“Good morning! –Oh dear,” said the greeter as I stepped into the church foyer, dripping wet.
I’d envisioned Australia as a land of perpetual sunniness, until encountering a sudden downpour en route to church that morning—torrents from the sky, like the buckets which tip to spill their contents on kids’ heads at waterparks. Despite my best efforts to wring out my clothes and engage a proffered towel, a puddle collected around me on the church floor. Quietly, a lady approached with a mop.
During the lovely, if wet, service which followed, I connected with some delightful university students who attended the church. Perfect! As we spent the next couple of evenings hanging out, no end of interesting conversations ensued:
Me: YOU DON’T HAVE BASEMENTS HERE?!
Aussie students: Of course not! What would you even put in a basement?
Me: Relatives, for one. Where do you sleep extra guests?
Aussie students: In the garage!
I didn’t see that one coming. But then, I hadn’t really known what to expect from striking out to this part of Australia for an apologetics conference.
I had arrived the day before, after a series of public transport transfers led through beautiful, hilly parkland and woodland—forests of gum trees towering several stories above the road—to a university. Despite its being a quiet Saturday on campus, I couldn’t resist checking things out.
A flock of bright lorikeets swooped past me as I walked through the university parking lot, turned the corner, and encountered a couple of beige creatures grazing outside the science buildings. At first, my brain wanted to register them as deer, a common sight on Canadian campuses. But then, I noticed their long tails!
After pausing to eat lunch about 20 yards from where these kangaroos were eating theirs, I went to scout out the campus bulletin boards. Plastered across the walls like so many bumper stickers on a hippie Volkswagen were the usual postings about sexuality, yoga classes, parties, sports including “Muggle Quidditch,” and at least one Bible study. And there, in the top right corner of the board, I also spotted an invitation to weekly public classes on Gnosis, which promoted the discovery of the “Divine nature within.”
Few souls were around to provide more direct information about the campus’s worldview climate, so meeting the students at church the next day was especially exciting—even more so because they attended this very university! As we visited over chips (fries) near the public barbeques at the beach that evening, I asked whether anyone had faced negative comments towards Christianity, or other forms of hostility, on campus.
“Oh yeah,” nodded a law student, eyes serious. “Almost every lecture.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have such a good church family,” another girl from the group had told me, a student who had encountered some pushback within psychology classes. However, the students explained that other Christians in their church were passionate about mentoring the young people, with the intention for those young adults to become mentors to still others. I could feel my smile growing ever wider as I caught the group’s excitement at the prospect, and left knowing that these new friends were in good hands.
At the conference: Interview with a Nursing Student
The next day, my monstrous green backpack (affectionately abbreviated MGB) and I set out on foot to the conference centre 10km away. And I realized, while strapping a loaf of bread to my MGB that morning, just what a hippie I’m becoming. However, I tried to look normal at the conference, a fabulous and informative four days during which I met a Christian nursing student.
“In the uni handbook,” she told me, “it is written that we should not put our own personal biases (i.e., beliefs) in any of our academic answers, including essays, personal interviews, etc. We have a subject called cultural health nursing, in which we’re told we need to remove any of our biases, so we won’t influence others.”
She explained that her class had watched a documentary about a Christian med student doing medical mission work, and everyone else had critiqued the Christian’s ethics for bringing her personal beliefs into her practice. But as nice as total objectivity sounds, I wondered how realistic it is for humans to detach themselves from their beliefs, central to their worldview and personal identity, for their entire studenthood and working lives. Besides, I thought, do we really want our healthcare systems operated by robots?
“What advice would you give another Christian student coming to your campus?” I asked the nursing student.
“Before I went to uni,” she answered, “I really prayed for a church. Just two weeks after, I was ushered to a local church just a walk away from the community. From there, I was introduced to opportunities which let me not only just socialize, but also grow spiritually. So, I’d tell students to pray for a church and then get involved there, even if you’re not sure how you fit into the church’s age groups. But just get involved with anyone, and the Lord will lead you to the right person or group.”
“That ties in well with what students in Canada have been saying,” I noticed. “So, how can the church best support students?”
“Campus ministries are really helpful,” she said, “and most campus ministries are from local churches. The problem is consistency. Student leaders from these groups need mentors, because they also have to balance academics and ministry. It would be very helpful if mentors from churches would go into universities to meet regularly for a talk or prayer time with the students. Another thing would be for evangelical groups to come to our university during open house days, and to get involved in outreach events on campuses.”
Interview with a campus ministry leader:
After the conference, my new nursing student friend and I made sure to do some adventuring at the zoo, where we learned the following wildlife facts:
- Echidnas are real
- Kangaroos are terrible at taking selfies
- Koala toes digging into your sides is seriously the most ticklish feeling ever
So, packing these new insights and memories along with my MGB, I stopped in at the campus again on my way out of town. My MGB and six months’ worth of gear may as well have been a live pig strapped to my back, so conspicuous I felt as I wandered around campus, imploring God to guide my directionless-feeling steps.
“Are you looking for something?” called a voice behind me as I stood in a dead-end hallway.
I turned to see a lady with dark hair and light overalls. “I’m looking for information, mostly. Do you know if there’s a chaplain here? Or Christian students, or anyone who could comment on spirituality here on campus?”
“I’m a Christian student,” she said. “I can give you the contact info of the campus ministry leader here.”
YES! God had blown my mind again.
“What’s the general attitude towards Christianity here?” I asked the leader, a high school chaplain who had helped start a campus ministry to continue investing in students after they left for university.
“I have to say that there has been a pretty discernible shift even in the last couple years, in my general opinion,” he said, “towards a weariness for institutional Christianity. But when you engage from a non-institutional perspective, people still tend to be very open and warm to wanting to connect relationally.”
“What do you think is the hardest thing about being a Christian student here?” I asked.
“I think primarily, grappling with wanting to be authentic: having an authentic experience of their relationship with God, and having authentic relationships with people who claim to have authentic relationships with God. I think a lot of young people may have grown up in the church, but still don’t necessarily have great relationships built up in a depth that’s going to sustain them throughout university.”
“Mentoring relationships?” I wanted to clarify.
“There is that,” he said, “but also just being able to talk the real talk with other people of faith—being able to sit down and have a reasonable discussion about life. There’s a big disconnect in Australia, where young people don’t have meaningful adults to talk to. The depth of conversations that need to happen aren’t happening because many of the youth group events here are event-driven or socially-driven. They lack the core apologetic, which isn’t just a scholarly type of knowledge-based apologetics. The apologetic that I believe is most powerful happens when we represent Christ to the world, and to each other. That’s why Christian relationships, not just for running events, but for connecting with each other—are so important.”
Everywhere I go, everyone I talk to, over and over, the same theme resounds. Ultimately, the need for mature Christian community members to become involved with students is growing clearer by the moment.