By: Steve Moore
Most of us recognize that theme song (mission impossible) as the music behind the blockbuster movies with Tom Cruise called MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Most of us know the movies are based on the earlier hit TV series that is still in syndication.

In both the TV and the movies the plot was simple :

The future of the free world was hanging in the balance, evil seemed to have the upper hand. Unless a very specially trained team of covert agents intervened, bad bad things were going to happen.

A team of special agents were identified and given the objective that was so secret and so clandestine—-you know —the leader of the mission received the message about the mission that would always start with a phrase that has become a solid part of pop culture, (say it with me)

” Your mission, if you should choose to accept it..”

and then the message would self-destruct in 60 seconds…

Then cutting edge technology, precise planning, artful teamwork and an unusually large dose of cleverness and ingenuity would come in to play and the world would be saved by the hair of our chinny chin chin.

Though any metaphor can be taken too far, I have found myself humming this tune more than once as we have prepared for this summit on the future of united Methodist campus ministry.

Are we faced with a mission that is impossible? Or are we at a point where something amazing just might be ready to happen?

Several months ago I had one of the most unusual experiences of my life. I was invited to go to china and to help teach leaders in the underground church. After flying in to Hong Kong for a briefing and orientation, we flew into chendu, china… a city of 6 million people! Now I have to confess to you, I had never heard of chendu china! And there are dozens-dozens of cities in china like chendu. From chendu we went by public bus to mayong china, a city of 600000 people. It is where most of china’s nuclear bomb assembly takes place. A city of lots of scientists etc. Now I have to confess to you , before my trip, I had never heard of mayong china! And there are hundreds of cities like mayong in china. That is the amazing world we live in.

When we got off the bus we were met , as we’d been told, by a man who took us first by car, then on foot thru a maze of dozens of 7 story apartment buildings. Finally we came to one where we went up the 7 flights of stairs to an apartment where most of the furniture had been cleared out. It would be our meeting space for the next days. No powerpoint, no whiteboards, no handouts…no resources of any kind. The house church leaders from all over the city would show up and crowd into this room and another person and I, with the help of a translator, would teach for 9-10 hours a day!!! And they wanted to keep going….

To give you some sense of context, they now estimate there are between 65 and 75 million members of the underground church. There are 50 million members of the communist party in china… astounding change is taking place in every way!

After 2 1/2 weeks of teaching I was back on a plane headed to Indianapolis because I had to come straight back to speak at a conference of church leaders that was sponsored by the lilly endowment. Needless to say I was in for a little extra culture shock!! Because these experiences came on the heels of one another, I began to ask some questions and reflect on the contrasts between:

On the one hand china and the underground church…

Wildfire growth, leaders in desperate need of the most basic kinds of training

On the other hand

Leaders in the U.S. of mainline churches and institutions with an abundance of training and, compared to the Chinese, an abundance of resources … and many churches and ministries in steady decline!

My thinking was stirred more because of some of the reading I was doing during my travel time and especially on the flight over and back. One of the books I had a chance to read was Malcolm gladwells, Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. You will remember it’s a kind of sociological study of the spread of social movements, diseases and epidemics, cultural trends and ideas. He begins by telling the story of hush puppies. (Now for you southerners-we are not talking about those cornbread and onion balls you eat with catfish)-we are talking about the brushed suede shoes with light soles…

Gladwell tells us that in late 1994 , hush puppies were almost dead

“Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly in rural America and goodwill [and by Paul Ervin...]

The Parent company , Wolverine, talking of shutting down the line of shoes. 2 execs Owen Baxter and Geoff Lewis-à went to an industry show in New York. While there, they met a stylist from New York who told them that the classic hush puppy was quite the hip thing in Greenwich Village, soho and the like.

Then they found out that two hip fashion designers intended to use hush puppies in their s style shows introducing their fall line of clothing…then they learned that on the west coast, a hush puppy boutique was selling shoes like crazy, before they could even have their grand opening- in fact one customer came in and bought several pair-pee wee Herman!!

By the very next year-1996- the company had sold 430,000 (30,000 in previous…) the next year they sold 2 million, the next year multiplied again! Hush puppies were back!

That’s how gladwell opens his book and with it he introduces the three factors that characterize his theses of what leads to tipping points:

  1. The law of the few-A FEW STRATEGIC PEOPLE
  2. The stickiness factor- a STICKY OR COMPELLING IDEA


LETS MOVE from the discussion of fashion trends TO A DIFFERENT and considerably more important CONTEXT-SAY SOCIAL CHANGE-and illustrate it…

We all know the role Martin Luther King played in the civil rights movement, and we also know about Rosa Parks (who just passed away recently) or about ruby bridges-small young girl being escorted to school in new Orleans in midst of an angry mob. While all of those are important …remember strategic people…

But many would say the tipping point came about in an unusual way…a ripe context… Some of you may recall there was an attempt by a relatively small band of civil rights workers to march on from Selma to Montgomery. That was met by police on horseback, water hoses, tear gas and a brutal show of force.=most of us have seen that historic video footage…actually captured by accident…

An ABC news camera caught some of the footage that was then shown the next night during one of ABC’s prime programs- the ABC Sunday nite movie. It just so happened that the movie that night was The Nuremberg trials-the stories of wwII and nazi war crimes against humanity— the irony was not lost on America—and many say that was the tipping point in the struggle for civil rights…

Remember his 3 factors?

