Struggling to find Rm 3411 in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Student Union, I wandered the halls of the fourth floor, drawn to the faint sound of singing. As I drew nearer the faint singing quickly crescendoed into a bellowing praise. From outside in the hallway, I viewed at least sixty students participating in what seemed like a joyous celebration. Taking my seat discreetly in the back, I watched them, leaping in the air and singing songs of exaltation. The room humming with the waves of the electric guitar, infused with the spirit of the students themselves, this was campus ministry: Young Life.
While in meeting space of Young Life, I observed their loving nature towards one another, I learned of the deep connection they share in and outside of weekly meetings. This communal aspect among their group led me to ask the question, how does the communal atmosphere created relate to the students involved. Therefore, in this ethnography, I investigated how the communal characteristics of Young Life attract UNC students. Through careful observations and interviews I began to develop answers to this question, and find support from various scholars. Young life strives to create a communal atmosphere in order to cater to college students’ desire for a sense of belonging, to allow students to be vulnerable and honest, and to reflect Christ’s teaching of love.
Exploring Young Life
I attended two, hour long group meetings with the Young Life ministry. The first meeting was the small group setting which met at Morrison Dormitory’s lounge and included all girls. I also attended the large group meeting which took place in a private room in the Student Union and included male and female members. I chose to observe both of these different meeting times to see multiple aspects of the ministry and how the members interact. Additionally, I conducted 4 interviews with group leaders and members, male and female.
During the small group meeting, I sat in the circle with the girls and participated in their icebreaker like activity. I did not add any other commentary throughout the rest of the meeting so I would not disrupt the natural order of the meeting. However, in the large group setting I sat at the back of the room and observed from a distance so I could not get overwhelmed with the new environment and focus on observing the group.
There’s No Place Like Home
Young Life satisfies the desire many young adults entering college crave, a communal environment where they feel safe and secure. Everyone in the large group meeting socialized, they smiled, laughed, and even linked arms during the song time. All of the students I interviewed spoke about feeling at home and a part of a family in Young Life. One female said, “I remember why I decided to join. Two older girls from the group saw me later in the week and actually stopped to talk to me and remembered my name. I felt like they cared about me” (personal communication, November 1, 2016). This sense of community attracts students to certain ministries rather than others. During the large group meeting the speaker that led the bible study talked about the biggest blessing he’s had is watching so many of his friends becomes involved in the campus ministry. Parks (2000) argues that young adults benefit greatly from mentoring during their college years; religious ministries that promote acceptance, faith curiosity, and interfaith pluralism offer an optimal space for that mentor-ship. Leaders recognize these unique characteristics of adolescents and heavily incorporate them in their ministries to attract students. Perry and Armstrong (2007) note that participants in their study identified having support from friends as essential in developing their spiritual relationships. To have a fulfilling experience in Young Life, students must feel like they belong, which is achieved by the support of friends. Not only do young adults crave a safe haven, they value the ability to be vulnerable specifically within spirituality.
Letting One’s Guard Down
Young Life creates a communal environment to promote vulnerability and honesty. Perry and Armstrong (2007) argue that young adults are often concerned with the opinions of others, making friends, and forming romantic relationships. The atmosphere of Young Life allows students to drop certain walls without fear of judgement while having fun as well as when discussing spiritual matters. During the group meetings, the leader often opened up the floor for sharing any personal experiences or asking spiritually related questions. The supportive nature with which the members responded to each student’s personal comments only encouraged more honesty and openness. The male member I interviewed said that in contrast with the rest of UNC’s campus, “I can have fun free from fear and worry of being judged” (personal communication, November 1, 2016). Everyone I interviewed embraced the importance of the ability and value of being genuine and honest within the group. Bryant (2003) notes that to adequately mentor young adults “Religious communities are well suited to the task so long as they are hospitable to questioning; tolerate ambiguity; encourage interfaith dialogue and pluralism” (p. 3). Young Life effectively ministers to students by encouraging candor within themselves as well as in spiritual discussions. Not only does the communal atmosphere promote vulnerability and honesty it reflects the doctrine of love within the ministry and the religion itself.
Love is the Root
Young Life creates a communal atmosphere to embraces the fundamental doctrine of love above manmade rules about morality. The inclusive and uplifting atmosphere is a representation of the foundation of love in the ministry. During my observation of the small groups there was discussion about how people are turned off by the manmade rules of Christianity. They openly expressed that they were more attracted to the loving aspect of Christianity, which is a fundamental doctrine of the religion. In my interviews the female leader commented that if anything were to change to discourage her from being a part of the ministry it would be “People just talking the talk and not walking the walk.” According to the Bible, the sacred text of Christianity, Jesus says “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (The Holy Bible: King James Authorized Version, John. 13.34-35). Jesus commands all his followers to love others as he has loved them, this love defines them as Christians and true disciples of the faith. Young Life creates a communal atmosphere to demonstrate the doctrine of love which is evident in the way they interact with each other and students all around campus.
Young Life is one of the most popular Christian campus ministries at UNC. Having a large presence in NC, it also has multiple branches that minister to middle and high school students. The community Young Life creates is a direct cause of its popularity and success as a ministry. This communal aspect is created to cater to young adults’ desire for acceptance, to allow students to be vulnerable and honest, and to reflect the doctrine of love in the Christian faith. Further research may be done to determine how the predominantly white member base influences Young Life and how that might differ in a campus ministry with more diverse demographics. To further motivate students to participate in campus ministries it is important to know what factors attract them to organizations. Young Life seems to have mastered this creation of a communal space for students on campus and can be used as a template for other ministries to base their foundation off of to have success connecting with students.
Bryant, Alyssa N. “The Effects of Involvement in Campus Religious Communities on College Student Adjustment and Development.” Journal of College and Character 8.3 (2007): n. pag. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
Craft, C. D. M., Weber, W. M., & Menke, D. J. (2009). Campus ministers in public higher education: Facilitators of student development. College Student Affairs Journal, 28(1), 61-80. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/89071337?accountid=14244