MOBILE, Ala. (BP)–Imagine a world where God doesn’t matter, salvation is irrelevant and the simple act of praying before a meal is something done only in the privacy of a home.
That world is closer than people think, University of Mobile campus minister Neal Ledbetter said.
“We are living in an increasingly post-Christian culture,” he told college students as they prepared for the Baptist university’s month-long Youth Hostel Missions program.
The summer backpacking trip across Europe takes students out of their comfort zone in south Alabama, where evangelical churches can be found on nearly every street corner, and places them in a world where beautiful cathedrals are viewed more as museums than places of worship.
It’s a world in which God isn’t so much rejected as He is ignored.
“The culture here has absolutely no desire for Christ at all. So this trip will not be successful without total reliance and faith in God,” T.J. Joy of Enterprise, Ala., wrote from Amsterdam.
Joy, who graduated in May and serves as the school’s campus life coordinator, was part of a 10-member team who spent 32 days in May and June traveling to 14 cities across Europe for one purpose: to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to unreached people. Team members wrote about their experiences online.
Ledbetter, who is responsible for the campus ministries program at the University of Mobile, started Youth Hostel Missions in 2005. The idea was part of the university’s multipronged response to the Great Commission. Since then, 30 students have participated in the intense summer program, which includes 14 weeks of advance preparation such as Bible study and prayer.
“We’ve been commissioned to go and represent Christ in order for God to make His appeal through us. We have a mission, and it’s the same mission as the early church,” Ledbetter said during a campus life Bible study series called “Green Means Go.”
The teams go to Europe, Ledbetter said, because what is happening now in Europe is heading toward the United States.
“We have slowly been removing Christian teaching and doctrine from our country for decades. It’s very obvious in government, when they take prayer out of schools and people fuss over the Pledge of Allegiance or having ‘In God We Trust’ on our dollars,” Ledbetter said.
“But you also see it in our own lives, when we begin to separate the secular from the spiritual. You see it when we begin to live like our faith is only relevant on Sundays, when we compartmentalize and don’t live our faith at our jobs or in our families. So we are slowly taking Christianity out of our country and privatizing it,” Ledbetter said.
He recounted one youth hostel trip when a student spoke to a woman on a bus in Amsterdam. She inquired about the team’s practice of praying before meals. Where she lived, that was something private, only done in one’s home, she said.
During the trip, students stay at low-cost youth hostels, where an estimated 1 to 2 million college-age travelers stay each year. Most travelers are seeing the world during their gap year — the transition year between high school and college — or between college and starting a career.
“All are on a physical journey. Many are even on a spiritual journey asking difficult questions of life in an attempt to ‘find themselves,'” Ledbetter wrote on the mission website. “Every day is a new adventure as students encounter people from all walks of life wrestling with very important issues. Through those encounters, students will have ample opportunity to point out how Jesus meets their deepest needs.”
The key, Ledbetter said, is to listen.
“Do you actually listen to people when they talk, or are you waiting to correct or teach or preach?” he asked the students.
By taking time to listen to the stories of each person’s life, team members can help people understand their personal stories and experiences in light of the Gospel.
Chase Alford, a business major from Semmes, Ala., wrote a blog post about Jerome from Quebec.
“You know, I have always heard there are people around this world that have never heard of the gospel, but for the first time in my life last night it became a reality and there he was sitting right across from me,” Alford wrote.
Several days later, Alford saw Jerome again. Their first conversation had sparked a long list of questions from Jerome, from “What is the Gospel” to “Can a person have meaning and purpose in life outside of Christ?”
“I’ve never in my life seen a human being so intrigued by the Bible. He would pick it up, look at it, flip through it asking us to explain different things to him,” Alford wrote. “God is moving and will not be stopped, he is not bound by our borders. He brought a French person from Quebec to a hostel in Amsterdam where he would sit at a table across from two guys from Alabama and hear the gospel for the first time.”
The international trip also can be an eye-opener to the spiritual needs within the United States.
Ledbetter had prayed for an opportunity to talk with Jason from Seattle, who was traveling across Europe with his girlfriend. They stood in the lobby of a youth hostel in Italy, surrounded by prints of famous old master paintings depicting the stories of Abraham and Isaac, David and Goliath and the Last Supper.
To Ledbetter, these were stories of faith. To Jason, the portrait of Abraham and Isaac was simply “a painting of some guy about to kill someone.”
It was the wide open door the campus minister had prayed for, a chance to tell someone about God. Through the biblical stories depicted in the paintings, Ledbetter shared the life-changing story of Jesus Christ.
Jason said he had never heard any of that and didn’t grow up with the stories Ledbetter told him, and he enthusiastically received the news.
Bethany Arndt of Crystal Lake, Ill., a University of Mobile graduate who participated in last year’s trip, said she still keeps in touch with Anastasiou from Greece, Chrissy from the United States and Sarah from Germany.
“Sarah is now walking with the Lord and it has been such a blessing to be able to encourage her and continually build her up in her faith,” Arndt said. “That all started because I intentionally sat next to her in the hostel lobby one night and just truly wanted to get to know her and her story.”
Kathy Dean is director of public relations at the University of Mobile. For more information, visit www.youthhostelmissions.com.