The law of the few-in a given movement or process some people matter more than others, gladwell says, its usually a handful of persistent, focused individuals-this goes against our egalitarian mindset- but its often the handful of the few…

The stickiness factor-a compelling and right idea grabs our attention and wont’ let go-its like it takes on a life of its own!

And the context factor-the conditions become right and the environment is conducive to support the nurturing and development and spread of an idea.

Think about those factors for a moment… think of fashion trends, think of aids-or now the groundswell to find a cure for aids-or humanitarian response to famine in Africa — think of Bono and his work. Think of the Purpose driven life by Rick Warren – nearly 30 million books sold!

I asked myself as I thought about China, what was the tipping point for Christian faith in China that ignited a fire that has swept that continent? Was it the brutality in prisons that occurred after western missionaries were forced out? Was it these little cells of Christians meeting at enormous risk? What was the tipping point?

Or what of the explosion of the Methodists in America? Where and at what point of those circuit riders criss crossing the frontier did things finally tip … and things took off!

Gladwell is quick to remind us of course that tipping points can be negative as well. For example, think about our UM church and its decline, was it the old German rationalism, enlightment way of thinking that infected our seminaries in the 20s and then crept in to our churches and institutions in the 60s that sucked the vitality out of our faith and left many buying in to the worst aspects of modernism? Or was it , as the pre-eminent American historian-Mark Noll has observed , that point when American Methodism adopted the American form of government as the way of leading the denomination?

What were the Tipping points….?

It’s so interesting isn’t it to look back, examine, and hopefully learn from observing.

Tipping points — a great question to be asking ourselves, not only about our church but also about our lives (think for a moment in your own life-the people the experiences, the moments. I often say the bridge…), tipping points in our spiritual development, in fact you could have come to this summit knowing you personally may be faced with a spiritual tipping point in your life, or perhaps the ministry on your campus! And of course it also leads us to, today – to our summit- to ask some questions about campus ministry and the Methodist church.. and to ask ourselves “might we be nearing a tipping point that leads us into a new future?

I’d like to make a few observations about the three factors that influence tipping points with particular attention to ministry on campus. And then ill finish with what I believe are some strategic principles that must inform our thinking and our work for our future.

First: -context, the environment

I happen to believe that we are in the midst of one of the most spiritually alive times in history. There are a lot of reasons for thinking that, but a visit to any campus and you’ll see signs of spirituality all around. Note: I am not saying Christianity— it’s the day of designer religion, But the hunger for spirituality is ravenous-some say not unlike the first century!

Research on students has shown that in the current academic year, 75% of incoming students have as a top priority for their college experience, to find meaning and purpose for their lives.

Another study said that over 80 % of incoming students hope to learn more about god during their college years . They want to ask questions, to find answers.

Prayer, worship, regular study of religious texts and other spiritual practices are identified by a significant majority of students as practices they want to be a regular part of their lives -during college!

When asked, “What religious concept do you most desire to understand and experience”

91% of women and 84% of men said-would you like to guess— forgiveness!

Now we could go on and on with stats and anecdotes, but I think it is fairly safe to say, there is a remarkable spiritual hunger on campus. One thing is clear, the need and hunger spiritually is great no matter what campus you may be on.

And yet , just by way of example, a call to 15 UM annual conferences around the country and discovered that 9 of those reduced their funding to campus ministry , 5 remained the same, and 2 experienced slight increases. Everyone I spoke to apologized, expressed disappointment about lack of resources and said they were personally “very supportive of campus ministry.”

Friends what we have in the church is not a failure of good intentions. Everyone wants something good to happen in campus ministry and most the time everyone is very polite about it.

We don’t have a failure of good intentions , we have a failure of imagination, dreams and courage and a failure of actions that match rhetoric.

Greg Jones, in a recent Christian century article, called our attention to 19th century architect Daniel Burnham.

“Make no little plans,” he quotes Burnham as saying,” they have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die , but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

Jones goes on to say, ” too often we turn ‘faithfulness’ into a misguided justification for aiming low, settling for mediocrity and remaining content with decline.”

The context is ripe, the fields are white unto harvest-the question is will we respond or whine and offer excuses? Students’ spiritual hunger reflect a deep desire that is present in our whole culture. A desire to understand how their story might connect to a larger story. It’s a tipping point moment.

Gladwell also says, The second factor is a sticky compelling idea.

May I ask you a question?

Do you know of any more compelling idea than grace?

There has never been a time when the distinctives of a Wesleyan understanding of faith would speak more compellingly than now.

