LCEF News

Could Students Actually Get Closer to God While in College?

June 8, 2018 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Trinity Lutheran Church, Lisle, Ill., is in a unique position.

Less than half a mile away on its east and west edges sit two schools: Benedictine University and North Central College. While Benedictine is Roman Catholic and North Central is Methodist neither school puts an emphasis on nurturing students’ spiritual lives.

In fact, for some students, college may be the first time in their lives they are asked to put their faith on the back burner. Furthermore, it may be the first time these students experience any kind of hostility over their faith–from both peers and faculty. And let’s not forget the multitude of temptations students face while away at school.

None of this is new. For decades, studies and anecdotes have demonstrated that many college students drift away from their religious upbringings. Where some bemoan the decline, Gary Ireland sees opportunity.

Ireland graduated from Concordia University Chicago in 1985. Five years later, he completed a master’s degree in theology from the same school. He followed that up with doctoral studies in higher education administration at Loyola University of Chicago. This lead to a career in higher education, including 13 years as dean of students at both North Park University and North Central College.

Ireland was perfectly suited for the academic world and relished his work. A year ago he stepped away as a professional so he could return in a different capacity: Trinity’s director of college ministry.

Gary Ireland, Trinity’s director of college ministry.

In the trenches

Ireland had been leading Bible studies with students from both schools for years. Recognizing the opportunity and need, Trinity Lutheran Church made Ireland an official offer.

“This was an opportunity to help college students grow in their faith. That was the first goal,” Ireland said. “The second goal is to get them into a church.”

Ireland has a cubicle at Trinity, but you’ll more than likely find him in one of the school’s cafeterias on any given day. His unofficial responsibilities include non-stop supporting of the students, which means driving them back and forth between doctor appointments, meeting them for lunch or dinner, visiting them in the hospital or going to visitations and funerals of the students’ relatives.

This all-in approach is essential. Even though the informal interaction takes up more time than say running into them on Sunday mornings, “a lot of people are very suspicious of Christians. They think you only care about them until they walk through the church doors.” In order to earn their trust, you need to care about and love them without an agenda.

Hundreds of hours are spent in the trenches, listening to sensitive conversations and responding in love rather than judgment. The investment has paid off.

Students are paying attention

A good example is the story of a student named Oskar. He had a rough situation at home and never ever explored his faith much before he went to Benedictine. That is until Ireland befriended him and the two spent time together.

They spent time talking about Oskar’s family life, school and faith. For Oskar, this was significant. Oskar wasn’t accustomed to people sticking around for the long haul. After his first year, Oskar wrote Ireland a letter. He thanked Ireland for becoming part of his life, but the comment that really hit home for Ireland was this: Oskar never imagined he would be working on his faith while in college. It’s statements like these, Ireland said, that “gives meaning and purpose to every day.”

His steadfast faithfulness and relentless care for students has paid off in other ways as well. Not long ago, Ireland was invited to be the football chaplain for North Central and player mentor at Benedictine. In these roles, Ireland makes himself available to the athletes, answers questions and prays with the team before and after the games. He doesn’t stop there.

“I really strive for a ministry of presence and commitment to the team.” Ireland attends as many football practices as possible–even if it means standing in the rain at 6 a.m. Athletes are paying attention.

One athlete told a coach that Ireland cares for the guys on the team who don’t come to the Bible studies as much as he does for those who do. That’s quite the accomplishment.

Benedictine students discussing how to “let their light shine” (Matthew 5:16) through loving others.

Overcoming a common problem

Trinity’s college ministry, while much needed, faced a common problem among church ministries: funding. The church budgeted for Ireland’s salary, but most things above that would come out of his pocket. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for Ireland to spend $5,000 annually on Bible giveaways, projects and, of course, food. “Food is very important to college kids,” Ireland said, “taking them to breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

To help offset the college ministry cost, Trinity applied and received a grant from LCEF’s Kaleidoscope Fund in 2017. But according to Ireland, offsetting the cost is just the tip of the iceberg: “The grant is allowing us to exponentially do more.” More projects. More events. More meals. In essence, more quality, spiritually enriching time with these beloved college students.

Ireland is thrilled. “We already see people who are committing their lives to Jesus Christ, continuing in their faith development, who are still growing in their faith,” he said. “This is the goal.”

By God’s grace, Trinity’s college ministry has made a noticeable impact on the lives of these students. LCEF, through the Kaleidoscope Fund, is grateful for the chance to support this ministry and its director with finances and prayer. Join us as we pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy on Trinity, their college ministry, its director and the students of Benedictine and North Central.

AUTHOR
Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.