Mar 19, 2020

Gen Z, Faith Formation, and Campus Ministries

A picture of students worshiping at Thursday night worship

There are more than four former Christians in America for every one new convert to Christianity,” said Aaron Baart (’99), dean of chapel, in a January 2018 chapel talk in his series “Why They Leave, and Why It Matters.”

“That statistic hit me right between the eyes. I thought back on classmates I went to Christian school with who no longer walk with the Lord. I thought about close friends in my life that don’t, either. This isn’t just a statistic on a page—it’s a reality in my life, and maybe it is in yours, too.”

We stand at a unique moment in the church’s history, argues Baart. Some describe our society as “post-Christian.” The “nones” category—the percentage of Americans claiming no religious identity—is the fastest growing category when it comes to religious affiliation in America, and the percentage of Americans under 30 years of age who identify as “nones” is up to 36 percent.

In October 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that only 47 percent of Christians attend a religious service once a week. The number of people who attend religious services at least once or twice a month is outnumbered by those who attend religious services a few times a year or less.

In contrast, 96 percent of Dordt University alumni who responded to a 2019 alumni survey report that they attend church on a weekly basis.

This may relate to the fact that Dordt’s stated mission is to “equip, students, alumni, and the broader community to work effectively toward Christ-centered renewal in all aspects of contemporary life.” Part of working toward Christ-centered renewal is recognizing God’s sovereignty over every square inch, in academics and in co-curriculars in college, in worship and in daily living post-college. Baart and many others at Dordt believe that building serious discipleship formation practices while in college can lay a firm foundation of faithfulness for students once they graduate.

In recent years, Dordt has welcomed Gen Z students to campus—young people born between 1995 and 2010. These 18 to 22-year-olds are influencing campus culture during their four years at Dordt and, for a growing number of them, that means taking an active part in shaping the work Campus Ministries does.

“Gen Z is a generation of doing,” says Sam Ashmore (’14), discipleship coordinator. “Gen Z wants to produce something of value, not just consume. They want a seat at the table. So, how do we as Campus Ministries create a space for them to have a voice and input? I think that’s the biggest shift with this generation—to move from students who want to just consume to students who want to produce something.”

That realization has led Campus Ministries staff to make room for students to wrestle with their faith and own what they believe. From organizing on-campus worship services to digging into difficult topics to leading their own Bible studies, many Dordt students are showing that this unique moment in the church’s history—although a trying one—can bring about spiritual formation, both at Dordt and beyond. The following stories show how Campus Ministries and some Dordt students are responding to such challenges and opportunities.

From GIFT and LIFE to Sunday Small Groups

During a retreat last summer, Campus Ministries staff focused their attention on spiritual formation on campus: What’s been working? What hasn’t worked? What does this generation of Dordt students need?

“We talked about how this is a generation of producers, and we realized our programming in Campus Ministries is catered toward consumers—that it wasn’t resonating with the generation of students we currently have at Dordt,” says Ashmore.

Two of these programs were GIFT and LIFE. If you attended Dordt in the last 15 years, you probably know that GIFT (Growing in Faith Together) and LIFE (Leading, Instilling, Fellowship, Encouraging), alternated as Sunday evening services. In recent years, attendance has dwindled for both worship events, to the point where Ashmore and the Campus Ministries staff decided to rethink the events’ roles on campus.

“We realized that maybe these events weren’t what students wanted or needed right now. So, we started thinking about ways we can give Gen Z students a way to be heard, because they have opinions that matter and ideas that are valuable.”

Ashmore had an idea. What if Campus Ministries replaced GIFT and LIFE with small groups that met on Sunday nights? The groups would be peer-led and offer a way to dig into God’s word and build a culture of vulnerability and authenticity.

“Small groups have always been part of Dordt, but primarily they’ve taken place during the week, and many groups didn’t end up meeting due to obligations like intramurals or class projects. By shifting small groups to Sundays, we are hopefully freeing up their time during the week,” he says.

At the beginning of the fall semester, 60 people signed up to serve as small group leaders. Now, nearly 50 groups meet on campus every Sunday, focusing on one of 15-20 studies that Ashmore and others have recommended.

