Plugging into a New Generation
by Courtney Aldrich*
The typical outfit for today’s college student includes a blaring set of headphones in the ears, a vibrating cell phone in the pocket, and a lightweight laptop in the backpack. Such gadgets are more like appendages for students, who are as familiar with computer keyboards as they are with an old-fashioned No. 2 pencil.
“Technology has had a huge part in my college experience,” says Becky Bruns, a senior nursing major at the University of Evansville, a United Methodist-related school in Indiana. “I submit homework online, listen to music on my iPod while I study, and keep in touch with friends through Facebook on a daily basis.”
Bruns reflects the description of today’s generation as “digital natives in a land of digital immigrants,” according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
For United Methodist campus ministries such as the Wesley Foundation, such technology can serve as yet another tool to reach out and connect with this generation’s digitally savvy students.
“Each generation has a lens by which they see the world. When we [faith communities] are at our best, we use that lens as a way to further share God's message,” says the Rev. Carolyn Talmadge, campus minister for The Edge Ministries, an ecumenical ministry sponsored by The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church at San Francisco State University.
“I imagine, however, that the parents of the baby boomer generation also struggled with how to connect with their kids' generation.”
Born after 1981 and just now beginning to graduate from college, the Millennials are a generation that grew up with Sesame Street-style, 30-second sound bytes, and an appetite for audiovisual stimulation. Most cannot remember times before cell phones, personal computers, and MP3 players. In fact, for them, personal computers often substitute for the pen and pencil, the weekly calendar, the social network, the wristwatch, and even the shopping mall.
For experienced campus ministers trained initially to use posters and cookouts as evangelism aids, the dive into ministry through technology can be overwhelming. But campus ministers like Talmadge insist that using technology is not only an opportunity but a responsibility in today’s plugged-in environment.
“To blame our inability to connect with people in their twenties and thirties on their style of connecting with the world is adversarial. It also implies that it is not our responsibility to get God's message into the world in whatever way works, and that instead it is the responsibility of younger people to adapt to our methods,” Talmadge says.
For instance, while previous generations looked to newsletters, brochures, and a bulletin board to promote campus ministry activities, interactive Web sites offer layers of communication possibilities for today’s college programs. At Purdue University’s Wesley Foundation site, an online blog allows leaders and members to post thoughts and reflections. The Wesley Campus Ministry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has its own online retail store that offers a variety of UNC Wesley Foundation apparel and accessories. At Virginia Tech, students can take a virtual tour of Wesley facilities.
Vance Rains, campus minister at Florida State University’s Wesley Foundation, not only uses a Web site, mySpace, and Facebook as outreach tools, but also podcasts his sermons online. He says in the past, he would set up campus ministry info table to connect with students.
"We still do info tables - but they pass by with Ipods in their ears, or talking on cell phones. I would say that many of them retreat to their rooms, alone, and spend countless hours, alone, on their computers - with Facebook, video games, porn, etc. I think technology, as wonderful as it is, isolates students into private little worlds - especially students who are lonely, introverted, insecure."
Worship is another aspect of campus ministry that has been significantly impacted by technological advances. Still, Rains says technology does not define college ministries today; it is simply another way to enhance worship and spiritual growth.
“At one time, stained-glass windows and organs were the media used to enhance worship. Now we use video screens and sound systems,” Rains says. “Worship services were once filled with every form of sensory stimulation—candles, incense, banners, music, statuary, bells, sacraments, processionals, etc. We don't call that entertainment. Modern video screens, music, drama, dance are simply modernized forms of sensory stimulation.”
Talmadge agrees, emphasizing that the effectiveness of technology in ministry is dependent on the skills and, more importantly, the purpose behind it. “Technology is not good or bad, and it will not suddenly make worship more exciting. When it is used well, however, it is another medium to share God's grace.”
Nonetheless, campus ministers who work one-on-one with students universally agree that technology — while a wonderful tool — is a sterile substitute for the kind of personal relationships, fellowship, and conversation necessary to help students find Christian community, grow their faith, and develop an intimate relationship with God.
“Technology is here,” says Talmadge. “It impacts life, but it does not define individual human existence.”
*Courtney Aldrich is a student at Western Kentucky University, where she is involved in the campus Wesley Foundation.