuition.
Truthfully, she had been worried since they’d made the decision that Megan would attend public college. But there was nothing she could do—they simply didn’t have the money to send Megan to an Adventist school.
Sleep would come hard tonight . . . at least for one of them.
* * *
The parking lot was far enough from the dorm as it was, but the problem of getting there quickly was compounded that Saturday morning by the thousands of fans and students rushing to get in line for the first game of the college football season.
Shane’s love for college football was topped only by the love he had for his God. That’s why he fought against this current of his peers—suit, tie, Bible, and all. After all, he didn’t want to be late for Sabbath school.
“Shane, where are you going? The stadium is that way!” He looked up and saw the only three friends he’d made in his first few weeks of college decked out in jerseys and red paint.
“Oh, hey fellas,” he said. “I’m just heading over to church.”
“Church?” stammered Mark, the ring leader of the bunch. “Dude, I guarantee you that walking into that stadium and screaming your lungs out for three hours with 90,000 of your closest friends will be a “spiritual experience.”
“I’m sure you guys will have a great time, but I need to head out so I’m not late,” replied Shane.
“All right man, have it your way. But if you change your mind you know where to find us . . . and there’s always next week.”
Ten minutes later Shane nervously cracked open the large oak door leading to the sanctuary and quietly slipped into the back row. After the service, people greeted one another and made lunch plans. But nobody noticed this shy 18-year-old in the back. He quickly exited as quietly as he had come in.
Shane microwaved some ramen noodles in his room and attempted to spend the afternoon reading. As he lay on his bed his gaze drifted to the spackled white ceiling and he wondered if loneliness was the price he’d pay for being faithful. Downcast, he walked over to his computer to check who his team was playing next week.
The Stats Don’t Lie
Stories like these are common, yet often go untold in church publications. But these experiences are all too real for the majority of Adventist college students who have left the warm embrace of Adventist education and migrated to a public or private campus near you.
A 1997 survey of church members2 found that 67 percent of Adventist college students attended a university or college not affiliated with the Adventist Church.3 Approximately 20,000 students attend 14 Adventist schools across North America each year. That means that somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 North American Adventist students attend one of approximately 6,4004 non-Adventist colleges and universities.
In an ideal world, everybody would have the resources available to be able to go to whatever school fits their needs the best—whether social, religious, or cultural. But our world is far less than ideal. Some have a say in where they end up; others don’t. And for a myriad of reasons, nearly two thirds of Adventist college students live in an environment where being a rebel means not engaging in casual sex or routinely going on drunken binges.
The pressures these students face on today’s typical American college campuses are greater than most of us can fathom. Are we as a church, as individuals, giving these students the personal attention and support they need to deepen their faith and be a beacon of light in difficult, faith-challenging places? Thankfully, one growing organization is doing its part.
A New Day
During the past few decades, a select group of chaplains has attempted to launch an organization with the specific goal of nurturing the faith of Adventist students on public campuses and providing them with resources to share that faith.
In the fall of 2000 a historic conference took place at the University of California at Berkeley (B2K). This conference brought together Adventist students from campuses across the nation. But more important, it was at this conference that the request to be recognized by a specific department of church administration was made.
Five years later, in September of 2005, the constitution of Adventist Christian Fellowship was approved. ACF (acflink.org) was placed under the umbrella of the North American Division Youth Department of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the leadership of NAD youth director James Black.
Ronald Pickell was appointed the first coordinator of ACF. He says that the purpose of ACF is to provide resources, mentoring, training, and networking to Adventist students on public campuses who have a passion for sharing their faith with others at their respective schools.
However, the true heart behind ACF is in its desire to strengthen the students’ faith and then teach them how to share it: “It is our goal to create materials that can be used to help students deepen and share their faith on their campus. We want to see conferences and training programs that will help students navigate the secular environment of a public college campus,” says Pickell.
With the variety of temptations that can steer these young minds down the wrong path, this navigation process is very tricky. According to Pickell the most influential factor in this process is the local church, but as he says, it can have more than just a positive effect on the student: “When local churches help sponsor an ACF group on a campus near them—providing space for meetings, sponsoring a student leader, and involving students with worship services—the students provide new energy and life for the church and can [spark] an evangelistic influx into the campus for the church.”
When a local church is proactive about being involved with the public college students in its area it becomes a support system that can have a dramatic impact on their lives, and it creates a fertile ground for evangelism. One California church in particular isn’t waiting around for others to act.
