What can I possibly say to them?

How do you reach college students with the gospel in a world already inundated with information vying for their attention?

Glenn L. Schwanke

The headline caught my attention. “Goldfish have longer attention spans than Americans.” It seems that goldfish pay attention to that flake of food on the top of the tank for nine seconds. The average American Web surfer has an attention span of eight seconds.

I wasn’t particularly surprised by the data, and I’m not too sure our attention spans are a whole lot better when we’re not using the Internet. Harvard business school historian Nancy Kroehn has been studying the recent publishing-world phenomenon that’s called “series publishing.” It seems publishers see a need to release shorter books, rapid-fire, rather than wait to release one larger work. In part that’s because we’re in an instant society, and nobody wants to wait years for their favorite author to release another book. But perhaps “series” publishing is also gaining traction because nobody wants to read the 500-page book. After all, even Twitter, with its limit of 140 total characters in a tweet, is too wordy for some these days. It’s being replaced by Instagram where the picture is worth a thousand words.

Even as our attention spans are plummeting faster than a rock tossed into the lake, more information is inundating us. Some media mavens will consume up to 285 pieces of content every day. That’s some 54,000 words and as many as 1,000 clickable links. Or its 443 minutes of video—the equivalent of four Star Wars movies.

No wonder our attention spans are shorter than that of little Bubbles the goldfish! There aren’t enough hours in the day to take in all the content that fights for our attention.

As a campus pastor, when I think about these things, I wonder, How can I hope to grab even eight seconds of a college student’s attention? What can I possibly say to them? My timing with jokes has always been bad, and too often I forget the punch lines. The stories I tell they’ve heard one hundred times before. I don’t have a clue about hashtags. And Instagram? I always manage to have my finger over a corner of the camera lens.

For such moments, it’s important that I remember what I’ve been called to do by my fellow believers in the Wisconsin Synod: “Preach the good news” (Mark 16:15). “Repentance and forgiveness of sins”—that’s what Jesus wants his church to proclaim till the end of time (Luke 24:47). That’s what I am to share with students in our campus ministry.

Will I prepare sermons, Bible classes, and evangelism outlines to the very best of my God-given ability? Will I seek to use language students will understand? Will I use carefully chosen illustrations that resonate with them? Will I even—gulp—try to be briefer in my presentations? Yes. The Lord hasn’t called me to be sloppy or out-of-touch with those I serve, but rather “faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).

Yet at the end of the day, I need to remember that my jokes, my powers of reasoning, and my ability to debate won’t win a single soul for Christ. Only the power of the gospel does that. Only the work of the Holy Spirit brings someone to faith and keeps them in faith.

What can I say to the students I serve? What Paul once said to the intellectuals at Corinth: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1,2).

Glenn Schwanke, pastor at Peace, Houghton, Michigan, serves as campus pastor at Michigan Technological University.

 

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Author: Glenn L. Schwanke
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014

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