One of the topics Scot has emphasized of late has been the future of our church and the importance of youth ministry – defined to cover anyone from 12 to 30 or so. We have been discussing an aspect of this issue in the context of campus ministry. Many students hit the University with a sound but unsophisticated faith and find the intellectual challenges intense and damaging – others try to witness within the environment and are unable to defend the faith in a convincing fashion. Many more have little or no Christian background – the campus is an important mission field. In the last post I suggested that University ministries should focus on the special, intrinsic challenges and opportunities of the university for students and for university graduates. This is one of the major points John Stackhouse made in his article on University Ministry. Here I would like us to consider three specific “action items” – items that I think could help university ministries prepare students to face the challenges of the future.
I am interested to know what you think – especially those involved in a campus ministry or outreach, either in a local church or through a parachurch organization.
I think that there are three features that should be considered in an effective university student ministry, the first two from Stackhouse with my own revisions, observations, and reflections added, and the third my addition – but consistent with his recommendations.
(1) Appropriately trained staff. Campus ministries require staff who are special people with special training, rather than generic Christians doing generic Christian work that just happens to be on a campus.
I have a friend who spent many years in University ministry working with undergraduate students. He has observed that many students expect to be able to enter the classroom and stand up for the faith – but are outgunned by faculty who “know their stuff.” An unsophisticated understanding of the faith simply won’t cut it. Too many campus ministry staff members are not equipped themselves to help students to handle the challenges. How can a staff member with a BA in business and no specific training in theology, church history, or biblical studies help a student face the Ph.D. scholar in comparative literature, philosophy, Ancient Near East culture, or neurobiology?
Formal training can be expensive. Stackhouse acknowledges this but challenges those Christians engaged in campus ministries to get the training they need and, if they are leaders of such ministries, to require such training and to help their staff get that training.
Even in the absence of a formal degree program the staff should be encouraged to engage in some form of continuing education. Distance learning through quality on-line courses would be a reasonable move in the right direction – and these days many good programs exist. But be sure to study the skeptics, not simply the safe scholars. Read widely. Be professional. Know your stuff – or at least be working on it. It will bring confidence and respect and gain a better hearing for your message.
I know that some organizations already encourage training. Everyone I’ve interacted with in InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries has had at least a Master’s degree in some field and several have had Ph.D. degrees. For that matter, several of those who have commented on this blog from the Campus Ministry side of the equation have advanced degrees. This is not a revolutionary idea.
(2) Partner with faculty and administrators. Campus ministries often have leadership teams – boards and advisors. Whenever possible such leadership teams should draw on professors and administrators who understand what it means to be a Christian citizen of a university.
Campus ministry workers should go out of their way to interact with Christian faculty and administrators on campus. Have coffee, pick their brain, ask advice, talk about general issues and the atmosphere. Do it regularly. Build a network. It will strengthen your ministry by providing insight and understanding you’ll never get any other way. No – you won’t agree with everything you hear, and you shouldn’t take all the advice you’ll get, but you will have a much better foundation for your own work. You may also do some good by providing intelligent Christian contact and conversation for the faculty who are often isolated both on campus and in the local church.
There is another side to this as well. I’ve learned a great deal from the conversation of those in campus ministry on this blog and from the occasional talks at the local coffee shop I’ve had with current or former campus ministry workers. It provides me with a different perspective on the University experience and helps me be a better presence on the campus myself. The benefits don’t all flow one way.
(3) Be broadly ecumenical. Campus ministries should be broadly ecumenical – if there is any place where we need to stand together under the big tent these days it is in the atmosphere of our secular Universities.
I received an e-mail after my first post in this series from a Christian faculty member at a major west coast university. He reflected that the situation on his campus is very balkanized. The most active Christan groups are closely linked with various ethnic groups, mostly Asian, and seem inwardly focused. The Roman Catholics do their own thing by themselves. The evangelical ministries are worried about boundaries and wary of the big tent approach. He ended with a reflection that the Jewish academic presence is far more visible on his campus than all Christian ones combined. I have to say that I have seen similar symptoms myself at times.
Local churches can provide the nurturance of a specific denomination or flavor of Christianity. Let campus ministries provide a broader focus and understanding, or at least let them cooperate for the greater good. This will allow students and scholars to develop a
more robust understanding of the faith – one that will have a better chance of standing the challenges of the future. It will also provide a Christian presence on campus. Don’t worry about “contamination” – train students to think, teach them about the faith, build disciples. Educate, don’t indoctrinate.
Any thoughts on these ideas or additional suggestions? Feel free to shoot me down if you think that I’m off-base somewhere.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
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