Research Questions and Setting: Many of the key concerns of the project were brought home by a visit in December 2014 Republic of Ireland. I sat on the plane with a series of key questions in mind; all of them intended to unearth different aspects of the reality of individualism in lives both of students and pastoral workers. For students many of the questions centred on the various kinds of temporal and geographical transience experienced by young adults as they adapt to a new environment of study and faith. In particular I was intrigued to discover (in the midst of significant personal change) what the core reference points were for students? What was being clung to and what was being rejected? These concerns were coded in the following question:
1) How do you understanding the meaning of the word 'Church'?
2) As a student, how do you decide which church to attend? E.g. Chaplains, friends, faith-tradition, personal beliefs?
3) What reasons might you have for leaving a Church or congregation?
4) Has coming to university changed your understanding of your faith? If so, in what way(s)?
5) What do you think the purpose of chaplaincy services are?
As a point of comparison, I also wanted to consider how Chaplains understood their own sense of identity as they work closely with students. Do perceptions of the role of chaplaincy match (in the experience of students and pastoral workers)? And did the personal and theological perceptions of students match the perceptions of the Chaplains? And what might possible differences tell us about how students view their ecclesial and faith-identity? These questions were explored through informal discussions with both students and Chaplains in three different settings. Firstly the Interfaith Centre at Dublin City University. This small but evidently busy Chaplaincy in the heart of Dublin serves a mix of students, many of them international (from both East and South Asia) from diverse faith-backgrounds.
The Centre describes itself as offering 'a place of welcome and hospitality for all members of the University community'. The second site if research was the Chaplaincy at the University of Maynooth (25 km from Dublin). The University community comprises over 9,000 students and 800 staff from more than 20 countries. Services provided include a quiet room for prayer and reflection, Daily Mass and Mindfulness Meditation. The third site of research was a worship-meeting run by the Christian Union of Trinity College Dublin. The CU describes itself an open place 'for people from all degrees of faith or no faith at all. Our aim is to be accessible to all providing a place for Christians to meet, praise and grow spiritually. CU also provides an ideal opportunity for those contemplating the big questions of faith to come and explore'. The theological orientation of the worship-group was Bible-based and Evangelical.
Interfaith Centre (Dublin City University): Time at the Interfaith Centre, revealed that the primary needs of students while broke into three:
* Existential/doctrinal Issues ('Am I in the right Church? Does teaching match with the Bible or my earlier religious experiences')
* Issues of Roots (Can Christian community offer me a centre of belonging?)
* Issues of Inclusion (Can I be part of an established Church community as a student?)
Reflections from Students: While some students were conscious of their identity within particular Christian confessions, most of their concerns were framed in a pluralistic way. The Church for these students is defined generously (as global and local, communal and individual). For some students the process of finding 'the right Church' to be part meant reading the Bible and seeing whether the Church teaching fit with their understanding (hermeneutical normalcy). Some stressed the importance of experience (‘you experience the Holy Spirit and he leads you to become part of a Church'). Such students operated implicitly through the idea of a theory of vocation ('I need to be where God wants me to be)'. For both the first and second type of student Prayer is central to both ideas of Church and belonging. In Prayer, both notions of Church and Scripture become clear. For a third cluster of students (the most numerous) issues of doctrine and Church were secondary to issues. What mattered most to these students was the sense that Church provided belonging? Many of these students agreed with the statement that 'the Church should be a home away from home'. Some students said they derived emotional wellbeing from the familiarities of liturgy and ritual (this was particularly evident for Indian Catholic students in the group). In a common sacramental practice, these students found ways of forming new communities which resembled their original contexts.
What the Students were not worried about: Students were not that worried about a category called 'individualism'. Indeed, they were more concerned about issues of personal validation and belonging. Some were worried that they were not fully-included in the congregations they attended and that few of the Church's they attended knew how to include students. Some experienced elderly congregations with fixed patterns of meeting and worship. Many students not only wanted more flexible forms of worship, but were also worried that traditional congregations meant they got 'lost in the crowd'. Some students said
Significant Points from DCU
Although some students noted things like, buildings etc., the consensus was that ‘Church’ was a global collection of people, with local functions. Whilst in Ireland the demographic of Church-goers was old, many students noted how they attend Church to connect with the global crowd and their home communities (for those who came from abroad or to Dublin from other parts of Ireland). It was referred to as a family, and home away from home. Students talked about a sense of ‘belonging’ – being led rather than being obliged, they preferred smaller-group settings. We might call these students committed 'personalists'. For them, Church involves close bonds of friendship and their voice being responded to. In accord with this 'personalist orientation', students were generally accepting of the idea that it is 'alright' to not go to Church for long periods and simply pray 'wherever you are'. While some students expressed anxiety and guilt about 'being away from Church’, they generally saw the Church as bigger than organisations or buildings.
