I love trend-spotting. For instance, Marci and I have recently noticed the decline of the single, steady, upraised hand as a gesture of gratitude from the driver of one car to another who has yielded his or her right of way… Or, I’ve been noticing that the oak trees this fall are acting quite a bit differently from how they acted last fall: specifically, way less acorns and way more crimson leaves… Some Kent State students have recently told me that reading has somehow become cool again, with an uptick of social media posts about favorite books and such… These are silly little things, but they fascinate me. I feel like some sort of cultural anthropologist, chronicling these developments.
Anyway: last night, I met with the leaders of H2O’s Centennial Life Group. And we got into a more meaningful dialogue about trend-spotting in the context of Post-COVID College Life. I feel like my own anecdotal evidence has been mounting. But I’ve also started hearing the same sorts of observations from other leaders. Other Collegiate church leaders across the country… other pastors in other cities… other University administrators at Kent State University… They’re all noticing some clear trends.
So I decided to ask the life group leaders about things. They’re all spirit-filled twenty-somethings (maybe with a couple who are even still in their late-teens). And we’ve all established a level of trust that I hoped would allow us to openly examine these cultural trends. They need analysis because they could have a significant impact on how we do ministry. So, I tried to avoid any sense of value judgments in the way I led the conversation. I started with some of the same preamble I used above — and then I asked the following cluster of questions:
Would you agree that new patterns are emerging in Post-COVID College Life, specifically regarding engagement and disengagement? Why do you think these changes are taking place? And how should we adapt to these changes, as a Life Group and as a Church?
It took a couple of minutes for everyone to warm up and start sharing their experiences. Students were somewhat defensive, even in our relatively-trusted environment. But when they started sharing their perspectives, I was kind of amazed by what I learned.
The Centennial Life Group leaders introduced me to the phrase, ”Social Battery” in our conversation. It describes a key element in the decision-making process for many college students today. In fact, they seemed genuinely surprised that I hadn’t heard the term myself. Conversations about one’s ”Social Battery” are apparently pretty ubiquitous in college life these days. It refers to the emotional energy source that powers one’s capacity (and enjoyment) when it comes to interacting with others. And almost everybody said that the pandemic brought attention to personal emotional capacity. They might have never noticed these dynamics when they were jumping from one extra-curricular activity to another, before the pandemic. But they notice them now.
Like the battery of a smartphone, a person’s Social Battery is gradually depleted in the course of everyday use. But certain circumstances cause the battery to drain more quickly. In the case of one’s Social Battery, these circumstances include (but are not limited to): larger groups of people… extra noise… less familiar settings… any kind of conflict… unclear expectations… or any other number of factors that complicate social interactions. Previous generations might have been more inclined to “power through” these challenges. But today’s college students have learned to more carefully monitor their Social Battery. And they prefer to take preventative action to avoid a total shut-down.
It’s not just wounding, some scab that will eventually heal over. It might actually be a step in the direction of greater health, as a society. Recent generations of Americans have been excessive in their over-commitment, their ambition, their stress. So, maybe it’s time for a pendulum swing back in the other direction. One of the Centennial leaders referenced her pandemic experiences, saying, “I learned the value of simplicity and solitude. I still need that.”
Priorites and Planning
The COVID-19 Pandemic highlighted a clear distinction between “essential” and “non-essential.” And today’s college students have carried this framework forward into their everyday lives, even as the SARS CoV2 pathogen shifts from pandemic to endemic. They have an innate instinct for prioritizing and protecting mission-critical operations. And they’re willing to let everything else fall by the wayside, as needed.
The Centennial leaders talked about the way that many students today have clearly identified their “One Thing.” They know what is supposed to be primary, and almost everything else becomes secondary. For many at Kent State University, the primary objective — or “One Thing” — is to get an education. Consequently, they take their studies seriously. And combined with the Social Battery dynamics outlined above, they spend a lot more time studying (or “studying”) than they did before the pandemic.
Today’s twenty-somethings aren’t opposed to engagement in “secondary” stuff. They still like intramural sports, and/or political engagement, and/or social activism, and/or church involvement. If they have time. They prefer to keep their options open to these sorts of things, when circumstances allow. But they’re not going to be roped into anything overly draining or distracting, merely from a sense of social obligation. They recognize that this may come across as “flaky” to others, and even to themselves. They will regularly kid each other, asking, “Why are you so flaky? Did you have Frosted Flakes for breakfast?” (I love that line!). But they’re also living out the lesson that was reiterated and reinforced throughout the pandemic: First things first. Everyone’s got to figure out their own way to survive. And this new pattern for conditional engagement may be the new norm.
One of the Centennial leaders said that whenever she uses the phrase, “I’ll let you know,” it absolutely, one-hundred percent means “No.” I guess I’ve kind of noticed this, through my interaction with today’s college students. I just didn’t understand the coded language until she spelled it out for me.
Another outworking of prioritization is the understanding among college students that if they want to have time with people they really care about, they have to make plans weeks in advance. Three weeks seems to be a normal time frame for making social plans with friend groups. The whole process can end up feeling more formal, and that can be annoying — even for younger people. They sometimes wonder, “Why can’t we go back to the time when we could just drop in and hang out?” But for now, at any rate, they recognize a need to plan according to priorities. And they’re figuring things out, even if it’s a different path forward, compared to the way things were organized in the past.
As I talked further with the Centennial leaders, we started to discuss ways that these Post-COVID College Life dynamics might play out in collegiate ministry. And one of our biggest conclusions is that small group ministry is more important than ever.
Large-group gatherings (like Sunday morning worship) used to be one of our church’s biggest attractions. Students were energized by the social scene, the immersive musical experience, the colored stage lights, the opportunities to celebrate communion and baptism together. And to some extent, these elements of worship are still appealing. But they may also drain a person’s Social Battery. Consequently, one’s understanding of priorities and planning may lead to less frequent attendance at our large-group gatherings. (The numbers we track at H2O Kent seem to support this understanding). This is disappointing on a certain level, but it’s also understandable.
Even on the small-group level, the Centennial leaders want to start experimenting with ways to make things feel less formal, and less draining. Specifically by splitting our already-small group into even smaller discussion groups on a consistent basis. And we’ll do it in separate spaces, where we can’t hear each other’s conversations. Group attendance fluctuates enough that we will keep randomizing these discussion groups for the rest of this semester (in order to keep group sizes even).
We might shift towards some sort of group multiplication next semester — for the sake of keeping things small. We may even multiply from one group of ten to twenty, into four groups of four or five! And we currently have the personnel that could allow us to have groups made up of two leaders + two or three non-leaders. So why not lean into this possibility to see how it might work?!?
I told the Centennial leaders about a strategy currently being deployed by our friends at H2O YSU. They’re starting a brand new church in 2022. And they’ve decided to multiply immediately when a group grows from six to seven. So we might start leaning into that in Centennial Courts, too. We won’t give up on meeting as a large “small group,” completely. Maybe once a month, we’ll all meet together as a large group. But generally speaking, we’ll try to think smaller, more personally, less organizationally. We’re probably going to experiment with supplementing our Bible discussion with more times for silence or quiet music while prompting participation in a reflective activity. We hope that this might be helpful in restoring each others’ Social Battery levels, building in spiritual intentionality, while also being together.
Beyond this, we’re also starting study groups in the library, posting last-minute invitations in our group chat, hoping that this could play into students’ “One Thing.” We hope to keep brainstorming and experimenting for the rest of this semester. And honestly, I feel more hopeful about our ministry at Kent State University than I have in a while. I love that the next generation is leading the way, and I pray that we will find ways to keep walking by faith in post-COVID college life.