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ERIC Burton felt God urge him to plop down at the table next to the young Indiana State University student sitting alone in the student union building.
Small talk that day led to a big friendship between Burton and college junior Aaron Jackson. It turns out Jackson was battling a severe drinking problem that once led to alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party.
“But he already had started making changes and was really searching,” Burton said.
For stability. Deeper meaning. A more structured life.
Jackson said he found all that a month later when, at Burton’s urging, he made a commitment to become a Christian.
“He is why we do all this,” said Burton, 29, a missionary associate for the nonprofit Chi Alpha, a college outreach of the Assemblies of God.
Burton, a Hope native, is just one among many college Christian ministry personnel poised for the beginning of a new fall semester — and a new push to reach students with Jesus’ message.
“Many of them have never really heard the Gospel presented to them in a clear way,” Burton said.
Burton is a preacher’s kid. His father, the Rev. Randy Burton, pastors at Columbus’ Northview Church, where Eric frequently played drums in the praise band or ran sound.
In 2012, he moved to Terre Haute to minister at Indiana State University.
Beginning this fall, his duties will cover all Indiana campuses.
People such as Burton become key players in the faith community for college students facing extreme independence and a host of temptations, perhaps for the first time in their life. National Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life statistics from 2009 showed that 43 percent of college freshman attended church regularly.
By junior year, that figure dropped to 25 percent, according to Pew.
The Rev. Richard Woelmer has been pastor of University Lutheran Church at Indiana University in Bloomington for 19 years. He’s seen plenty of incoming freshmen struggle with their newfound independence — and what that means for their spiritual health.
“Even if young people have been a good churchgoer before leaving home and a strong member of a church youth group, they quickly realize at college that there’s no one to get them up on Sunday mornings (for services),” Woelmer said. “So I know they can very easily slide into a pattern of thinking that says, ‘Hey — this is now my time.’”
One danger of no longer participating in worship is, of course, falling away from the faith, he said. That can in turn make especially younger students more susceptible to temptations, resulting in bad and selfish decisions.
“Actually, the eventual consequences for some people can be serious and mind-
boggling,” Woelmer said.
Columbus’ Tom Rust, founder of the national Face to Face sports ministry and former chaplain for the Indiana University men’s basketball team, remembers purposely visiting with incoming freshman players or transfers when they first arrived on campus in the summer.
“There were so many temptations for them,” Rust said, referring to drugs, alcohol and sex.
But he noticed another obstacle: confusion or depression for the high school stars now viewed as “just another body” on a talent-laden team.
“I think maybe just as important is when those players faced the mundane, the loneliness and depression of no longer being seen as the top dog like they might have been in high school,” he said.
Burton understands the sudden pressure of the college atmosphere. His first roommate at Muncie’s Ball State University partied extensively and proclaimed to the teetotaling Burton, “I’ll have you drinking by the end of the year.”
He was wrong.
“But I have seen some well-meaning Christian kids come out of a strong high school youth group and somehow get to college and fall apart,” Burton said.
Most of those, according to Burton, never linked with a Christian church or student group when they transitioned from their protected home life to the free-spirited college world.
But Burton refuses to believe a concept of collegians interested mostly in sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
What research says
“I found a Barna Research report the other day that said this generation of students are hungrier spiritually than many have been in a very long time,” Burton said. “They’re looking for something real, and they’re trying to find their purpose.”
If they’re serious about that, Burton encourages them to link with a ministry such as Chi Alpha, which trains students to speak and minister to their peers. A big focus is long-term relationship building for general friendship and support.
Burton laughed when asked what might have happened had he opened his conversation last fall with Jackson by using Scripture.
“He probably would have looked at me like I was crazy,” Burton said. “Now, understand, if the Lord actually led me to do it that way with someone, I definitely would do it.”
Jackson recently posted a dramatic testimony to his turnabout on his Facebook page.
“I just realized,” he said, “that this was the first time everyone that celebrated my birthday with me was sober. That alone is an amazing, priceless gift. Thank you, God!”
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