For Such a Time as This

By Steve Moore

Our world is in trouble. The global village in general and the United States in particular are experiencing tensions and turmoil which threaten humanity at every turn.

Higher education is in trouble. While controversy and cutting edge thinking have been a part of the fabric of college life since its beginning, the very garment of the university is unraveling. Institutions are struggling to identify their mission while trying to figure out how to care for deteriorating facilities and define what constitutes an education.

The church is in trouble too. As Dorothy Sayers commented, “We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him meek and mild, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. Those who knew him, however… objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.” With aging clergy and parishioners, bloated bureaucracies are having to face the realities of change or perish.

The Church’s Neglected Treasure

Across the country boards, bishops, and church bureaucrats in need of budget savings, have asked if denominational campus ministry has run its course. It has been suggested in some quarters that the church should turn her energies and resources elsewhere, the belief being that the attempt to provide ministry on college and university campuses is a dying enterprise.

At a recent meeting of one denomination’s church leaders, a pastor commented, “For a generation we abandoned ministry on campus, leaving it to those who couldn’t make it in the local church. Now we are trying to figure out strategies to recapture the ‘baby boomers’… the very group we neglected.” Maybe the question we should be asking is, “How do we reach today’s college students?”

Unfortunately, the recent history of campus ministry in the mainline denominations is not a bright one. After the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, many campus ministries became the church’s institutional dumping ground for the incompetent, the unappointable, or the socially maladjusted. Working from “social activist” or “presence” models, many campus ministers spent their time telling the university how to do its business and abrogated their own responsibilities, thereby relegating campus ministry into obscurity or irrelevancy. Seeking to be prophetic, some campus ministers became addicted to confrontation and controversy and forgot about evangelism, leadership development and spiritual formation. When the campus cultures and church began to cry for ethics, values, volunteerism, and servant leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, many denominational campus ministries found themselves bankrupt and ready to go out of business. Having married the issues and trends of a previous generation, they found themselves widows in the current age.

Fortunately, the campus was not totally lost. Seeking to fill the void on campus, many churches created vital church based campus ministry programs. As well, “parachurch” ministries began to be created to fill the void and respond to the spiritual concerns of many students. One national consultant in higher education sadly observed, “I’ve been on over 300 campuses in the last ten years and I’ve found less than a dozen vital, growing denominational campus ministries.” He went on to say, “The religious life, if there is any, on most campuses is dominated by parachurch groups.” Nonetheless after three decades of steady growth and involvement, the changing world of the new millennium has brought parachurch groups to ask hard questions about mission and ministry. The failure to respond to the increasing diversity of the campus and the increasing challenge of raising funds to support staff and “headquarters” are pressing those groups to do some serious soul searching and strategic planning for the future that is now. Campus ministries of every kind are coming together recognizing that the challenge of the future requires a whole new way of thinking about reaching the campus.

The time has come for the church to vigorously and strategically review its campus ministry. Such a review is essential to the renewal of campus ministry as well as the future of the church. A church is not much helped by campus ministry professionals whose love for campus ministry leads them to shield it from life-giving criticism. Neither is it helped much by critics without love, skilled in demolition but unskilled in the arts by which human institutions are nurtured, strengthened and made to flourish.

John Gardner tells a story about E. A. Sothern, the great nineteenth-century actor. Sothern was observing a small boy who wanted to go outdoors to join his older playmates but feared they would not accept him. When the children started to return to the house, Sothern said playfully, “Let’s hide behind the curtain and they won’t know where we are!” The boy looked a him disconsolately and said, “Suppose they don’t care?”

The fear of campus ministry is that the church doesn’t much care. The reality is that the church cannot afford not to.