The Personal Touch
The campus of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California, is home to one of the largest campus ministry “laboratories” in the nation. On this campus at least 38 Christian organizations are specifically tailored for students. Nearly one in six of the school’s 20,000 students belongs to the international group Campus Crusade for Christ. This public campus is buzzing, and has been for years, with the name of Jesus.
In this coastal California town of a little more than 44,000 sits an Adventist church in most ways not unlike the hundreds of Adventist churches spread across the continent.
After years of being a passive observer of the amazing things going on at Cal Poly, this congregation decided it was time to become proactive in the lives of the students in their area. In 2004 they decided to make an investment. Not in a new building, vehicle, or landscaping job, but an investment in a person. Enter collegiate pastor Bret Schlisner.
“Any church that has enough vision to hire [someone] to do full-time collegiate ministry at a local public college is a church that I want to be a part of,” says Schlisner. And when he says full-time, he means full-time.
When Schlisner first came to San Luis Obispo he says there were seven or eight local Adventist college kids “hanging around the church.” Just three years later he is working on a daily basis with approximately 70 local college students—some lifelong Adventists, some new Adventists, and some who have never stepped into a church at all.
If you visit Schlisner’s house you’ll find he’s rarely alone. Six nights a week he runs small groups for his collegiate youth group, slo7.5 On some nights up to 25 college kids will be at his home. “We have Bible studies, critique films, and eat together. It’s an outreach, a connection to their lives,” he says. He adds that these small groups are the lifeblood of his ministry and the key to building trusting relationships with the students.
When the foundations of these relationships are in place, it allows for Schlisner to hold the students accountable for their actions. “It takes months to build a trusting relationship,” he adds. He says that kids come to him with drinking and promiscuity issues and ask him to hold them accountable. “Once they trust me they are more open and receptive to what I am going to say. When they trust someone in the church enough to tell them about what is really going on in their lives and ask for help—that’s really what it’s all about.”
Schlisner notes that once these students get their lives on a positive moral track, inviting friends and peers to small groups and worship services becomes an automatic by-product of their newfound zeal. That’s exactly how his group has multiplied in the past few years.
Schlisner says that when the church supports the college students in the congregation they get more back than they realize: “When [these students] have good community support and they know they are loved, they just live better. There are tangible differences people can see in their lives. That’s what really brings a church together and gets the members excited about what’s going on. That’s my ultimate goal—for their lives to change and for the members to see the change.”
A Time to Act
Not every church has an ACF group in their area or the resources to be able to hire a pastor specifically to minister to public college students. In fact, most don’t. But every church, every individual, can do something to have an impact on the life of a young college student in their area.
One of the distinct advantages of the Adventist denomination is an organizational structure that allows for easy communication between entities hundreds of miles apart. We need to take advantage of these opportunities.
If you know of a student in your church that is going off to a non-Adventist school, find a church in their new area that is especially geared to the college crowd. Get in contact with the pastor and let them know that one of your young people will be going to school in their area. Give the pastor the student’s contact information and ask him or her to invite them to church and/or young adult activities. Help those you care about secure a support system before they even have the chance to falter. All it takes is simple communication.
If you attend a church in an area with a university, pay special attention to young visitors who step through your doors. Scan the congregation and greet those you don’t know. An invitation to lunch can go a long way toward making a college student feel at home in a foreign environment. It’s not just a nice thing to do; it’s a responsibility we have to one another.
College is one of the most pivotal periods of a person’s life. It’s where young adults decide what they’re going to do to earn a living and often whom they are going to spend the rest of their lives with. But most of all, it’s a fork in the road—a chance to split off and pursue the interests of the world or walk the straight and narrow.
For many young people it’s the first time they’ve lived away from home and outside the realm of their parents’ watchful eyes. But don’t think they will be without influences. Alone, the pressures they face from their peers and environment to conform to the world are often insurmountable. To overcome this they will need someone tugging at them from the other side. They need all the support they can get from the body of Christ—from you.
I’ve heard many a pastor utter these words, “The youth are not only the future of the church; they are the present.” That should give us all the motivation we need. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself being blessed in the process.
1Names have been changed and any association is purely coincidental.
2“Trends, Attitudes, and Opinions: The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America,” by Monte Sahlin. Published by the Center for Creative Ministry and the North American Division.
3Estimates based on 300,000 homes with a sampling error of 1 percent.
4National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/2007167.pdf).
5SLO stands for San Luis Obispo.
Jimmy Phillips is a former Adventist Review intern and a senior communications major at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. He enjoys working out, writing, photography, and following Nebraska Cornhuskers athletics.