College students have always dealt with stress and loneliness. For many young adults, getting dropped off on a college campus for the first time is also the first time they’ve been away from home for an extended period of time.
Today’s undergrads face all the pressures of generations past. They also face new challenges. Technology promised to bring us together, but it instead creates what some experts call “Internet Isolation.” New research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships links record teenage loneliness with technology. The study found that the percentage of high school seniors who say they often feel lonely soared from 26 percent in 2012 to 39 percent in 2017.
A survey by insurance giant Cigna has found loneliness at epidemic levels in the US, particularly with ages 18-22. A YouGov survey proclaimed Millennials the loneliest generation. The Higher Education Research Institute reports its Freshman Survey finds students rating both their physical and emotional health lower, year after year.
What’s causing this loneliness? It appears that at least part of the reason is that the Internet Generation is losing the ability to have a face-to-face conversation. And one campus ministry is trying to help it recover that vital skill.
“Students often don’t know how to have conversations, do conflict, and link theoretical faith values to day-to-day prayer, vulnerability, and community,” said Scott Hall, a staff member with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship based in Kent, WA. InterVarsity, he said, is still committed to teaching doctrine and theology. In addition, he said, students need to be shown how to love, pray, talk, and share with each other.
One way students at Russell Sage College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, NY, learn about InterVarsity is with food. Students there can sign up to get cookies delivered to them by Intervarsity students and staff members. The cookies are made by members of local churches.
Niki Campbell leads InterVarsity’s ministry on those campuses. She said, “At Sage, while handing out cookies, an RA was following us around a hallway, and I thought we were going to get in trouble and kicked out.” That concern was well-founded. Christian ministries – including Intervarsity – have recently been kicked off of college campuses.
But that was not the intention of this resident advisor. “Instead she wanted to let us know that she loved our group and was glad we cared for the campus so much,” Campbell said. “She said that she would welcome us coming by anytime to care for her residents with homemade cookies!”
An encounter with cookies can quickly turn into a conversation about spiritual matters. Campbell said that when she asked a student if he wanted to sign up for regular cookie deliveries, “his response was to ask what the deliver charge was, or what the catch was. When I explained we do this as a way to serve the campus, and live faithfully to our belief that we are called to serve the students here. He looked puzzled and simply said, ‘I don’t believe there are any inherently good people.’ I responded, ‘Neither do I, but I have a really great God who encourages me to strive for better.’ He signed up saying, ‘What do I have to lose?’”
Campbell added: “We get to tell them, ‘What we bring is cookies, but what we have is Jesus.’”
On the campus of San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., the InterVarsity chapter has countered loneliness with a tradition of weekly, family meals on campus for students. “It helps to be together, share laughs, know each other, see what the whole community’s like,” said Campus Staff Minister Rashawn Ramone. Before, “they never really had time to be able to sit down with other people and listen to them.”
InterVarsity President Tom Lin believes genuine community, much needed on today’s campuses, is the starting place for campus ministry. “Students need to have places where they can be themselves, ask questions, find encouragement, and learn about Jesus,” he said.
Despite this good work done by InterVarsity staff members, Lin knows there’s much more left to do. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has about 1500 staff members on about 772 campuses. More than 3,000 students made decisions to follow Christ last year as a result of the ministry’s work. However, Lin says 2500 college campuses have 1000 students or more, and 53 percent of them have no known Christian ministry presence. Lin has set as a goal for the ministry to be on all 2500 campuses by 2030.
Editor’s Note: Are you a college student, or do you have a college student in your life? You can find out more about InterVarsity and other biblically sound campus ministries here:
Intervarsity Christian Fellowship: https://intervarsity.org/chapters
CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ): https://www.cru.org/us/en/communities/locations.html
Ratio Christi: https://ratiochristi.org/locations/
Campus Outreach: https://www.campusoutreach.org/ministries/
Reformed University Fellowship: http://www.ruf.org/ministries
Christian Union: https://www.christianunion.org/#Universities
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Image: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship president, Tom Lin with Students