In our local context, University of Tasmania, Hobart, we are continuing to watch and pray and think and consult as we look to the best way forward for ministry among young adults in the next 5+ years. We’re putting some things in place and preparing to experiment in 2023, while also continuing a basic version of our existing programs, because there’s no reason to abandon these at this stage.
One strategic observation has made us explore possibilities for working in a closer and more integrated manner with churches in 2023: the limits to creating community.
1. People usually go with the flow
Marxists and Capitalists are wrong to reduce this simply to economics, feminists are wrong to attribute this primarily to The Patriarchy, but they all are right that there are a range of social forces that shape how people behave and even what people believe. When you notice something really working, including religious revivals and flourishing ministries, it is wise to look for all the various kinds of social factors that contribute to their thriving: shifts in technology, economics, migration, demographics, intellectual insights, political frameworks, environmental influences and so on. None of these things provide a full explanation, and some of these things are hard to prove. However, they tend to play some part in the ‘what works’.
On a ministry leadership level, this forces a realism for us around what we can plan and what we can require of people. People, including even devout, Spirit-filled, zealous Christians, usually go with the flow. The boundaries of what large numbers of people (including zealous Christians) will d0 is determined by a range of factors outside of our control. That’s not necessarily bad, it is just the way things are.
There are times when you are trying to make a particular Christian behaviour or ministry structure work, that you need to ask whether social factors have changed such that what used to make this attractive, energising, easy and rewarding are increasingly absent. Rather than harangue people for their lack of commitment or their worldliness, you may need to let go of a particular historic cultural pattern of expectations. We need to realise that in a previous decade, or century, people weren’t doing the things they used to do only because they were so much more committed and spiritual—not entirely. These different patterns of behaviour also often ticked certain boxes, met certain needs, went with the social flow in ways they no longer do.
What kinds of things might these be?
- a particular pattern of family devotions,
- attending church twice on a Sunday,
- mid-week, whole-church prayer meetings,
- rudimentary, camping-style conferences,
- high degrees of engagement in voluntary church activity.
But the list could go on. And that list could doubtless includes many things that are reflected in patterns of ministry among university students and young adults.
2. Even counter-cultures indirectly go with the flow
Can’t we create a counter-culture, though? A Benedictine Option? Yes. to a certain extent. But it’s important to realise that even counter-cultures go with the flow, in their own way. The particular kinds of religious orders that flourished in different times in church history, for example, actually reflected their different social conditions. Their founders probably didn’t even realise, perhaps, they were going with the flow most of the time, but the reason we remember their names is that they (accidentally? intuitively?) often tapped into social needs with their counter-cultures—the monastic movements repurposing abandoned village areas and providing centres of learning and industry, the Cistercians working on smaller pockets of rural land, the Franciscans getting out of monasteries and adopting an itinerant ministry suitable to growing towns of late-Mediaeval Europe and so on.
Radically counter-cultural groups will struggle to ever grow and/or will often require very strong social controls to grow, or sometimes even to maintain their existence at all. The more effective and thriving counter-cultural groups will be indirectly going with the flow, to some extent. There are times where the church will need to adopt this kind of survival stance. However, when we are considering strategic options, it is worth at least considering whether different patterns of ministry might be not only legitimate, but also better suited to current social conditions.
3. Community as social capital: investing wisely in a social recession
What is the relevance of this for university student and young adult ministry? In some places, and Hobart is currently one of these, we are seeing a decline in ‘student life’ caused by a range of factors as discussed in previous posts. For Hobart in particular this currently also includes the long, slow move of the bulk of the university from a large suburban campus to new inner-city campuses. UTAS is no longer provide a geographical and social hub for a lot of interaction between young adults in Hobart. And so far nothing of equivalent scale has replaced it.
This could be seen as a kind of ‘social recession’ for young adults in Hobart. The wealth of ‘social capital’ that the large, central, academic and social hub of UTAS had provided was already declining through the 2010s, but it has now declined drastically. Uni students, and by extension, others directly connected with uni students, are now living in a recession of social capital.
In such a context, our AFES ministry could try to create a new social economy, setting up social activity and engagement to replace what the university is currently not providing. To a large extent this is working with our international student ministries. That strategy goes with the flow of the lifestyle of international students and their needs.
But so far this strategy is not producing anywhere near the same results among the local students and those with high English competency who join the Christian Union group. We will persist with this CU work—currently functioning more like a ‘missional community’ than it used to 5 years ago—even though we recognise that this is no longer functioning with the same size and impact that it used to. At least for the time being, CU ministry patterns are no longer fitting with the flow of social life for uni students and young adults in Hobart, for whatever complex, chaos theory mix of reasons.
Rather than pour more and more energy and resources in trying to create a large social hub where one currently does not exist, I am increasingly seeing the benefit in the evangelism and training specialists of AFES working in collaboration with churches and denominations to enrich the social capital of churches. Because church communities do still exist and function meaningfully as communities. Young adults and uni students are still connected there. Perhaps a wise way to invest our social and ministry capital is to work with the place where community is still to be found, and figure out how AFES can—in collaboration with local churches and networks of churches in the same denomination and between denominations—ensure that uni students and young adults are being networked, taught, discipled, trained, mobilised and evangelised deeply and effectively.
Perhaps if this is done well, and young adults are networked well across the city, we will gradually develop new ways to build social and ministry capital afresh, in ways that don’t lean on the university? Or perhaps, after a few years, the university will resume its social function and this season will set us up well for a return some more traditionally effective and efficient ministry patterns?
Thoughts? Questions? Are you seeing similar things in your context? Or how is your context different?