“On Sunday nights, there are 500-600 students in small groups, studying the Bible and growing together. It’s a cool picture of the move of God that can happen when we have a shared goal in pursuing Jesus,” says Ashmore.

Attendance isn’t everything, but Sunday small groups are drawing more students than LIFE and GIFT combined were.

“It’s been really good,” says Tom Oord, a senior theology major. “Small groups provide students with a way to connect with others, and it is a comfortable setting given that it’s led by a student who’s viewed as a peer.”

In the end, the Campus Ministries staff believes that focusing on small groups and ending GIFT and LIFE was the right choice for students’ spiritual formation.

“The Lord has been gracious in sustaining the groups,” says Ashmore. “Overall, this shift has been really positive.”

A picture of a student sitting in a dark corner reading her Bible

Monday Night Worship

Growing up in Bellflower, California, Anneka Bakker went to a Christian school and attended church every Sunday. But when she started attending Dordt to study graphic design, she decided to be more intentional about her faith.

“When you come to Dordt, you’re presented with so many opportunities to advance your own faith and take intentional steps toward God,” she says.

Part of that involves corporate worship; she tries to attend chapel and Praise and Worship every week.

“But I’d say my favorite worship throughout the week is Monday night worship,” she says.

On Monday nights, students gather in the choir room at the back of the B.J. Haan Auditorium. The lights are turned down low, and a few chairs line the front of the room.

“Students are encouraged to go to the front if they have a message or a word on their heart, or if they want prayer,” says Bakker.

At Monday night worship, Bakker has seen scared freshmen walk to the front of the room and speak words of wisdom. She’s laid her hands on friends who are struggling. She’s sat in a quiet corner and prayed silently.

“What I’ve always loved about Monday night worship is that you can feel the Holy Spirit in tangible, raw ways,” she says.

Tianna Veldhuisen, a senior nursing major from Emo, Ontario, agrees.

“It’s incredible when you can worship with others in such a community and you can be so vulnerable with each other,” she says. “We’re all dealing with the stresses of college life, whether it be relationships, trying to fit in, or academics. I think worshipping with others and laying our stresses before God is a beautiful thing.”

Last year, around 50 people would show up every week. This year, it’s been closer to 80-100 students.

“There have been multiple weeks where we’ve had to get rid of chairs to provide more standing room,” says Bakker.

Demetrius Rowser, a junior digital media major from Fort Worth, Texas, says Monday night worship had a huge impact on him as a freshman.

“Monday night worship made me more open and vulnerable as a person,” he says. “It’s a bunch of broken people in the same room worshipping together, talking about real life with each other, and just being real. I can’t tell you how important it was to me.”

Monday night worship is entirely student-led. It began a few years ago and is directed by a rotating group of student leaders.

“I’ve never been, and that’s intentional,” says Aaron Baart. “Those of us in Campus Ministries coach their leaders and help them plan, but the rest is up to them. Every generation needs their thing—they need an opportunity to worship in their own way.”

A picture of Sam Ashmore speaking during chapel

Grace and Truth Chapel Series

This fall, when Baart and Ashmore preached a series on sexuality and gender based on Preston Sprinkle’s Grace and Truth 2.0: Five More Conversations Every Thoughtful Christian Should Have about Faith, Sexuality, and Gender, chapel attendance shot up by 30 percent compared to the previous year. If chapel attendance is any indication, students are eager to tackle difficult topics like sexuality.

“The church should be on the front lines when it comes to sex and gender,” says Veldhuisen. “We can’t separate our sexuality from our relationship with Jesus, especially when it’s a vulnerable part of us that can be twisted by culture.”

The five-part chapel series included discussion about six relational do’s and don’ts; sex, gender, and the Bible; LGBT+ inclusion in the church, and pornography.

“I think the series resonated with students,” says Ashmore, who spoke about sex, gender, and the Bible during the chapel series. “During and since the series, campus has been buzzing with conversation that people might have been afraid to have before.”

