By day, the University of Southern California’s Taper Hall echoes with the sounds of students rushing to class. But at night, the sound of music, specifically worship songs emerge from the lecture halls. Various religious and spiritual groups meet regularly in classrooms at night to worship together.
One such group is USC’s Kristos Campus Missions, which meets weekly with the intention of helping students follow their Christian faith in college. With a guest pastor, bonding activities, and even a worship team complete with guitars, keyboard and drum set, KCM draws hundreds of students looking to share in community and engage with their spiritual faith.
“It was comfortable and the people were also welcoming,” says Nicole Park, a USC and KCM alumnus. “Most of the people in the freshman class – had really tight relationships, even though they just met in KCM, and I wanted that for myself.”
But don’t call them a “church”. Rather, they prefer to call themselves a “parachurch” ministry that spans multiple colleges because of their work on sending students on missions while also connecting them to local churches. However, KCM’s faith-based activities compete with the growing trend of college students leaving spirituality behind.
Now independent, students have no obligation to pursue their faith while questioning how religion or God fits into their worldview. With Christianity in particular, young adults struggle to see its relevance in light of issues like divided politics, war or violence, according to KCM’s liaison pastor.
“I think a lot of that has to do with them not understanding the answers Christianity has for a secular world,” Yuma Takei says, the assistant pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. “I think the world is trying to find answers to the brokenness that we see, the sense of hopelessness that there is.”
For those who keep their spirituality, KCM is one of the spaces for students to spend time with their peers and their faith. “We’re a place where we can really just be a place for unbelievers and also believers to gather together, to really build up a community, but not as a church, but as a parachurch ministry,” says Juel Park, the president of USC KCM.
KCM’s general meetings include a worship and prayer session along with a message from a guest pastor. But throughout the week, they also have other activities such as small group meetings for freshmen and even outreach events like giving out free matcha at the Village crosswalk.
It is one of over 80 different religious groups at USC, but the reality is that the experience of faith for a large percentage of students is constantly shifting.
According to a study by Lifeway, about two-thirds of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.
“I know a lot of friends that grew up at church with me, but once they get to college, it’s your own faith,” says Juel Park.. “At that point, your parents don’t force you to come to church because you don’t live with them anymore.”
This is furthered by both historic and persisting abuses among various religious institutions that leave young people disillusioned with spirituality. According to Takei, many of the criticisms towards Christian churches are actually valid, but to him, it is a problem that does not need to affect the personal pursuit of faith.
“The reality is all of us are imperfect, all of us are weak and have mistakes, and that’s also reflected in the church often,” Takei says. “Yeah, the people who critique the church, their critiques are often correct… [but] I think that we have something outside of us that gives us answers that we’re seeking.”
Within a generation of skepticism, it seems unlikely that major religious movements could arise spontaneously. But anomalies do exist, even on university campuses.
In February, Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, saw students refuse to leave a chapel after a regular event, sparking an unplanned, nonstop service full of worship, prayer and preaching that lasted for 13 days.
Dubbed a “revival” by some, it was compared to the Jesus People Movement in the 1960s, which saw a sudden rise in young people, hippies, unhoused and other marginalized community members joining church in a time where a cultural shift saw many fall away from faith.
While this event paints Christian revival as a large-scale religious movement, this perspective is not the same across the board. With secular schools like USC, something like the “Asbury Revival” would be even more improbable.
Because of that, KCM’s perspective on revival is rather different. Instead, they emphasize something that is more personal and intimate to one’s faith.
“I think the type of revival that we’re praying for is that [students] that have hardened their hearts to the love of God and instead they pursue worldly means of finding fulfillment in life, that they would realize that God loves them so much,” says Rachel Yoo, a visual arts and media core member of KCM.
Still, the final decision to connect with Christianity and their spirituality is left up to the individual and their personal motivation. Nicole Park reflects on what drove her to continue her faith in college after moving to L.A. from Seattle.
“In terms of my faith, I was at a point where I knew that moving to L.A., I still wanted to find a church. In my adolescence I really struggled with identity and where I wanted God in my life and how much I wanted him to be a part of it.”
This sense of faith is something that informs students’ community and the choices they make throughout college life. Although KCM provided a supportive environment to Nicole Park, she says that branching out to others beyond her spiritual circle actually improved her faith.
“You’re surrounded by people who say they believe in the same beliefs, but when they act differently, especially in college, then you start to be more judgmental of others,” says Park.. “I really wanted to pursue relationships with people outside of the Christian bubble, so when I did my work study, I really tried to make as many friends as possible and in my dorm as well.”
College, beyond academics, is a place where ambition, heritage and faith become increasingly defined by the student’s experiences and point of view.
When it comes to spirituality, some students seek out groups like KCM to connect with their peers and with their faith. “Revival” continues to be a subjective word and ultimately brings to light the complex issue of college students navigating faith. Whether they find their identity in community or God, it is their faith that brings about a personal, spiritual experience unique to them.
“I realized I went through a really hard time in high school and God was my only comfort,” Nicole Park said. “He continued to not only be my comfort, but like a hope for me and [he] gave me a purpose in life, and I thought that I just wanted to continue pursuing that.”
Revival from the lens of the Korean American church
Compared to other Christian ministries at the University of Southern California, Kristos Campus Missions has something that sets them apart: their demographic.
KCM was originally founded as Korean American Campus Missions with the intention to serve Korean American Christians at universities. Their location at USC places them in close proximity to Los Angeles’s Koreatown, home to one of the most widespread churchgoing communities with statistics citing 115 Korean churches in its 2.7 square mile perimeter.
With growing discussion of spiritual and religious revival following the so-called “Asbury Revival” in February, there is the question of how cultural background influences the perspective on faith.
According to KCM liaison pastor Yuma Takei, Korean American culture has a profound impact on their practice of spirituality.
“Even with stuff like revivals and Korean culture, revivals are very normal,” he says Takei. “They happen all the time and they seek after it, and so that informs the way you view revivals and whatnot and even your own individual faith.”
At least for KCM alumna Nicole Park, Korea’s history with Christianity is something she can personally relate to.
“There was a movement in Korea to really push sending missionaries out, and so being missional and sending out missionaries to different countries played a huge part in its theological foundation,” says Park, “And that really struck a chord with me.”
However, KCM changed their name in order to remove the sense of exclusivity that came with an ethnic label. Although they maintain a predominantly Korean American following, they look to reach out to people of all backgrounds.
“There’s a very complex thing behind Korean churches, especially in Southern California – everyone is really closely knit and there’s like a very specific culture in Korean churches,” says Rachel Yoo, a visual arts and media core member of KCM. “That means we would only be able to reach out to Korean people, and obviously that’s not our goal as Christians – our [goal] as Christians is to love everybody.”