ST. LOUIS, Mo. --More than 46,000 Christian college students recently attended major ministry events across the U.S.
Passion 2010 in Atlanta is known for its emphasis on spiritual renewal. Urbana '09 in St. Louis is known for its missions orientation. But this year, both conferences focused on social justice issues, tapping into a trend that could mark ministry for years to come.
Youth watchers call them the "Justice Generation" -- students who are committed to faith in Christ and meeting the physical and social needs of the world.
Literally thousands of Urbana students signed up for seminars at the Dec. 27-31, 2009 conference focusing heavily on social justice. Leaders say that interest reflects what they're seeing on university campuses.
"What we're seeing is the first American generation that sees themselves first as global citizens and as American citizens second," said York Moore, an evangelist for Intervarsity Fellowship, the conference's sponsor. "We're seeing an American generation that's waking up to justice in a radical way."
Is Justice Changing Ministry?
For Intervarsity, the growing interest in justice is changing ministry. Moore says students need to be convinced that Jesus is globally relevant before they'll consider whether He's personally relevant. To that end, Moore is practicing what he calls "justice evangelism" -- proclaiming Christ and practicing the Kingdom at the same time.
What does it look like? Moore is organizing a anti-trafficking event at Ohio State University in April, to encourage those who would not normally consider Christ to see the connection between justice and Jesus.
At Urbana, CBN News found justice generation students in droves, their passion for justice driving decisions about where they'll work and live and how they'll find meaning in life. Nursing student Lauren Buehler plans to work with HIV/AIDS patients after learning about their plight on her college campus.
"In Acts, it talks about reaching people to the ends of the earth--the poor, the sick, the needy," Buehler said. "It's very clear who Jesus reached out to so if I want to truly follow His way, His example, that's the people I would like to reach."
Film students Emmanuel Saddora and Mikkel Aranas recently produced a short film on poverty. They hope to create more features with social justice themes.
"The temptation is to live a life for yourself and do everything for yourself and have a good job so you can buy this and make a lot of money so you can do stuff for yourself," Aranas said. "The social justice stuff that's happening around the world has opened my eyes and has really broken my heart."
Liz Byer just graduated and plans to live in a poor neighborhood to reach her neighbors for Christ.
"You can lose sight of Christ in our commercial world and with all the material stuff" she said. "And I'm interested in just having a really simple life."
Captures Attention of Barna and Other Researchers
This justice generation has caught the attention of researchers like the Barna Group which has a study underway. Barna and other youth experts caution against putting too much stock in the movement. They say these young people are not mainstream and their passion may be short-lived.
That thinking doesn't fly, however, with campus leaders like Wayne Barnard, who oversees 250 campus chapters for the non-profit International Justice Mission.
"I think from an early age there's more volunteer and service happening," Barnard said. "Students are engaging in their local churches. So they're growing up with a sense of justice, the idea of both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment--so this integrated whole gospel of both good news and good deeds."
Could the Justice Calling Really Eclipse the Gospel?
Many evangelicals worry this justice calling could eclipse the Gospel, as it has in the past. Intervarsity agrees that's a concern.
"Historically we do see the propensity of the church to replace the gospel and our emphasis on evangelism with social justice," Moore said.
The focus on social justice issues is nothing new for evangelicals. It sparked the founding of humanitarian groups like World Vision after World War II and ignited a generation of activists in the 1960s. But Urbana leaders say this generation is different.
"The activism we're seeing today is global," Moore explained. "The issues we saw in the 1960s were much more internal."
David Batstone leads the anti-trafficking organization Not for Sale and spoke at the Urbana conference.
"This generation is much more pragmatic," he explaied. "In fact, they don't resonate with established denominations or political parties. They want to see what works, what solves the problem--how do you get that water well working?"
Will Justice Mark a Generation?
What remains unknown is the breadth and depth of this movement. Will current passions fade or will they mark a generation?
Mission experts say watch for the justice generation to make its impact. Humanitarian mission groups will likely flourish. Incarnational ministries, those that emphasize living among the poor, are also expected to grow.
Youth leaders like Barnard say watch for this movement to stay.
"The passion that I'm seeing is not like a summer camp experience, some mountain-top experience that students have and then it tends to fizzle," he said. It's deep rooted in who they are."
For Lauren Buehler, it's a passion that's driving life decisions right now.
"The lessons that I've learned here and the Scripture based that I have here I can take to combat HIV/AIDS whether it's in my neighborhood or in a village on the other side of the world," she said.
It's students like Lauren that could change the face of missions and development as many have known it. That's why many are watching and waiting to see what happens next with the justice generation.