“I absolutely loved how Aaron addressed the issue of pornography,” says Jazmin Mendieta Gauto, a senior education major from Asuncion, Paraguay. “I hate when pastors assume that guys are the only ones with the sexuality problems. Women, too, need to be instructed on topics on sexuality.”

Rowser agrees.

“I never realized how damaging pornography is,” he says. “Aaron’s sermon reminded me that, when you start viewing someone as an object, you’re going down a dangerous path.”

“I appreciated Aaron’s message about how singleness can be a gift. At Dordt, there can be pressure to be in a relationship or to get married. So, to talk about singleness and to tell us that it can be good and healthy was really helpful,” says Oord.

Bakker believes it’s important to gain understanding and wisdom on important issues.

“I think we become better humans by recognizing what other people struggle with, and gender and identity issues are something my generation is especially grappling with. It’s vital that we talk about these issues now because, when we leave Dordt, we probably won’t be in the kind of bubble that we’re in now. So it’s really important that you at least have an understanding of the struggles other people go through.”

Baart says he was always taught that a good sermon is the first word on the subject, not the last.

“We keep treating sermons as a four-part movement that needs to wrap up with a neat bow, but that’s not what Jesus teaches. With sexuality, everyone wants to look for the one answer, read the one book, or find the magic Bible verse that turns off all their sin. That’s just not going to happen. Addressing unresolved questions shows that discipleship is tension to manage, not problems to solve.”

Diversifying Chapel Worship

When he was first hired as director of campus ministries and worship arts at Dordt nearly eight years ago, Jon De Groot was told to keep chapel’s worship style consistent. And for many years, students were content with chapel’s dependable style of contemporary worship. Lately, though, that has changed.

“It seems like there has been a watershed of interest in worship styles and practices,” says De Groot. “I’ve had students tell me, ‘We need to sing more hymns,’ and others have said, ‘I don’t care if we ever sing another hymn again.’”

So, when it comes to chapel music, De Groot has shifted his approach this year. He and the worship team have moved into more experimental approaches to worship style because, as he says, “there are as many personalities and as many ways to connect as there are students in the room.”

One senior worship arts major who has pushed the boundaries of chapel worship style is Joseph Bartels. He says it’s vital to remember the expanse of the church both geographically and chronologically, and that affects worship style.

Bartels led one service where he used sampled drumbeats and synthesizers to create experimental electronic music. Influenced by modern musicians like Bon Iver and Post Malone, Bartels says this music style is a language that his generation knows, and it can be used to help them think, feel, and praise in a new way.

During another chapel service, Bartels asked chapel-goers to pull out the gray Psalter hymnal from the pews and sing—sans screen—as the Casavant organ played.

“I have heard some students find it to be a shame that the organ is not regularly used in worship anymore,” he says. “I personally admire the traditional style of church music; the language and music of some hymns are incredibly rich.”

Bartels thinks Gen Z—this generation of Dordt students—is less polarized by worship music than older generations of the church family. He says that, if church music were left completely up to him, he would want churches to use a diverse collection of music genres led by an array of believers with unique stories and situations.

“This would help our congregations remember that ‘our way of doing things’ is not the right way. We forget that the Gospel fits into each culture uniquely, and it is a gift that transcends barriers.”

“The act of praising with music reminds us of God’s image in us,” adds Bartels. “Songs are not divine; they are gifted to humanity through humanity. Once we are reminded of the inseparable bond between music and humanity, perhaps we will appreciate the praises of others like we ought to.”

Taking on Tough Topics

At Dordt, faith formation happens in the classroom, on the athletic fields, in the dorms—not just in chapel, Praise and Worship, Monday night worship, and small groups. But Campus Ministries has a hand in shaping the culture on campus, particularly when it comes to being intentional about lifelong spiritual growth.

“Research shows that universities most adept at cultivating enduring faith formation practices encourage students to wrestle deeply with their faith and allow them to engage with the issues most significant to their generation,” says Baart.