Reflections from Chaplains: Chaplains were acutely aware of the challenges posed by the 'personalist' orientation of students. One Chaplain expressed the view that students had become very 'individualistic' both in the way they believe and worship. He suggested that, 'we've all become Protestants, even if you are Catholic'. This perceived transformation had a number of manifestations:
Interest in Other Religions: One Chaplain confided in me that the leaflets students took away most explored Buddhism. The Chaplain believed that Buddhism was a religion of the 'self' which suited the individualistic orientation of contemporary culture.
The Internet: Chaplains were concerned that the Internet challenged their role as gate-keepers of religious experience. They suggested that students were increasingly turning to online forums to find answers to religious questions. For Chaplains, this raises the problem 'authority' and 'guidance'. Chaplains increasingly feel they have to de-bunk online claims and challenge students to think critically about what they encounter. During our discussions, Chaplains explored with me what nourishes them as pastoral workers. While the Bible was significant for Chaplains, one said he found nourishment in the idea of the Universal Church (as communicated through the Fathers). The Chaplains were optimistic about their role despite the challenges.
Chaplaincy at the University of Maynooth: Group-work with Maynooth students revealed a rich cluster of personal and theological experiences. Here were some of the key issues which were brought into focus:
* The Church as idea and reality
* The role of the Church and Scripture
* Belonging and Identity
Significant Points from MU
MU: More of a focus on the buildings and structure of worship – whether the familiarity of Church buildings had an impact on a sense of belonging – some felt the ‘structures’ of worship needed to be conducted correctly, others were open to other forms of worship
What factors are involved in picking a Church?
The consensus among all groups were a feeling of rightness or belonging – some did note they picked a Church that their families/home communities recommended.
Reflections from the Students: Maynooth students were highly articulate regarding the questions offered. They drew on a wealth of experience and personal criteria to both answer and expand upon the questions offered. What was most significant about the student's approach to both Church and identity was its deeply post-denominational nature. While Catholicism played a key role in the lives of many of the participants, a majority of students did not rigidly subscribe to Church labels. Some students felt that modes of worship (liturgy, modes of prayer) did not matter as much as correct teaching. Some suggested that Christians could worship anywhere and at diverse Churches. While the students possessed a strongly 'personalist' approach was clear on the centrality of being part of an ecclesial community. In terms of discerning which Church to be part of, Maynooth students were keen to focus on both the sense of being 'in the right place' but also whether the practices of the Church matched with the Bible. These young adults showed themselves to mobile Christians, able to up-root from a Church community if they sensed the community has lost spiritual direction. Networks and personal connection mattered more to these students than habitual affiliation to Church traditions. In relation to the role of Chaplaincy, Maynooth students were equally personalist. They saw the Chaplain as a guide, an adviser and a consoler. They were seen as a supplementary form of support, to augment their own faithful reflection.
What the Students were not worried about: Maynooth students echoed many of the attitudes found at DCU. They emphasised the importance of prayer, personal discernment and fluid affiliation. Again, individualism did not resonate as a category of concern.
Reflections from Chaplains: The Chaplains' attitudes were surprisingly similar to the students. The Chaplains adopted an open and inclusive conception to religious identity. While many Chaplains were clear about their religious identities, they saw faith as an open journey, which continues through life. They wished to apply this generosity to the students they meet on a daily basis. One participant noted that while she did not wish to see people breaking off and doing their own thing 'faith starts with a personal relationship with Jesus'.
The Christian Union of Trinity College Dublin: The following issues immerged from time spent in a Trinity CU. worship meeting:
* An institutional messages which opposed forms of individualistic Christianity
* A worship structure which could be interpreted as having an 'individualistic bias'
* Some plurality on how students define Church.
What is the role of Chaplaincy?
DCU: Were quite strong that chaplains were to provide guidance on spiritual matters that pertained to university life, which differed from a counsellor who deals with non-spiritual matters, or a local priest who deals with matters perhaps of spirituality, but outside university life. Chaplains noted similar points, and also noted their role as mediating tensions between faith groups and individuals on campus, e.g. Christian opposition to homosexuality.
MU: students were more general in their views, noting that chaplains are more like counsellors. The chaplains worried about their denominational affiliations or how they are perceived, and how they are to be a ‘presence’ on campus. They also noted their lobbying efforts to provide resources for faith on campus, e.g. ritual washing facilities.
