Reclaiming College Students for Christ

Curtis Martin’s FOCUS Targets Young Adults in «Critical Decade»

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GREELEY, Colorado, NOV. 5, 2003 ( Curtis Martin was raised in a Catholic home, but by the time he went away to college, he was struggling with his faith. Strong Christian friends brought him back to Christ, and eventually he re-embraced the Catholic Church.

His faith experience in college inspired him to establish a safety net and evangelization resource for Catholic students during their «critical decade» when they make major decisions and often lose their faith.

Martin started the first FOCUS, or Fellowship of Catholic University Students, at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, in 1998. Now the program has been established at 18 schools nationwide. It boasts close to 2,000 members and is strongly endorsed by prelates such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Archbishop John Myers of Newark.

Martin shared with ZENIT why it’s so important to invite young adults to know Christ and his Church during their college years.

Q: What is the purpose of FOCUS, and what compelled you to start it?

Martin: The purpose of FOCUS is to present the fullness of Christ’s teachings to the young leaders of today so that they, in turn, will train, equip and mobilize others to extend the Lordship of Jesus Christ to every aspect of life. FOCUS exists to reclaim the hearts and minds of college students for Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.

Even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I drifted from an active faith in Jesus Christ. It was through the invitation of some men I met in college that I recommitted myself to Jesus as Lord of my life. These men were wonderful committed evangelical Protestants; they taught me many important things about the Christian life.

With the help they gave me I began to see that the Roman Catholic Church possessed the fullness of Christ’s teaching and that it was in fact the Church Jesus founded. Once I returned to the Catholic Church, I had a deep desire to see Catholic students who were equipped to thrive on the college campus. FOCUS is the result of that desire.

Q: Why is campus ministry so important in the life of a Catholic?

Martin: The college years are part of what has been called the «critical decade,» that time between the ages of 15 and 25 when young people make most of their major life decisions. Unfortunately, the years at the university are a time when a devastating number of students fall away from their faith.

Crisis Magazine reported in 2001 that by the end of their freshman year alone, half of the Catholic students who entered our nation’s universities stop practicing their faith. By their senior year, up to nine out of 10 have drifted away from the Church. At the very time when young people are making major life decisions regarding their career and the rest of their lives, they are away from the very person who can give them the most direction: Jesus Christ.

FOCUS offers students a meaningful invitation to know Jesus Christ and to make him the Lord of their lives during this critical time. FOCUS provides valuable faith, team, moral and social experiences for the increasing population of Catholic college-age adults throughout the calendar year.

Beginning as a freshman in college, these experiences provide a source of positive activities and faith stimulus to grow in their Catholic faith, to improve their relationship with Jesus Christ, and to maintain their health and fitness as they grow in teamwork, sportsmanship, fair play, cooperation and leadership.

Increased self-confidence and leadership are but just a few of the many intangible benefits FOCUS offers to young adults of today. The result is lasting happiness, a sense of calling and true meaning in whatever Jesus Christ calls them to do.

Q: What are the key ingredients in FOCUS, and how do they meet the needs of college students?

Martin: FOCUS is a national outreach to college campuses, both to Catholic and non-Catholic schools. Our missionary program and services are targeted at bringing the fullness of life and truth of the Catholic Church to college students. Through small groups on campuses, we provide tools to help students share the good news of Jesus Christ and his Church with their friends.

We deliver our program through large group leadership training, team evangelization, small group Bible studies, and one-on-one discipleship. FOCUS hires recent college graduates, trains them and sends them out in teams of four to evangelize on the college campus.

College students need a sense of belonging; they are seeking community. Small-group Bible studies of six to eight students are little Christian communities in which the members learn together, challenge one another and grow in their ownership of the faith. They meet weekly and are led by a FOCUS staff member or trained student leader.

St. Paul urged his disciple St. Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, «What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.» That is what discipleship is all about — not just teaching the faith, but teaching others to teach.

Bible study leaders mentor many of the students in their Bible studies, using the model of heroic generosity Jesus and the early apostles used. In discipleship, students are encouraged to grow in virtue and prayer, and are trained in leadership, to be able to take the faith out to their friends and the rest of the campus.

Our large group events are a place for brand new students to get a non-threatening introduction to the Christian life and a place for student leaders to be challenged. FOCUS missionary staff invites students who show leadership potential to organize large group events on campus, featuring skits, music, testimonies and a short teaching.

Our goal is spiritual multiplication: We want to win students over for love of Jesus Christ, build them up in their knowledge and love of the faith, and send them out to find others, so that they can start the process all over again.

In this way, not only the campus, but also the culture, will be transformed. Jesus Christ is the one who came to change the world, so we know that it is possible through him.

Q: What kind of growth have you seen in FOCUS, and to what do you attribute that growth?

Martin: We started on one college campus in 1998 with 24 students involved and one staff member. We are now on 18 campuses in 11 dioceses with 63 full-time staff serving on campus. Nearly 2,000 students are involved in our program. Each year we receive more requests for campus teams than we can fulfill.

This growth has happened in just six years. I attribute our success to the time being ripe. There is a hunger out there. By God’s grace, FOCUS is playing a vital role in the new evangelization for which Pope John Paul II has called.

Q: What differences do you see in college students today compared to when you started FOCUS?

Martin: The greater change is what I see since I was a student myself. Students today have a greater hunger for truth and they are eager to seek and find lasting friendships.

They don’t have the agendas that many from a generation ago did. In many ways the relativism and hedonism found on most college campuses actually makes our job easier; students today want more. Our minds were made for truth and our hearts were made for love — you see much of that on many campuses. The students respond when we present the truth in love.

Each year we have a National Student Leadership Conference with special guests and practical breakout sessions. We could be looking at anywhere from 800 to 1,000 students this year. For many, it’s one of the most memorable experiences of their college years. It’s extremely heartwarming to see their hunger satisfied and the building of lifelong friendships on display through out the weekend.

Q: Are there any campus ministry strategies t
hat might be adaptable to parish life?

Martin: Each of our three key components can be done anywhere. Small-group Bible study, one-on-one discipleship and large-group meetings can all work to enliven the hearts of the members of every parish community.

Spiritual multiplication needs to happen not only at the campus level, but in the parishes as well. There are thousands of people out there who do not know Jesus Christ. Every Catholic needs to be won over to Jesus Christ, built up in the faith and sent out to bring in more into the fold.

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