Adventist students attending a public college or university* are sometimes more lost than they’d like to admit. Often enough it is the first time that they are so separated from lifelong support systems—parents, home churches, neighbors who have known them all their lives, and extended family in all its forms. So their typical checks and balances aren’t close by, making it difficult for them to know how best to engage with their campus. Even for those who are close to home, the public sphere is often very different from the student’s norm, and neither they nor their families know how to navigate it well.
The first few weeks of freshman year, while incredibly overwhelming, are a critical decision-making time. Welcome Week exposes students to a thousand new ideas that include a plethora of faith systems. They begin to seriously question (some for the first time) what they believe, their “version” of truth.
How do we help them stand on their own feet, spiritually, emotionally, and socially? I would propose that we do what we’ve been doing, but do it better.
For the past 37 years Advent House has been a unique ministry within the Adventist Church. It sits on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, just down the way from undergraduate dorms and in the midst of everyday college rhythms. I spent eight years there connecting with students and developing a clearer understanding of how the public context shapes student life.
Across the North American Division and the world, there are official Adventist student organizations on a number of public campuses. In some regions we call them Adventist Christian Fellowship (ACF) chapters. When I’ve talked with students who really enjoy being part of an ACF chapter, one of the reasons they give is that it’s safe. As they describe that safety, they may say something along the lines of “I don’t feel judged there”; and what I’ve come to understand as a “judgement-free zone” isn’t simply the absence of criticism, but the presence of much more.
It is a space in which students know they can speak their mind and be heard, not merely tolerated. They encounter (and become) people who will listen, respond honestly and kindly, desiring to learn with, and also teach/advise when needed—the context is dynamic. The space isn’t only for vetting ideas; students also have a lot of fun there. The space isn’t divorced from the university. It functions in such a way that students see their lives as a whole rather than in compartments. That’s the ideal, anyway. And though this is a college context, the communities that thrive are, somehow, intergenerational.
Not every Adventist student will show up, but it’s still vital that we develop more campus communities. This requires intentional people and pieces, and the absence of walls.
Walls on a house serve us well, protecting us from the elements and from critters. They can be welcoming, but they often give others reason to pause. What happens in that house? Will I belong? While we do not propose knocking down any literal walls, we must find a way to operate whereby those walls aren’t hindrances either to students coming in or students going out.
Three realities that help to fashion a “no walls” approach in which students still feel safe while growing in their faith are an on-campus presence, a faculty/staff advisor, and a spiritual home, typically, a local church.
Years ago a mentor pastor encouraged me to develop the ministry of presence, the gift we give someone by simply being where they are, journeying with them. I fear that we’re sometimes helping Adventist students develop absence instead. Many are afraid to engage beyond the classroom; and classroom engagement may boil down to basic attendance. Implicit support of their apprehensions may misinterpret, for them, being in the world but not of the world. And with that misinterpretation, they sometimes seek an Adventist space out of fear rather than out of a desire to grow. However they initially engage, it’s important for us to be able to support them in ways that move them from fear to faith.
A strong on-campus presence, then, includes regular meetings (on campus, not at a nearby church or home) during which students build friendships, share meals, and seek to bless the campus through outreach and by joining the campus (as a group) in activities that the university organizes. From prayer vigils after a major crisis to a regularity of community service, there’s no shortage of ways to bless the campus. This helps more people become familiar with Adventists (a vital step) and helps the ACF chapter develop an open and welcoming, noninsular identity.
Being present on campus is also influenced by family. In earlier years many of us were happy to be far away from home, not because we disliked our family, but because we wanted a new experience. Today many students are attending schools close to home, sometimes for financial reasons and sometimes because they simply want to be close to home. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’s always more difficult for those who are already close to home to develop an on-campus presence. Family members can help such students by encouraging them not to return home every weekend, and talk with them about ways to invest beyond the classroom.
A chapter’s presence is facilitated, in significant ways, by the advisor. Space reservations are more secure when made by advisors than by students. In addition, advisors have more insight into the various ways that students can meaningfully connect with the university: from keys to open up meeting rooms to knowing key steps for building campus relationships, advisors help provide ACF chapters with a greater sense of purpose and clarity. And as students graduate and new students join the group, advisors provide continuity that helps a group keep moving forward.
In my first year with Advent House I was sharing some of my challenges with a church member. I’ll never forget her words: “You’re their mom.” Students still need parental figures while in school, people who are connected enough to talk frankly about life. Even if they happen to be fairly close in age to the students, advisors are campus moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and have a level of relational access to the students.
The longer an advisor has worked on a public campus, the more ably they navigate being a person of faith, and specifically an Adventist, in that realm. This gives them the ability to advise in ways that help students establish a healthy identity that maintains an outward focus.
The location of an ACF chapter’s spiritual home depends on several factors, including campus culture, student habits, and local church connection. The first of those just mentioned, campus culture, is shaped by whether students live mostly in dorms or depend mostly on commuting; also, the administration’s vision for and drive toward the institution’s future, e.g., their commitment to raise the school’s rank and academic status; and the rural or urban location of the campus. In day-to-day terms a 7:00 p.m. Bible study makes sense on a dorming campus, while a lunchtime Bible study or a Friday night at someone’s home will make more sense for a commuter campus. As a result, creating a spiritual home on campus is going to be more doable for the dorming campus, where it’s easier for students to come together and do so for longer stretches of time.
Family can also positively in
fluence a student’s ability to create or join a spiritual home. One key factor would be encouraging them, if students are dorming, to stay on campus and to participate with a congregation that’s local to their campus.
The local church can become a spiritual home by developing a church culture that students can readily relate to, and giving students opportunities to serve according to their gifts. This goes much further than putting on student-focused programming. It can create an intergenerational connection, and helps the students develop a community, beyond their peer group, that they enjoy spending time with.
The bottom line is that the chapter needs a consistent space where students can worship Jesus and study the Bible. Also, a space that helps students to intentionally grow in their faith.
Together, the on-campus presence, the advisor, and the spiritual home may provide excellent opportunities for Adventist students to develop a surer footing while attending a public institution. These elements will move beyond a “safe space” to a space that helps students grow in their desire to reach beyond themselves for God’s glory.
And there is so much more to doing better: we could, for example, have mentioned and explored the role of a chaplain or campus minister, and the need for many more. We could also have talked about how to better resource chapters and train advisors and local churches to better understand their roles. Reluctantly, these must be left for another day. Meanwhile, we work with what we’ve considered today: an on-campus presence in as many college campuses as possible; campus advisors who are good mothers and good fathers; and a safe location students can own as their spiritual home.
* “College” and “university” are here used interchangeably.
Michaela Lawrence Jeffery is pastor of the Athens Seventh-day Adventist Church in the state of Georgia, United States.