‘What is the church to do?’

Citing studies on the mental health of college-age students, UKirk executive says we must understand ‘the water they swim in’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

UKirk Collegiate Ministries Director the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane says for today’s college-age students, crossing over to adulthood can seem like they’re on a suspension bridge over an abyss. (Stock image)

LOUISVILLE — According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, “Mental Health & COVID-19,” one in four people aged 18-24 has seriously considered death by suicide in the last 30 days.

“One in four, think about that” said the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane, executive director of UKirk Collegiate Ministries. “What is the church to do?”

Norris-Lane asked this question last week at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE) annual gathering, during her one-hour workshop, “College: An Oftentimes Rickety Bridge from Youth to Young Adulthood and How the Church Can Help.”

But before answering that question, she said we need to understand “the water they (people 18-24) swim in.”

“Students in this age group are experiencing a cultural phenomenon that is fundamentally different that when I graduated from high school in 1989,” Norris-Lane said.

the Rev. Gini Norris-Lane

She said these are just a few things that people who work with youth and young adults know about the class of 2024:

  • Through the fiction they read, the voices they hear and through emerging artists, they will explore race relationships beyond Black Lives Matter into a deeper understanding of how whiteness has shaped bias and influence in contemporary American culture.
  • Those in design and fashion will be thinking about Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and socially-distanced safety with a growing awareness of the need to design and create spaces differently.
  • For incoming students, the world political stage has always been post-9/11. Vladimir Putin has always been the leader of Russia. “This floors me,” Norris-Lane said, because she remembers when “the wall (Berlin Wall) came down in 1989.”
  • Just two-thirds of this generation identify as exclusively heterosexual.

They have witnessed:

  • Diversity in the American political system with the election of a Black president, a Black female vice president and Disney’s first Black princess, along with the rise of BLM.
  • A Catholic pope visiting a mosque in the heartland of the Arab world. Norris-Lane said this is very different from when she was young, as Catholics and Protestants didn’t sit or eat dinner at the same table. But now they’re at the same table, along with siblings of different faith traditions in North America and around the world.
  • Major threats to the health of society created by the international pandemic and the global climate crisis. At the same time the value of science in our national dialogue is increasingly questioned, which can be incredibly disorienting for college-age students.

It is also a chaotic time in the students’ life of faith. Referencing James Fowler’s “The Stages of Faith Development,” Norris-Lane said students are beginning to ask, “What is it I believe in about this faith that I’ve been given from the church, my parents or even friends?”

“So,” Norris-Lane said, “they’re asking about both religion and science, ‘Is it true? Is it true?’”

And the added chaos from the pandemic’s isolation and social and economic uncertainty has only exacerbated the already worrisome mental health trends among college age students around anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders and addiction.

Generation Z is exhibiting and experiencing mental health issues on a fundamentally different scale,” she said.

Isolation and social and economic anxiety from the pandemic have only exacerbated already worrisome trends among college aged students. (Stock image)

Yet, in the midst of these struggles, as a collegiate ministry leader Norris-Lane hears and sees college students asking three questions: “Who am I?” “Where do I fit? “What difference do I make?” These “ultimate questions,” she said, are about personal identity, community belonging, and purpose in the world.

“One of the things we’re seeing on college campuses and church youth programs is that one-on-one time with our students has completely skyrocketed,” she said. “And these one-on-one conversations and mentoring are much more important and take much more time than they did even five years ago.”

As she reflects on these changes in campus ministry, Norris-Lane is particularly intrigued by what she learned at the 2010 “Extraordinary Lives Symposium” at Baylor University. While acknowledging it was a “lifetime ago,” those studying positive behavior identified five traits that students who were doing extremely well had in common: hope, perseverance, curiosity, zest — which Norris-Lane said can be understood as management of their energy, or rest — and compassion.

“One of things we know about youth groups is that they bring conversation and experiences of these traits into a young person’s life,” she said. “Not only do we talk about the hope of our faith in Jesus Christ — there is a Good Friday, but Easter is coming — but also how this hope means that tomorrow can be better than today.”

These youth groups also create curiosity, she said, by not only talking about being co-creators with God, but how young people have the ability to see something and address it.  And through service projects and mission trips they understand the need to be compassionate.

Below are resources from Norris-Lane’s presentation to assist churches and youth/young adult leaders as they intentionally care for those on the rickety bridge on the journey into young adulthood.


UKirk Collegiate Ministries

Refer a Student to a UKirk Network Ministry

Christian Formation  

(Scroll down to Quicksheets produced in collaboration with UKirk)

What’s Next After Youth Ministry?

Five Cups of Coffee: Discussion starters for asking questions about calling and discipleship


PC(USA) Financial Aid for Service Awards

Mental Health

National Association on Mental Illness

Update on the College Student Mental Health Crisis


The Forum for Theological Education (for young people)

Every Parent’s Guide to Helping Teenagers and Young Adults Thrive in their Faith, Family and Future (Fuller Youth Institute)

After College Transition: Thrive After College


Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church

The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years

Career and Calling: A Guide for Counselors, Youth and Young Adults

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