New Discoveries on Personal Power: New Students Coming to Campus & Our Response

Last week and this week, thousands of first-year students are getting dropped off by their parents at their new dormitory, in anticipation of beginning classes that will lead to earning a bachelor’s degree. Having served as a campus minister, I’ve observed my fair share of tearful good-byes, most of which are shed by the parents, and the students feign sincere comfort for their parents during the farewell. Once the parents depart/drive away, the students turn a 180, and in some cases, sprint, toward their new companions in the dormitory: and the dream of and the question of what to do with their new and unrestrained power is now realized…

So, if you’re a parent, an auntie, an uncle, a grandparent, a youth worker, a pastor, or an affectionate lay leader who knows a young woman or young man heading off to the university: perhaps you’ll be surprised by what follows, but know that I won’t diminish the realities that exist on campus. So, let’s get to those first.

Everything you’ve heard about sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll is true. Also true: professors with an axe to grind against Christianity and Christian students. (Although, it should be quickly added: those faculty have, at best, limited influence, and I will explain why below.) Unrestrained access to degrading pornography and divergent politics: also true. Late nights wasted and late nights wasted: both true. Discovery of new truths that contradict and confront “what we’ve been taught”: true. Also true: Cute, attractive, and intelligent women and men who are repugnant. Unattractive, intelligent women and men who are friendly. Women and men of different ethnicities, different cultures, different religions, and different political nations: who are unexpectedly cute, attractive, and intelligent: and civil, peaceable people. People who think differently from “us”: but turn out to be civil and friendly. People who think just like “us” but repel everyone with their lack of civility and abundance of antagonism. All true: and more. And I haven’t even cited reading lists, expected classes, and degree requirements.

And, I would suggest that rather than fear such social phenomena, you routinely peform at least three actions:

1) Pray for your student to increasingly know that they are loved by Jesus. Plenty of the above can be and is threatening to you and me: imagine what it must be like for your student, who perhaps has less life experience than we do, less experience in making mistakes and even less accumulated wisdom from such mistakes…that they would go about their days, in a decidedly cross-cultural context, without others they know and trust, knowing that they are loved by Jesus: that is perhaps the greatest experience they can have- one of the Holy Spirit- while becoming responsible students and adults simultaneously in the university.

2) Practice listening in an open-ended fashion to your student. This is where you may need some prayer and some need to call upon the strength and wisdom of the Holy Spirit!!! The first time you hear about some words/thoughts/activities you do not approve of that your student reports to you- often they are testing you, by the way- the immediate, unfiltered response can be one of criticism…no?

Instead, do your best to recapitulate what you heard to your student, and such includes trying to keep from yelling into the phone. (Trust me: I’ve been there.) In this complex movement from adolescence to adulthood, listening will empower your student in ways that often in the university they are not receiving. And such ways I am thinking of here regard the gracious love of Jesus.

3) I want you to reflect upon the resurrection with me for a moment. Is the resurrection only about God’s victory over death for you and me, that proves we are forgiven of our sins through the death of God’s Son? Or is it the unique event in history, of which there is no other parallel except the creation of the world, and further confirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ? God addresses us in such a unique event so as to welcome our participation into his reign, and participate in a new life- yes, with our sins forgiven- that contributes to God’s mission throughout creation: a new creation. And this is where your student comes in.

There’s nothing special per se about the university. However, it is a unique social context in which students begin making decisions with real, unrestrained power. To be sure, they likely depend upon Mom and Dad (and others); but that experience of dependency becomes inverted and diminished. It’s not lost on me that many college graduates do move back home: but the experience of making one’s own decisions, to pursue what Margaret Archer calls “personal projects of ultimate concern”, and enacting such decisions into some kind of mission will continue to happen in some continuity with the college experience. So, we need to be aware of this fresh, inexperienced use of power. And, be wise about when you jump in with advice about how to use such power: it’s not just the university that is new, but all of creation.

Which brings me to the caricatures of “flaming, Marxist professors who eat Christian freshmen for snacks in their lectures.” As is true of so many people, students will decide how much power from the above faculty member will constrain and enable them. It’s not about the power of the faculty member, draping his/her will over the student, even if they ultimately report course grades to the registrar. It’s really about the student deciding to what degree their power will activate the power of the faculty member. Ditto sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, and all of the other items I listed above.

Plenty of people will argue against that perspective: but, there’s too much experience and reporting by college freshmen building up for that perspective: that in the midst of seeking fulfillment of their personal projects of ultimate concern, students will make choices about how to appropriate the powers of others and social structures (like coursework) as constraints and enablements. This also includes decisions regarding dating, friendships, selection of a major for a degree, voluntary student organizations, and more.

And what we can pray for is that our students will increasingly know they are loved, listened to, and begin the life-long exploration of participating within the new creation that has Jesus as Lord. Such an exploration will be performed imperfectly and fallibly; such an exploration will include decisions made faithfully and with the endowed power that God grants to all of his creatures made in his image. And, for so many of the freshmen students arriving this week on campuses throughout the US, this exploration begins in earnest with the fresh discovery of new and unrestrained power. Pray that they will follow Jesus as they use such power in coordination with his mission throughout the new creation: the same Jesus…

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil. 2:6-11

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