The Challenge of Ministry to Today’s Students (and what we should do about it)



Every fall since 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief of Beloit College in Wisconsin have released their Mindset List to “look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college.” The list originated as a way to remind teachers to make sure their cultural references connected with students in the classroom.

For example, No. 6 on the Class of 2002 list is this factoid: “They were 11 when the Soviet Union broke apart, and do not remember the Cold War.” Thus, such concepts must be explained to incoming freshmen (assuming they did not learn them in high school).

Here are a few thought-provoking things today’s collegians should “know”:

  • “They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of ‘electronic narcotics.’”
  • “Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.”
  • “They have never seen an airplane ‘ticket.’”
  • “They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.”
  • “There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.”
  • “Mr. Burns has replaced J.R. Ewing as the most shot-at man on American television.”
  • “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines.”

As always, this list provides a fascinating look at the fast pace of cultural change, but one particular item from 2016 should arrest our attention—No. 3: “The Biblical sources of terms such as ‘Forbidden Fruit,’ ‘The writing on the wall,’ ‘Good Samaritan,’ and ‘The Promised Land’ are unknown to most of them.”

As the school year starts up, particularly for those of us who enjoy regular contact with today’s students, that last item is worth pondering. Even if we serve congregations near evangelical redoubts such as Wheaton, Moody, Biola, or Taylor, the rising tide of biblical illiteracy ought to concern us. And it certainly isn’t just college freshmen who don’t know their Bibles.

Gallup has labeled the U.S.A. as “a nation of biblical illiterates.” Time notes, “Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book. The trend extends even to Evangelicals.”

The main point of this post, however, is not to get us to wring our hands. It’s to open our minds. To what?

Only this: We who seek to be agents of gospel renewal must excel in two things: knowing God according to his Word and knowing the culture in which we live. We must be able not just to interpret the Bible, but apply it to the hearts and minds of our hearers; after all, this is what it means to love one’s neighbor.

Recent Mindset Lists are a reminder that cultural forces profoundly influence people’s thoughts, assumptions, and worldviews. This should lead us to approach our children and the students we serve (indeed, people of all ages) and ask: What moves them, excites them, interests them, and bores them? What do they know, and what don’t they know? How do we translate the Bible into terms that they can understand? While it is the Spirit’s job to open hearts to the gospel, and He doesn’t need our help, we have no excuse for intellectual laziness.

So as we get back into the autumn swing—whether at church, school, or another place of our vocation, here’s a friendly reminder to expend some holy energy on getting to know those whom we serve in the name of Christ. Because while technology and cultural references may change, our calling to gospel witness remains the same.

Share this article on…

More Articles

The Gift We Overlook

Early Christians saw themselves as the manifestation of Christ in the world. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, this understanding of Christ’s body fueled the church’s

Read More »

Preaching and Prayer

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)—famous bishop, pastor, theologian, and philosopher—was a superlative preacher. In On Christian Teaching, he shares with his brother pastors his meditations on the

Read More »