This is part 6 in a series celebrating Pastoral Care Week 2015: Spiritual Care Together, October 25-31, 2015. Read part 1 of the series here. Read part 2 of the series here. Read part 3 of the series here. Read part 4 of the series here. Read part 5 of the series here.
By James Touchton
As a college chaplain, many of my most meaningful pastoral care experiences have come with students who fall outside some artificial social construct of what a “good Christian” ought to look like or believe. Possessing an ever-diminishing view of authority, much of this very peer-oriented generation will consult their peers in lieu of or long before ever coming to see me about faith crises, family problems, mental health issues or major life choices. Depending on the variables, this can often be helpful. However, despite the diverse and ecumenical nature of our Christian community on campus, a norm is inevitably established.
Good Christians don’t go to parties.
Good Christians believe this (fill in the blank) about the origins of the universe or human sexuality or gender roles.
Good Christians don’t need to take Xanax or Prozac.
I could go on.
The construction of such a norm, while rarely intentional, can be very harmful for those who do not connect to it for any number of reasons. Self-discovery and actualization are so central to the college experience and when students’ experience in Christian community is one of marginalization and diminution, it obscures their true identity in Christ. Since the very ideal Christ gave us for his body is one of radical inclusion and embrace, a deep-seated dissonance surfaces out of that disconnect.
As much as I enjoy diving into the intellectual mysteries of our faith, especially in connection with how we approach Scripture, this is about so much more than that.
When a student comes to me concerned because they are a Biology major and someone has, however subtly, told them that faith and science are at odds, this strikes deep into the heart of this individual’s sense of vocation and can easily suggest that either they must abandon their faith or they must abandon using the brain God gave them.
When a student comes to me who is struggling with depression or anxiety, they have often been made to feel even worse about themselves by peers who suggest that if they would just pray more or “just not worry,” then God would heal them.
Then there are those students who begin to doubt their faith because they don’t hear God audibly speak to them or contemporary worship just doesn’t connect with them. And again, they are told that there must just be some sin in their life or else they too would be experiencing God the same way they are.
A vast majority of the students I have worked with over the years do not in fact contribute to these experiences of marginalization and exclusion. But unfortunately, a small minority with loud voices, however well-intentioned, carries a lot of influence.
A mother of a recent alumna sent me a message one day that expressed how grateful she was for the time we spent together “to help her process her feelings and develop a confident sense of who she is in Christ.” I very much see this as my calling. Ours is a confusing and often hostile world we live in. And as long as the church remains true to her calling as a “hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints,” it will not always be as much of a safe haven as we would like it to be.
For college students on their respective spiritual journeys, their identity in Christ is often a point of confusion or ambiguity. In a world that constantly tells them they are not enough, I am here to help them see that Christ was and therefore they are. For students feeling inadequate or illegitimate or otherwise inferior because of how they experience God or how they choose to integrate their faith with science or because the most healthy thing they can do today is to take their Xanax, I am here to support and walk alongside them. I am here to help them see themselves in light of the spirit of adoption we have been granted as sons and daughters of the King by which we cry out “Abba Father!” I am here to help them experience God’s declaration of Christ as his “Beloved” as their own. I am here to help my students locate themselves in Christ, and in so doing find the foundation upon which they can question and find healing and grow into the person God has uniquely created them to be, bearing his image in the way that only they can.
James Touchton is a CBF-endorsed chaplain serving as the college chaplain at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.