Gauto says that Dordt can be a bubble, which makes it even more important to talk about difficult topics like race, sex, gender, and welfare. She grew up in Paraguay surrounded by corruption, violence, and injustice; coming to the United States for school, one topic she thinks should be covered is the construct of whiteness and white privilege.

“Not creating those conversations on-campus is pointless, because students will engage in those topics in one way or another,” she says. “I think it’s healthy for Dordt to start these conversations.”

One class where the topic of white privilege and racism is discussed is in “Gospel, Church, and Culture,” taught by Theology Professor Dr. Justin Bailey.

“I love that course because it made me feel horribly uncomfortable,” says Oord. “We had a whole unit about racism. I’ve always viewed racism as, well, you’re either racist or you’re not. But, just being a white male provides so many advantages. And with racism—there’s no final destination where you can say, ‘OK, I’m not racist anymore,’ because you’ll never find the end of the journey that is undoing all the layers of racism inside you.”

Oord also says that building relationships with Campus Ministries staff has helped his faith to grow while he’s been at Dordt. He says that being able to wrestle with difficult topics has been instrumental in his own life.

“I think part of the reason a lot of Gen Z is leaving the church is because church has seemingly become irrelevant—not because we find the Gospel to be irrelevant, but because we see how issues in culture—like the refugee crisis, climate change, and the Muslim ban—often aren’t being discussed at church,” he says. “In a similar way, I think it’s important for Dordt to talk about these things, because these are issues that aren’t going to go away.”
Oord would like to see more church sermons have clear, specific action items when it comes to addressing difficult topics, too.

“If we say, ‘This is a biblical truth: Love your neighbor,’ then apply it—for example, ‘This is what structural racism looks like, and here’s what you can do to help your neighbor as we all deal with structural racism,” says Oord.
Oord feels that, looking back at the Grace and Truth chapel series, Baart and Ashmore suggested that kind of practical action. For example, in his chapel talk on pornography, Baart encouraged students to de-digitize their relationships—to stop having intimate conversations on digital platforms. Steps like this give students a way to leave chapel and apply what they learned to their daily lives.

Digital platforms such as social media can be debilitating, which is why social networking is a topic that Veldhuisen hopes the church and Dordt continues to talk about.

“Social networking is a huge part of Gen Z,” she says. “I can’t speak for everybody, but it definitely impacted my life—I’d compare myself to what I saw on the screen. There are challenges when it comes to questions we’re facing about sexuality and gender, and we learn so much about those subjects from social media. There are studies that show that anxiety and depression are on the rise, and that’s partly because of social media.”

In his chapel talk on pornography, Baart also talked about how we all need to learn to rest—often, he said, people end up turning to porn when they are bored, because they don’t know how to be still. This can be true of social media, too—students often turn to social networking when they have downtime.

To help students practice cultivating moments of rest, Baart started Friday Prayers, which happen every second and fourth Friday of the month in the B.J. Haan Auditorium. During Friday Prayers, Baart leads participants through scripture readings and prayers, all while calming videos play on the screen and soothing music wafts from the speakers.

Whether through prayer times or small groups or Gen Z-friendly worship events, Campus Ministries wants to equip students as they prepare to go out from Dordt.

At the conclusion of his chapel talk on “Why They Leave, and Why It Matters,” Baart talked about how the Christian call is to be “that which is beautiful and refreshing and the best thing that ever happened to everything you’re going to touch and do in this world.”

“I pray for you, Generation Z, students of Dordt. I pray for you during this cultural moment in the American church, that you would be one. Can you hear Jesus’s prayer for us? Can we ask ourselves some hard questions and have some difficult conversations together?”

“You,” continued Baart, “are now the largest generation in this country. What will you do with this, as you form your ecclesiology and raise your voice, as you learn to articulate in new, beautiful ways who Jesus is and what he’s done for you? Will you go and tell what the Lord has done for you in new and convicting ways?”

Then, he asked the students to hold out their hands and to stand for a blessing.

“Father, whatever we create, as co-creators with you, may it look like you,” prayed Baart. “May it be beautiful for the world. And may you bring forth from these hands and from these minds and from these lives, your life. In Jesus’s name, amen.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers