Reclaiming 'Faith in 3:16' as a message of love instead of fear

PC(USA) collegiate New Year’s gathering at Montreat sets attendance record

January 5, 2016

More than 1,100 students attended worship at the College Conference at Montreat.

More than 1,100 students attended worship at the College Conference at Montreat. —UKirk at Western Carolina University


The largest gathering of college-aged individuals in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) just set a new attendance record.

More than 1,100 students, educators and ministry staff attended the annual New Year’s gathering at Montreat Conference Center. The theme for this year’s College Conference, which wrapped up today, was “Faith in 3:16.”  

“Our focus was to reclaim the well-known Bible verse in John 3:16 as a message of love and welcome,” says Montreat director for programs, the Rev. Katie Cashwell. “Too often it’s been used for hate, intimidation and fear.”

Ginna Bairby, Managing Editor of Unbound and Associate for Young Adult Social Witness at the PC(USA), led a workshop at the annual four-day conference, which began in 2007, called “A Gospel of Dirt” where two main questions were discussed.

“What if we really acted like we believed that God loves the world?” Bairby asked the students. “That God became flesh and dwelt among us? What might we approach—differently?”

In response to these questions Bairby says the students talked about a myriad number of topics including caring for creation, food justice, climate change, farming practices and habitat destruction.

“They also brought up how we treat and what we put in our bodies,” she says. “Body shaming, the way interact with strangers and refugees and way we treat people who are “other”— whose bodies are traditional marginalized [such as] people of color, women, LGBTQ people and those with disabilities, were also topics of conversation.”

Conference preacher Carla Pratt Keyes.

Conference preacher Carla Pratt Keyes. —Joseph Matthews

The Presbyterian Mission Agency coordinator for Collegiate, Young and Youth Ministries and UKirk national director Jason Brian Santos led a seminary track at the Montreat College Conference, spending time in prayer and discernment with five seminarians considering campus ministry as a vocation. 

“It was good to be community with them, to give them tools to discern God’s vocational call,” says Santos, who also hosted UKirk campus ministers at the event.

“It's the largest gathering for college students in our denomination. We welcomed them, let them know they were valued and blessed them. We did a ‘wing-ding’ (chicken wings) gathering that was a whole lot of fun and had great discussion at the UKirk roundtable.”

Students from UKirk St. Louis, a new worshiping community founded in 2015, say being together with 1,139 other students left them feeling “reinvigorated” about their faith.

“It’s given me a lot of hope for the future,” says Sydney Curtis, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis.  “My home church, a historically older congregation, has been struggling with issues of aging.  This conference has made me really happy. So many people want to be and help the world as Presbyterians. 

“It’s awesome,” adds Megan Witt, a senior at Southern Illinois University.  “I don't think the church is dying; it’s changing. It’s been encouraging and uplifting to have this many young people together—during this transition time when millennials are getting older and coming into more leadership positions, learning how to run things.”

Conference preacher Carla Pratt Keyes says she was struck by how “people see John 3:16 in so many different ways.” Yet in these differences she hopes that conference participants take home one key thing.

“That God’s love is something we can’t earn or lose,” she says. “That it’s strength for us when we’re tired, or scared—and that we’re called to channel it to everyone in this world God loves.”


Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Emily Miller and Blake Collins attended the conference, having conversations with college-aged students about opportunities for services in the Young Adult Volunteer program.

  1. God is awesome and His love for us is demonstrated everyday. John 3:16 I have never heard this used as hate speech, I am only 54 years old. God'said love isn't the question, it was the rich young ruler who departed Christ when asked to go and sell all you have, and follow me. We want to do it our way, and anything that doesn't fit our lifestyle is then hate speech

    by Jeffrey Andre

    January 20, 2016

  2. I am hoping that Rev. Katie Cashwell can provide specific examples of John 3:16 being used to foster hate. If no examples can be provided, perhaps she could provide a cogent and logical argument as to how “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” could inspire hate. It seems to me that it is imprudent to belittle and call into question one of the most beloved verses in all of Christendom without a firm foundation for such actions.

    by Stoney Patton

    January 10, 2016

  3. Hi David! Some of the college students at the conference also shared that they had never heard John 3:16 used as a verse of hate, fear, and intimidation. Others had only ever heard it used like that, and still others had heard it used a variety of ways. Some students talked about people who come to their campuses with big signs reading "Repent, Sinners!" and with John 3:16 printed on them and preached and yelled to anyone who would listen that if they didn't repent, turn to Jesus, and stop X, Y, or Z behavior, they would go to hell. Rev. Carla Pratt Keyes, the preacher for the conference, shared in her final sermon about an image she had seen of John 3:16 on a highway exit sign with an arrow pointing one way to "Heaven" and one to "Hell." She talked about the way this text that's really about God's love has been used to incite fear. I think Paul Seebeck sums it up well: In a lot of contexts, emphasis is placed on the perishing part, rather than the fact that "God so loves the world"!

    by Ginna Bairby

    January 7, 2016

  4. In the 'Gospel of Dirt' workshop I believe they talked about some of the way John 3:16 signs are used (i.e., street preachers, others, that draw attention to the perishing part —creating fear, intimidation, hate. Personally, in the church I grew up in the focus in this verse was always "the perishing part" not on the God loving the world part. From as far back as I can remember, even a little child, I felt it odd that I had to be so afraid if God was so loving. Very difficult to overcome, but thanks be the God, it is possible. Hard to admit this but I never really "heard" John 3:17 that "God did not send his son into the world to condemn it" until I was in my twenties as a young adult—again all the focus had been on the fear— the perishing.

    by Paul Seebeck

    January 7, 2016

  5. I didn't know that John 3:16 was being used for hate, fear, and intimidation. Christianity and various aspects, yes, but it's hard to see how you can get "God loves me and hates you" from John 3:16. Do you have any examples?

    by David Anderson

    January 6, 2016