By Dan Denk

Reaching a New Generation of Students

Recently, our daughter who is doing mission work in Sudan said to me, “I feel like all of my experience and training has prepared me for what I am doing right now.”

This statement also sums up how I feel about my current leadership position with InterVarsity. As National Field Director for the Midwest, I am able to bring together my experience as a Campus Staff Member, a Regional Director, a Regional Coordinator with IFES in Eastern Europe, and a Camp Director. I supervise Regional Directors and work as part of a national leadership team to oversee strategies for the InterVarsity campus ministry. What fun!

As it turns out, my call to the student world has been a lifelong call. Most of my involvement these days is through training and mentoring younger staff. I am still excited by working out strategies on how we can be more effective in bringing the gospel to this generation of students and faculty. I believe that our nation is at a crossroads, and it is imperative that we reach this next generation to prevent the continuing slide toward the post-Christian secularism found in Western Europe today.

So, what are students like today? The Millennials, or Mosaics, as they are sometimes called, are more put off these days by the Church and Christians they meet. These young adults view the church as negative and judgmental, known more for what it is against than what it is for. Their experience with many Christians is that they are hypocritical and out of touch with reality, besides being old-fashioned and generally boring (see UnChristian by David Kinnaman). These young adults themselves are characterized as:

  • Accepting and non-judgmental; loyal, inclusive
  • Desiring authenticity, which does not mean perfection, but admitting our faults
  • A heightened conscience about social injustice
  • Being pragmatists; more interested in what can be done than in lofty ideals
  • Communal, not individualistic, desiring to be part of a team or group
  • Not into pain, not sacrificial; have had it pretty good; with helicopter parents coming to the rescue
  • Workers, but not fighters for a cause
  • Globalized: broad internet access, diverse university community
  • Insecure: “I may not be able to produce what I expect or what others expect of me”
  • ADD culture; flighty, random, short attention span; not known for sustained interest
  • “What’s in it for me: how will this look on my resume, how will I be trained?”
  • Growing up later, emerging adults, slower to mature and take responsibility

How do we go about reaching these students? Of course, we have a big God and a big gospel. This is no time for small-minded thinking. We need to strive to be authentic and transparent with this generation of students, offering an authentic community of believers. We need to invite them to join us on the journey without necessarily having all the answers. We must be seen as those who care for the needy and suffering in our world. We need to provide ways for them to become involved in service projects. Above all, we need to present the biblical Jesus who is genuine, caring for the needy, confronting hypocrisy, and calling people to repentance and new life in the Kingdom of God.

One place this is happening is among the Greeks on campus (fraternities and sororities). This might seem surprising given the reputation that frat houses often have. Yet we are seeing growing numbers of Greek students around the nation coming to faith in Christ. Recent graduates from these fraternities and sororities are joining InterVarsity staff to bring the good news to their fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. We have seen recent startups of Greek InterVarsity chapters at places like Central Michigan University, Michigan State, Hillsdale, and University of Pittsburgh, with Greek ministry already flourishing in Indiana and Illinois.

It is clear to this generation that something is wrong, badly wrong, with our world. Jesus came to set things right, not with a new social program, but to change the hearts of people through his own sacrifice and atonement. This is the power of the Gospel to transform. Our calling is to capture the hearts and minds and imaginations of this student generation with this message.