TCD: Christian union students didn’t seem to have much connection to the chaplaincy – we didn’t find anyone who had used chaplaincy services, but we didn’t get to speak to all guests. This echoed the reflections of the chaplains at MU and DCU who noted a disconnect between the Christian unions and chaplaincy services.
Reflections from the Students: Many of the students I spoke to at the gathering were discerning in their understanding of both Church and personal identity. Many students saw their Christian identity as one of match-up with the Bible. Many students told me that finding 'the right Church' was a matter of prayer and Scriptural reading, although there were hints of an alternative model of discernment about 'a Church feeling right'. One participant said she went to different Churches to 'try them out'. She knew she'd found the right Church by 'feeling at home'.
Sermon (Gilly Carson): The Sermon began with showing a cover image from Time Magazine with the title 'Me, Me, Me Generation'. The pastor suggested that a key problem with modern society was its individualistic and selfish focus. A particular concern for the pastor was the notion that contemporary society was overly concerned with the accumulation of consumer goods. This, he suggested left people spiritually empty, anxious and caught in a rat-race. He suggested that Christianity offered an alternative to this status quo. The text under discussion was Philippians 2. The pastor described it as a 'love letter'. He suggested that Paul was describing what was important to a group of people who he cared about. This led the pastor to consider what Paul was saying about how Christians should live now. Key points:
* Love and community is more important than 'stuff'
* Christians should focus on God and not on success.
* You don't need the world's standards in order to be valid and valuable.
Carson ended his sermon by telling the story of a Christian woman from North Korea who suffers for her faith. The pastor used this story to illustrate the proper attitudes of dedicated Christians. Christians should not focus on material things and worldly success but upon love, friendship and spreading the Word .
Interpretation: The Sermon was significant because it revealed what the leadership or theological communicators of Evangelical Christianity worry about. This official narrative identifies individualism as a threat to Christian life and ethics. In this context, students are at the centre of individualism’s material and cultural influence. They need to be taught a countercultural message which challenges 'the me,me, me' orientation.
The Church: All groups raised the issue of the difference between individual worship and community worship, some noting that you cannot bring to the community what you do not have individually, and thus in a sense, the individual aspect of worship may be primary.
The Hymns: During the course of worship, there were a number of songs which explored the theme of God's love. The style of these hymns echoed romantic pop songs in secular culture. Their orientation was individualistic and personalist ('God loves me'). This raises an interesting issue of conflict between an official narrative and theological messages being embraced and transmitted through the congregation.
How this Observations Relate to Previous Research: In key respects these observations confirm elements of previous research in a similar area. The recent publication Christianity and the University Experience (2013) illustrate several elements which overlap with the experience of Dublin students:
* Christianity as Relationship: The research of Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al overlapped visibly with the experience of Dublin students. As they suggest: '[the students] view Christian identity as something primarily shaped by and expressed in social relationships, rather than in assent to doctrine or belief', p. 31 This observation was reflected in the first two settings, DCU and Maynooth. Students stressed belonging, familiarity and personal connection over doctrinal formulas. While correct teaching was an element in the consideration of many students, spiritual support was more vital. The claim that 'the Church could be anywhere' spoke to a group of people who were mobile, post-denominational and theologically fluid.
Christianity and Subjectivity: Christianity and the University Experience (2013) also brought into focus some of the issues which concerned Chaplains, especially the issue of individualism. Research suggests that subjectivity (and the notion of a personal relationship with God) is vital for Christian students across the theological spectrum. As Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al note: 'The elevation of subjective experience in which a vital relationship with God is worked out may reflect the presence of students influenced by the charismatic tradition, or by the broader emphasis upon the subjective found across religious developments in contemporary Britain' (p. 45).
* Pluralism: It is notable that even within a predominantly Catholic context, interaction with Christian students in Dublin (of Protestant and Catholic affiliations) revealed a great deal of diversity in terms of religious emphasis- ranging from a notion of Christianity springing from the Holy Spirit to a focus on the act of going to Church and 'experiencing mass'. It is clear that students are faced with multiple definitions of Christianity and have to find a way of navigating these differences. Some choose a Biblical focus while others are more habitual, preferring familiar forms of worship and community. There were a few students that were more experiential, placing less emphasis upon the Bible or institution. Interestingly theological categories or doctrinal disputes played very little part in the way these students understood their Christian identity. As Matthew Guest, Kristin Aune et al observe: ''The present-day pattern is one of reconfiguration at the popular level and while the process is not undefined by established tradition it is also characterised by an unprecedented blurring of boundaries, informed by a common cultural experience of cultural and religious experience. Christianity' is a category which is being rethought and reconfigured in ways which challenge conventional definitions we might consider normative.' (p. 33).