“They hold each others’ shoulders and try to kick each other in the stomach,” explained my friend as we hiked a wooded ridge. “That’s why you should keep your distance from wild kangaroos. —Look at them all!”
I turned in the direction she pointed to see a mob of kangaroos—20, 30 of them?—bounding through the eucalyptus trees. Once they’d vanished into the forest like phantoms on pogo sticks, we sat atop the ridge to harmonize on our harmonicas. None of the roos we serenaded complained, but none gave us money either.
Two days and an hour’s train ride later, I rolled out a sleeping bag in some Christian students’ living room in a cool little city built on 19th-century gold rush wealth. I’d meant to explore the science buildings at the local university, but soon got lost and landed at the campus chaplaincy centre. A bearded face looked up as I peered through the open door, and the man, a Lutheran pastor, invited me in to see the donated items which his congregation had provided students.
“We put food out and people can come and take it,” he said, walking towards a stack of cardboard containers. “These boxes are full of food, and these cupboards, and this freezer. During the cooler months people donate scarves and gloves and beanies and we put that out. So, we try to meet physical needs as well as spiritual needs.”
Handknit scarves, I realized, Exhibit A of yet another way Christian community members can invest in students using whatever tools they have—in this case, knitting needles.
Later that evening, I joined at least 30 students for a solid, in-depth Bible study on Exodus, complete with a dinner provided by—you guessed it—an older couple from the local Christian community. I heard the appreciation in students’ voices as they thanked the seniors, even toward the evening’s end when I opened my laptop for some final interviews.
“What advice would you give a Christian who’s new to university?” I asked one student.
“Attach yourself to a church immediately so that you can be strong in your faith and remain strong,” he replied, “because it’s so easy to go along with the temptations that campus offers, especially when you live in rez. You’re surrounded by that stuff all the time.”
Another student, a girl doing outdoor education, echoed this exactly.
“Last year, coming to campus for the first time,” she began, “before I had a Christian community, I was by myself with people who didn’t know God. It was very easy to get sucked into that culture, give into peer pressure and live a double life: going to church and acting like a Christian, but at the same time getting drunk, being self-serving and not honouring God at all. But then this year, I’ve learned just how important fellowship is, and how important it is for Christians to be in community with other Christians—to have that supportive environment where you can learn and grow and encourage each other.”
I nodded, remembering the many conversations I’d had with other students who had reached the same conclusion.
“I also realized that I can’t live a double life,” she continued, “either I’m living for God, or I’m not. And God was amazing in all of this. He brought me into a shared house with three other Christians in my program. He knew that was what I needed. So, this year, I have changed so much—100% transformed!”
By now, her face had become radiant.
“God has placed me in the outdoor ed community for a reason.” she beamed, “My housemates and I have seen so many people in that program transformed by God. We know God is real. He gives us opportunities everyday to speak truth and life into these outdoor ed students. Even if we see someone stressing in the library, or walking past and they look upset, we know it’s an opportunity for us to go and bless them. God’s been taking away so much fear of what other people would think.”
“Awesome! So, what would you say to a new student coming to secular university as a Christian?”
“First,” she said, “Find a Christian community: some really good friends who can support you, encourage you and help you to grow. That’s really important. I think God created us to be in fellowship with each other, and not to be in isolation.”
Certainly, I later reflected, this advice aligns with the emphasis which the author of Hebrews placed on Christian fellowship, when he told early believers:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-15, NIV.)
But building relationships with other humans isn’t the only kind of fellowship we need to be practicing, as my new outdoor ed friend explained.
“Another really important thing,” she said, “is to always be spending time with God, every single day. Have some time set aside for God, to just listen to Him and get to know His voice better. Understand His character, because the more you spend time with God, the more you become like Him, and the easier it gets to hear His voice. The easier it gets to love people as well, and to see them like God sees Him.”
“So how can the church support students doing this?” I asked.
“In the local church community that I was in,” she answered, “they were so dedicated to praying for us students, and to serving us. They taught us how to step out of our comfort zone, activating us by getting us to actually step out in faith and to do the things we were reading about in the Bible. That’s helped me so much in my everyday life at uni. Now, I can just go up to someone at campus or on the streets and offer to pray for them. The people at my church were a really good example of how to live like Jesus did, and how to love people.”
“How did they do that?” I wanted to know. “What did they do to build you up in what you said caused such a transformation in your life?”
“The main thing was how they taught us about our identity,” she answered. “They helped us understand who we actually are and who God is. They us taught the Bible, and then also taught us how to step out in faith and do what it says. When I first heard that, I freaked out—’I can’t pray for someone! I can’t hear His voice.’ But learning to trust God and step out in faith really changed everything. And that just gets easier. One example is this program we have as a church, where we cook pancakes for a school on Tuesday mornings. We don’t intentionally go to preach the gospel, but we just serve and love the school. And through that there’s been kids who have started going to youth, and teachers who see something about us.”
Suddenly, the pieces were coming together, colliding in place to form an image that seemed so simple, but made so much sense, that I wondered why I’d never seen it before.
“Then it sounds,” I said, “like a great way for older and younger adults to connect is by serving together!”
That way, the older church members could encourage students’ growth while spending time with them doing a meaningful activity. Christians outside the university could actively seek to serve alongside Christian groups on campus, or students could search out opportunities to serve with local Christians outside campus. Either route, I suspected, would result in the strengthening of relationships both amongst the servers, and between those serving and those being served.
This image of Christian community, I realized, looks nothing like the older trying to keep the younger ‘in church’ by segregating them away from the rest of the church family to play games in a corner over spoonfuls of sugar-coated theology. It looks like mature Christians actively speaking truth into the younger, instilling in them a taste for the things of God, equipping them to translate their Gospel knowledge into action–and then stepping right into the action alongside them.
Maybe then, bridging the gap between young and old Christians doesn’t just start with an intergenerational service, but rather, with a culture of intergenerational serving.