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Turning Drowning Students into Christ-Centered Laborers

On the college campus, with increasing frequency, we’re seeing upperclassmen leaders in our ministry struggling to keep their heads above water. Unable to personally thrive, they are completely unable to love and serve others. These are not average students – these are Bible study leaders who we’ve been discipling for a couple years.

Author and pastor Mark Sayers explains this same phenomena in his church in Australia:

“Thirty years ago we thought about people coming into a church and we had an assumption that they’ve got some basic functionality in their lives. Then we realised there’s a group who were coming in who were broken – maybe they had substance abuse, mental health challenges. But now I’d say it’s overwhelming – 90 per cent of people coming in need formation…Many struggle to have a conversation and they’re overwhelmed with social anxiety. So I think there’s a place for the Church to offer formational life skills, as part of the discipleship journey. It’s almost like we get to help people rebuild from the bottom up.”

We’ve long had the luxury of assuming students were coming into college with basic adult functionality and we could start with spiritual disciplines and quickly move to a missional lifestyle. Unfortunately that is often no longer the case.

For the last couple years, on our campus we have begun to focus on helping freshmen develop these formational life skills.

Sayers’s book Reappearing Church lays out three levels of formation:

1. FORMING PATTERNS align us with the reality of how humans and God’s world work- learning the importance of diligence, of matching our words and actions, of integrating into our lives the values of delaying gratification for greater goals and being responsible for the consequences of our actions.

2. DISCIPLESHIP PATTERNS align us with God’s kingdom, creating habits and disciplines in our lives that shape us for God’s kingdom, shaping us into Christlikeness and Christlike community.

3. INFLUENCING PATTERNS align us with God’s mission in the world, forming within us patterns that spread the presence of God into the whole world. These patterns take us beyond ourselves, reconnecting us with our mandate to spread God’s presence in the world.

We’ve adapted Sayers ideas into a pyramid of formation: personal, spiritual and missional.

Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I believe these three are sequential: the foundational needs must be met before progressing to a higher level. If a student feels like they are drowning personally it is difficult to establish spiritual disciplines and there is no way they can focus on others and live on mission. It does little good to talk about sharing the gospel with their classmates if their personal life is chaotic and exhausting, they’re not sleeping enough, spending 10 hours a day on screens, and experiencing crippling social anxiety. You’re adding weight to a crumbling foundation.

“The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion.”- The Good and Beautiful God- James Bryan Smith

Selfish self-care vs self-discipline leading to sacrificial service

This is not to say that they have to only work on (and perfect) the first level of personal formation before they can progress. As Tara Isabella Burton observed in her book Strange Rites, “because the work of ‘self-care’ is never complete, care for the other is never quite justified.”

This is not a self-care that terminates on one’s self. Godly personal formation cannot end on itself. It is going somewhere. It is Godward and others-focused self-discipline.

If we don’t help students build some personal disciplines they will remain trapped in a self-centered world of never-ending self-care. Starting with personal formation is a compassionate lifeline to a drowning student to get their head above water so they can care for ‘the other’.

I firmly believe God uses the weak and weary as his chief ambassadors of the gospel, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (II Corinthians 4:7) But I believe some basic personal habits can quickly help students move from anxious and overwhelmed to growing and able to serve.

Matt Perman in his productivity book What’s Best Next asserts that “our ability to spend undistracted time with friends and family” and to sacrificially serve others around us “depends largely upon a skill that goes underneath all of those things and makes them all possible — knowing how to manage ourselves.” Personal discipline “amplifies our ability to do good.”

Glorifying God by doing good is what we were created to do (Ephesian 2:10; Titus 2:14). A Godward life focused on others is the heart of personal formation. We train ourselves to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions”, to “live self-controlled and godly lives” in order to “devote ourselves to good works” (Titus 2:12; 3:8)

This Godward, others-focused purpose turns self-care into worshipful self-discipline. It is an hour-by-hour presenting of our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. This IS how we worship God. By letting his Word form and transform us (Romans 12:1-2) in order to serve others.

The foundation of all our doing: we have value that is given not earned.

We live in an Achievement Society where we only have worth if we are getting things done. Our common modern ailments – anxiety, exhaustion, boredom, and despair – are all rooted in our inability to rest, to not work. And harder still: to not feel guilty when we’re not working.

“Be at rest – and know that I am God” is the antidote.

Here is the core truth that undergirds all of our formation: we have value that is given not earned.

The power for our personal, spiritual and missional formation “comes from realizing that, through faith in the gospel, we are accepted by God in Christ apart from what we do.” Matt Perman

Our inability to accept grace is at the root of our need to perform and achieve. Philosopher and University of Münster professor (1950-1976), Josef Peiper, in his book Leisure, the Basis of Culture, explains-

Our modern “over-emphasis on effort appears to be this: that man mistrusts everything that is without effort; that in good conscience he can own only what he himself has reached through painful effort; that he refuses to let himself be given anything.”

This stands in direct contradiction to our acceptance in Christ as “something given, something free of all debt, something undeserved, something not-achieved.” Dr. Pieper.

Ironically, we have to learn to rest and not-do before we can learn to work hard for the glory of God. Only a person at rest, secure in the grace of God, can progress to spiritual and missional formation.

This is the logical progression of the great New Testament passages that call us to do good works: Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14 and 3:3-7; Romans 12:1-2. Grace (not-doing) leads to a zeal to do good works. We have value that is given not earned. Therefore we can “spend and be spent” for others.

The format: three weeks- cycling through the three levels

On our campus we have started to meet with small groups of emerging freshmen leaders for three weekly sessions, cycling through the three levels: personal, spiritual and missional formation. It’s almost too late to tack this on to discipleship with upperclassmen.

These freshmen are already in Bible studies, and some are beginning to be discipled by student leaders. We typically start these three week sessions in late fall or early spring (as we begin to see who the emerging freshmen leaders are). My female co-leader and I challenge 10-15 students each and meet with them with the main goal of helping them develop basic-functioning life skills.
The hope is that this will produce juniors/seniors who are emotionally healthy, whole, Christ-centered laborers (for the rest of their lives!).

So far, we’ve (my co-leader, Samantha Barnes, and I) developed two sets of three:

1.1 – Personal – Habits
1.2 – Spiritual – Consistently Reading God’s Word
1.3 – Missional – Seeing with Jesus’ Eyes

2.1 – Personal – Exhaustion and Rest
2.2 – Spiritual – Developing Convictions
2.3 – Missional – A Movement of God

Feel free to copy and paste and improve!

They’re still a work in progress – the first three are better than the second three (though 2.1 might be the best!).

For the personal formation level, what other topics would you want to cover?

Here’s a list of re-formation topics I’d like to develop:

From total work to true rest:
• A “non-anxious presence” in the Achievement Society; rejecting the treadmill of achievement.
• From performing to being formed
• From self rule to Christ is King
• From self-Care to self-discipline for the purpose of loving God and others
• From individualistic freedom to committed community
• From I-tired to We-tired (moving toward community when you’re tired, instead of isolating)
• From passivity to agency (Phil 4:8 – Dealing with anxiety or things we can’t control)
• From enslavement-to-desires to freedom in the Rule of Christ
• From distraction to depth
• From pleasure to self-denying, sacrificial service
• From “frantic busyness and chronic distraction—to a life of restfulness and wonder.” (Buchanan – The Rest of God)