The University’s Forgotten Resource

Just as the church cannot neglect its “frontlines” of campus ministry, neither can the university afford to forget about this important program. Hardly an issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the weekly digest of American college life, goes by in which there is not at least one article concerning volunteerism, ethics, values, or student impact and retention. Throughout higher education today, colleges and universities are being taken to task at every turn as they seek to address issues and concerns of society, balance budgets, and retain students. Unfortunately, in far too many cases administrators and faculty alike have ignored, avoided or forgotten about a key resource which, if fully utilized and recognized, would enhance the mission of higher education. This resource, oftentimes operating at no direct cost to the institution, is most frequently staffed by extremely well-qualified and credentialed people who serve the institution’s constituents in a multiplicity of ways. That resource, of course, is campus ministry. It comes in many shapes and sizes, sometimes it has buildings in the campus proximity, sometimes it has none. It is sponsored by denominations with broad based programming and parachurch groups with specialized objectives. Consistently, however, on campuses throughout the U.S. (and elsewhere), there are campus ministries which stand as a vital resource willing and able to contribute to the issues and needs facing higher education today. Campus ministry is, in reality, much more than just bible study and fellowship groups.

Take, for example, the issue of volunteerism. Some educators act as if the idea of public service came from a brainstorm at a national conference. It just so happens that campus ministry is the child of perhaps the greatest volunteer-service organization known in history, the church. At many universities, campus ministry groups involve students in soup kitchens, food banks, inner city housing renovation, juvenile delinquent rehabilitation, homes for battered women and children, care for the elderly and disabled, tutoring programs, and international student community orientation, just to name a few volunteer projects. Through campus ministry groups, hundreds of students and faculty have traveled overseas each year to build and staff medical clinics, aid in agricultural and economic development, and provide educational assistance. Campus ministries provide career guidance and counseling, leadership development, academic courses, crisis counseling, study/learning skills development, and social opportunities too numerous to name. They provide lecture series which tackle substantial issues such as world hunger, apartheid, AIDS, religion and science conflicts, and contemporary issues in medicine, law and business. It is not unusual for campus ministers to have provided or co-sponsored concerts and other events in the university’s program arts series. The impact which these opportunities have upon student retention, as well as educational and personal development is immeasurable.

In spite of all of these contributions, some university officials are still nervous about campus ministry. “What about separation of church and state, academic freedom, pluralism, and other commitments important to the university?” college officials might ask. While each of those concerns deserves to be addressed in more substantive ways, let us suggest three observations about campus ministry’s contribution which can help campus educator’s understanding of our contribution to university life.

First, the particularity of the mission of campus ministry does not negate its contribution and presence in an arena purported to welcome a plurality of world views. It is time for higher education to overcome its paranoia about religion and recognize that no person may lay claim to being educated without possessing an understanding of how religion influences and shapes culture. The campus ministry groups with which we are most familiar foster tolerance, mutual respect and individual dignity; much needed qualities on campuses where racism and intolerance seem to be on the increase.

Secondly, campus ministry can aid students in the process of integrating values into their lifestyles and work ethics. Society has observed how education without values often produces exploitive careerism and unharnessed ambition. As James Laney, former President of Emory University, once observed, “In our understandable honoring of the freedom of others, we have allowed our students to conclude that we don’t much care.” To speak of the integration of the values in education does not necessarily entail being ideological, moralistic, or indoctrinating. Rather than evacuate the field of values and meaning altogether, universities should recognize the arenas, such as campus ministry, in which students and faculty can contemplate and integrate such concerns.

Finally, campus ministry can facilitate a sense of community across disciplines and departments which counteracts the dehumanization for which our institutions are frequently criticized. Religion has always been a major force informing our self-understanding, shaping our values, and affecting our relationships-public and private. Institutions can affirm the work and impact of campus ministry upon university life without endorsing or “establishing religion.”

All in all, campus ministry is a resource from which the university can and will greatly benefit. The extent of that benefit can be increased by simple awareness and cooperation. As Frank H. T. Rhodes poignantly reminds us, “We must encourage students to make not only intellectual, but also moral and ethical sense of the world.” Campus ministry is a resource which can help the university and its members do just that.

It is time for the church and for colleges and universities to realize the tremendous contribution that campus ministry can bring to the work of both. In embracing campus ministry, universities enrich the educational experience they seek to provide. By generously supporting campus ministry, the church invests in its future and impacts the present-a present it cannot afford to abandon.

(Not for reprint without permission)

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The Foundation for Evangelism is an affiliate of The General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church.

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