Freedom to Explore Faith

They get to explore their faith instead of being fed answers.

September 19, 2022 |

Image credit: Pastor Rosemary Peek

“College is all about finding yourself and how you want to contribute meaningfully to the world. It’s the first time you’re able to practice this newfound free will outside of your house. It was a great thing to choose God in that process,” Chaplain Joshua Johnson remarked, commenting on his time in Lutheran Campus Ministry at Western Carolina University.

Chaplain Johnson, currently serving the USS Ross out of Jacksonville, North Carolina, didn’t ever imagine he’d be a Lutheran pastor or a Lutheran at all. Having grown up Southern Baptist and confirmed a Methodist, he ended up walking through the doors of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Sylva. “I was a little bit of a spiritual mutt,” he said reflecting on how he arrived on campus. “A friend invited me to go, and I found a place of grace.”

It was that grace that, in time, compelled this Criminal Justice major to consider Navy Chaplaincy and ordination in the ELCA. “I was filling out the Coast Guard application,” he said reflectively, “and at the bottom of the web page there was an advertisement for Navy chaplaincy, and it all just clicked.”

And so did he, clicking on the link that has led him to a life of spiritual service.

“Campus ministry is part of being in this congregation,” Pastor Rosemary Peek, the pastor of Shepherd of the Hills noted. “I took this call never imagining that I’d be in campus ministry,” she said with a chuckle, and yet this was part of the job description for the pastor of this small but mighty congregation. Despite the stigma and the size, small congregations do mighty things in this world. This congregation, which makes an intentional effort to reach college students, has sent numerous pupils not only to seminary but so many more into service in their local parishes—wherever they land.

Campus ministry taps into the special time in a student’s life. Bridging the gap between the youth group model that so many of these students know and the faith-life of an adult that they must transition into, campus ministry invites students into a safe place where they can ask questions about the Divine, themselves, and their call to serve the world.

It is no secret that so many voices are calling to students the minute that they step on campus, and often the loudest voices representing Jesus are the ones telling them what to think and believe about the world, about faith, and about their life as a Christian. Lutheran campus ministries offer an alternative third space where questions are elevated above answers, relationships are held at a premium over political subscription, and honest dialogue triumphs over trite “Christian” answers. “They get to explore their faith,” Pastor Peek notes, “instead of being fed answers.”

This is an invaluable gift to the church, and to the world.

In thinking about the many students that have passed through the doors of Shepherd of the Hills in Pastor Peek’s years there, she remembers not only the ones who have gone on to be rostered ministers in the church, but especially those who serve their spiritual communities and live out their faith lives in quiet but powerful ways. Council presidents, volunteers, and faithful lay leaders are the hallmarks of the campus ministry of this church. “The goal of our work is to help form students to be adults of faith,” she says.

And this ministry bears fruit. Chaplain Johnson, and so many others, are a testament to how the Holy Spirit works in this special time in the life of a young adult.

“Campus ministry is hugely impactful and it deserves every ounce of love and effort that we can give it because it offers something that you can’t get anywhere else,” Chaplain Johnson noted as he thought about how his life has changed because of his experience with the assembly at Shepherd of the Hills. “I found unparalleled freedom and encouragement to serve both God and my call to my country there.”

Pastor Peek agrees. At the end of every academic year, the church gathers together the graduating seniors for a special sending service. She remembers Chaplain Johnson’s sending service, noting that there was not a dry eye in the sanctuary.

“Every time,” she said with a slight choke in her throat, “it’s like we’re sending parts of our heart into the world.”

Far more than simply serving the spiritual needs of students while they’re in school, campus ministry in our synod works to serve the spiritual needs of the world—for the sake of the world—giving students the freedom to explore before being flung far and wide bearing the love of Christ in their hearts.

Your Mission Support dollars are part of this story—part of congregations serving the spiritual needs of students, and of students sharing the love of Christ out in the world. Portions of your giving support the twelve campus ministries across the NC Synod as well as those across the ELCA. Thank you!

Story Attribution:

Pastor Timothy J. Brown for the NC Synod

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