It’s the beginning of the best month of the year: mid-September to mid-October! I finally decided to join the Summit Metro Parks Fall Hiking Spree (“the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the nation”), and I always feel invigorated by a good hiking quest! So, it felt great to spend some extended time with God in the Gorge Metro Park this morning. The cliffs, caves, and waterfalls of the Cuyahoga Valley refreshed my soul and provided invaluable space to reflect. I don’t know how to differentiate between general fatigue and situational dynamics right now. But there’s been more discomfort and discouragement with this new school year than I would like to admit. I needed to talk with God about these things. I needed to find a path forward through the discomfort and discouragement.
Now that we’re increasingly post-pandemic, I’m noticing societal changes. Generational changes. Potentially-historic changes, working their way out through those in their late-teens and early-twenties. The observations are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. Today’s college students seem to be interacting with the world around them in different ways than the college students of years past. I perceive them as being slower to engage, slower to commit — walking through campus figuratively stiff-arming strangers, maintaining a protective bubble around themselves. Students are also talking far more openly than previous generations about mental health and sexual identity. And while today’s younger generations actually seem to be increasingly spiritual, they are simultaneously less inclined towards organized religion.
But why are these changes happening? I can only theorize about the reasons. But here are a few scenarios I’ve been considering:
The Pandemic Hypothesis
Seventy-five percent of today’s college students are products of the pandemic. They’ve never known college without COVID. During a very significant part of their social development, they were asked by all the institutional authorities around them to isolate themselves. To practice “social distancing” (even though “physical distancing” would have probably been a better term). They were instructed to monitor themselves for symptoms of illness and withdraw from the world around them when needed. So, of course they’re going to keep others at a distance! They’re obviously going to be more attuned to what’s happening in their own heads and their own bodies! And they’re naturally going to be more wary of group dynamics, societal structures, and institutional expectations that could be canceled or dramatically-altered at a moment’s notice.
We can’t blame COVID for everything. In some ways, the changes I’ve been noticing have been in the works for quite some time. So maybe the pandemic has simply provided a sort of strobe-lighting effect, where a movement that’s taking place gradually appears as though it’s jerking suddenly from one place to another. But I feel like the pandemic itself is at least part of the problem. We’re still discovering how much the world has changed in the last three years. And this process of discovery may continue for years to come, in ways both subtle and significant.
The Post-Plant Hypothesis
It’s not just that the campus feels more aloof, less engaged this fall. Our numbers at H2O Kent are actually down this year. Higher than 2020-21, for sure (the first full year of COVID, with the most restrictive policies)… but nowhere near where they were for 2019-20 (the seven months of school leading up to the COVID shut-down in March of 2020), or the years leading up to that.
The decrease in numbers can be discouraging. But then again, it’s good to remember that we sent out a church plant over the summer! More than a third of our staff team moved to Youngstown, so it at least partly stands to reason that our capacity would be reduced. Furthermore, the church plant team was composed of many of our most-entrepreneurial, most-apostolic, most-evangelistic leaders. Consequently, we’re in something of a rebuilding phase. And it may just take some time before we get back to the levels of influence that we’ve experienced previously.
The Post-Christian Hypothesis
For some time now, I’ve been wondering if we might be approaching a cultural tipping point, where the United States of America shift from being a “Christian country” to being a “Post-Christian” society. My years in Western Europe, back in the early years of this century, were particularly helpful in learning to identify and understand these dynamics. Many of the things that were happening in Amsterdam in 2007 are happening in Kent in 2022: shifts in discussions about mental health… sexual identity… spirituality-without-religion… and more. It’s felt like a pretty consistent fifteen-year lag (which I’ve now been able to compare: 2003 through 2007 Amsterdam and 2018 through 2022 Kent). It’s not all exactly the same, but there are some eerie similarities. And much of these similarities point to a Post-Christian America.
In a Post-Christian America, we won’t talk so much about our “Judeo-Christian values.” Instead, we’ll talk about our pluralistic society, where no one group of people can hold all of the power. This might feel scary for many Christians, who’ve enjoyed a privileged position for several generations. But it’s not all gloom and doom. There are actually a lot of opportunities that come with following Jesus in a Post-Christian society. There’s far less nominalism and far greater ownership and engagement on an underground level — working more like guerilla fighters than like defenders of a castle besieged by enemy forces. The Post-Christian Church distinguishes itself by Christians loving one another (despite our differences) and actively engaging others on their turf, to raise the level of dialogue about Jesus. In many ways, this represents a return to 1st Century Middle-Eastern dynamics. And if it worked then, it can work again now!
Very likely, the current trends I’m observing at Kent State University are caused by some combination of all of the above factors (plus some others, potentially, as well). But in any event, the path forward will need to involve lots of patience, prayer, and perseverance. And I intend to keep seeking God each step of the way.