An opinion piece published in the Washington Post boldly predicted there are only 23 Easters left for mainline churches. (“If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left,” Acts of Faith, Perspective, April 28, 2017)
When I saw this title on my Facebook newsfeed, I couldn’t help it – I took the click bait and read the article written by Ed Stetzer, a former Episcopalian turned Evangelical. His opinion that mainline churches such as the Episcopal Church have only 23 Easters left is based on the data that is certainly no secret and shows a steady decades-long decline in membership and attendance in mainline denominations nationwide. According to the trend as he saw it, Stetzer noticed the decline will bottom out in 23 years, when the numbers will hit zero and there won’t be anyone left to celebrate Easter, or Christmas for that matter.
While the author captured my attention with his title, his prescribed method of halting or reversing the decline didn’t resonate with me. I am in the unique position where I am both a parish priest and participate in campus ministry. When I first started at Church of the Good Shepherd, located in the heart of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, I had no formal training in campus ministry. This meant I had no idea what I was supposed to do – so instead I set out to explore the campus and figure out what I could do. This has led to engaging interactions with students, faculty, and staff.
I’ve listened, learned, and walked spiritually with people from all over the world who are at OU. I’ve had the honor to hear about the struggles students and professors have, how they are facing those struggles, and how participating in worship services at Church of the Good Shepherd is one way they are finding peace, community, healing and inspiration to make the world a better place. The connections and relationships that have emerged from such encounters have been hopeful and inspiring to me, as I’ve met people with deep yearning, curiosity and faith.
I’ve learned a great deal about perseverance from an art student who is creating images to help people understand PTSD, not only to increase awareness, but to help in her own healing process and encourage others who suffer illnesses. I’ve listened to a good, creative, innovative student who had to transfer because he can’t afford tuition at OU tell me how one of the best parts of his time here was the open chapel at Church of the Good Shepherd, where he could spend time reading and contemplating the Gospel. I’ve watched a skeptical agnostic discover the love of God and hungrily embrace that love.
I am not the only person doing this important work of campus ministry in the diocese. We also have campus ministers in Cincinnati, Columbus and Oxford – meeting students and faculty where they are, walking with them, making connections and growing closer to God and each other. Every campus minister has powerful stories to tell of the work they are doing, and how they see Christ in the people they encounter.
Our numbers of engagement are not large, but we are all having meaningful encounters where we see growth, transformation and the love of God in each other. Campus Ministry may not look like it did in the past, but thanks to the dedication and work of campus ministers in this diocese, it is still reaching out, welcoming and going out to meet campus communities where they are to show them God is present.
The Washington Post opinion piece, while clearly intended to be a warning, made me realize something about campus ministry I hadn’t before. Campus ministry reaches out and touches the future through the relationships it is forming here in the present – which gives me hope; and I believe there will be many more than 23 Easters for the Church to celebrate. I am grateful for the colleagues who share in this work and inspire me everyday, and for the active support of the Diocese of Southern Ohio that makes campus ministry a priority by providing the financial means to help support these ministries through Campus Ministry grants. Together we are Christ Present to all generations.
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The Rev. Deborah Woolsey is Priest-in-Charge at Church of the Good Shepherd, Athens, and Convener of the Campus Ministry Collaborative in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Learn more about the unique campus ministries the diocese supports here.