I recently had the opportunity to stand at a frozen yogurt bar with three college students.
Brad, first in line, always gracious and all too charming, surveyed his options and realized he was hogging the view. “Oh, I am so sorry. Please, Amy and Christine, step up and take a peek. Did you know they will let you taste as many of their flavors as you wish?”
Amy and Christine began to look. Amy said, “Christine, what do you like?” Christine replied, “I am not a real fan.”
Amy responded, “I enjoy Very Berry for my comfort food yogurt, but when I want to stretch myself I try new blends like Pistachio Cream and Black Cherry.”
Christine pointed and said to the server, “I’ll have a taste of Sweet Cream.”
Amy was enjoying a sample mix of coconut and peanut butter. The ‘yummy’ word was about to jump off her lips. There stood Brad with a miniature spoon wanting a taste. “Say Christine, may I have a taste?” he asked politely.
“Certainly,” she responded. Brad said, “Oh that is so smooth. I like your choice. I may have to have a taste myself.”
While there is nothing terribly unique about this scene at the frozen yogurt shop, it serves as an image of collegiate spirituality.
In the eighties, we became familiar with a group identified as seekers. Seekers were known as a generation of college students who could reconcile Gandhi, Marx, Sartre’, Buddha, Mother Theresa, and Jesus. This generation thought in prose and spoke in sound bites. Seekers wanted to reshape an inherited understanding of God so that their personal God was as broad as the Mississippi and as simple in scope as 1 + 1 = 2.
Here we are, in 2008, staring at another generational shift. The current wave of college students bears little resemblance to the seekers of the past. Recently I have been batting around the idea that this generation might well be called samplers.
Unlike their predecessors, samplers like to try out many styles, embracing those elements which fit into their own personal spiritual framework and then testing that spiritual framework through their digital encyclopedia known as Facebook, MySpace, BlackBerry, their own Blog, or other open space social networking communities−all of which provide immediate feedback.
While their predecessors searched for like-minded communities of thought and influence, the sampler generation has access to and feels quite comfortable in multiple communities of faith. Seekers reconciled differing opinions through exclusion of principals that would not fit into their faith matrix, while samplers reconcile differences of thought by simply including what works for them.
While their predecessors would identify with a singular community of believers, samplers place little value on denominational affiliation.
While their predecessors attended churches whose bulletins and weekly newsletters looked strikingly familiar to those printed in the late 1950’s, samplers might well take their lap-top or BlackBerry up to the altar and read the prayers they wrote while they were watching another episode of “I Survived a Japanese Game Show.”
While their predecessors learned from books and lectures, samplers learn best at a round table discussion where part of the conversation takes them out to the street for hands-on experience.
What might this mean for us as Christian public leaders?
College students want to be attached to a community which is engaging, challenging, mentored, defined, and inclusive.
College students are searching for churches that honor ‘collegiate’ gifts and energy, provide opportunities for leadership at every level of the Church’s polity and provide many layers of involvement.
College students are searching for a God that lives ‘in the community’ rather than the God who is just ‘preached about.’ They are looking for a Jesus who welcomes children, speaks truth to injustice and opens the door for all at the feast table. They are in search of a church whose understanding of the Holy Spirit is one that breathes and is not reduced to some image of streaming light through a stained glass window.
If you offered all these things in your church, would there be droves of college students coming your way, growing in faith, and contributing to the life and health of your congregation?
Don’t get your hopes up. Remember these are samplers. And just like the yogurt shop, they’ll take a sample from your community, then head down the street for another community, and then spend time online with yet another faith community. Samplers are consummate consumers and they will sample, and sample, and sample some more. So, what flavors are available in your yogurt shop called the church?
It is one thing to wonder about this generation of samplers. We can wonder all day long. If I know anything about the church and those eyes that may read this article, there will be a greater desire for resolution and a fix-it proposition.
So I suggest the following: gather a set of collegiate-age “innies and outies” (those that attend church and those that don’t), meet them at a local coffee house and ask them to provide a definition of Church, God, and the business of being spiritual. Make a commitment to meet with them over a five-week period.
Set up a Facebook account, visit it regularly, and wonder publically about what you are hearing from these college age students. You’ll get feedback−lots of it.
Look around and ask, “Who is not at the table of the church?” Then go grab a chair and make room for the voice and the face that is absent.