Unfortunately, we come across as namby pamby ,wishy washy. We have often not offered radical, biblical grace. What I would call grounded grace, grace that finds its grounding in the cross! We have sometimes offered affirmation or tolerance-both nice qualities-but they are not grace. As James Laney(emory) once observed, “In our efforts to not offend anyone’s beliefs, we’ve given students the impression it doesn’t really matter what you believe.”

In our efforts to have open minds, open doors and open hearts-we have sometimes given some the impression it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. We live in a world for whom the twin supreme virtues are sincerity and tolerance. And while they are commendable qualities, they are not life transforming-they are not the core commitments of the gospel. Life transformation is the work of grace!

We live in a world that daily illustrates that ideas have consequences, what we believe matters. Certainly we want to practice genuine Christian hospitality, we want to support sincerity and openness, but we also want to practice truth.

We must refuse to settle into cheap reductionistic religiousity. We must remain rigorously committed to holding these commitments together in dynamic tension-

That is as Wesleyan as it comes…

Sound learning-vital piety

Personal faith-community faith

Social transformation-individual discipleship

I could go on…

We must refuse the false dichotomies that have been a part of the recent history of our church. Those are old battles, old divisions and inadequate for our future

Another “sticky idea” of the faith is Hope! We must also be people of hope in a world that loudly promotes a discourse of futility

You go to some united Methodist ministry meetings and you’d think you were at a Tim lahaye “left behind” convention. Its like everyone has given up and are waiting for the rapture and end-times. They are hope-less. We are people of hope!

I love what Peter Kucmic, a Croatian theologian said. “Hope is the ability to listen to the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it in the present.”

When I hear of the things happening at Louisiana tech, or university of Arkansas or florida state or ,my alma mater mcmurry university- I get very hopeful

We are a people of hope. Lets live and work like it and be open to what god might want to do in and through united Methodist campus ministries!

(illus:Taxi driver in Seattle)

Gladwell’s other factor is the people factor.

The leadership of the church and the leadership of its campus ministries have got to come to a place where they are willing to say out loud LEADERSHIP MATTERS

Bishops, agency heads, chairs of boards, and others have got to say campus ministry must have our brightest and best , Our most gifted and thoughtful people. We must help the church understand that campus ministry is not youth ministry.(they certainly are related, but different). As well campus ministry is not a holding pen for pastoral ministry. It is truly the church at the front lines of the culture-a strategic mission of the church! A ministry to a unique world-higher education.

In picking campus ministers, We have sometimes valued someone’s ability to rattle off denominational rhetoric and navigating the system more than we have valued vision and character and depth of spiritual commitment. Sometimes our boards of ministry are more like an obstacle course than prep plan for emerging leaders!


I consulted for an annual conference not too long ago on a campus ministry that was falling apart. When I met with the D.S. (who will go un-named) I told him they might want to consider that they make a change in the director. His response was

“STEVE, we didn’t need a consultant to tell us we had a personnel problem, we wanted someone to tell us how we might work around it.”

I know of another instance where a bishop killed the appt of a talented person to a Wesley foundation because she found out the person nominated had been converted in college by the parachurch group, Campus Crusade for Christ. The bishop’s rationale? “We need someone who has grown up and been more of a part of United Methodism..”

Friends we have to get over our phobia of para-church groups like crusade, intervarsity, navigators and the like. Part of the reason they have thrived is because denominational ministries either abandoned the campus or have failed to do our job!

Bill bright (founder of crusade) told me one time that 25-30 % of their support came from United Methodists. Part of the success of These para- church groups is that they focus their resources on people, emerging leaders, staff training and regular intentional spiritual formation of the leaders.

To paraphrase bill Clintons infamous election trail mantra,(its about the economy, stupid) ; we need to remind ourselves “its about the leaders, stupid”

I’ve been in denominational meetings where the ultimate negative comment someone could make was “Oooh , they are just like campus crusade”

I happen to believe we have a lot to learn from these groups and that we need to grow up and realize that they are our partners in the work of the kingdom.

It’s about leadership-

Let me mention three resources for your own leadership development and that I would highly recommend:

The Ascent of a Leader-by thrall and mcnicols-that talks of the necessity of weaving character and competence together.

In the Name of Jesus- by henri nouwen

And Heroic Leadership

So where do we go from here:

One of my favorite writers and thinkers is GK Chesterton.

He also has a remarkable way with words.

He once remarked, “One of the most serious spiritual diseases is thinking one is quite well.”

I think it would be fair to assume that we are not quite well. Not unlike the Apollo 13 mission , we need to recognize and say, “Nashville, we’ve got a problem!”

Now I don’t want to suggest that it’s all Nashville’s problem or that it’s their problem to fix or that there is nothing good going on…our leaders in Nashville are good people, with a desire to serve the church.
And there are certainly outstanding examples of campus ministry in our denomination at Wesley foundations, Methodist colleges, and in some church based campus ministries-many of those are participants in this conference.

But friends, as a whole things are not well! I think we are at a tipping point! The context is right, the idea is compelling and there seems to be a growing number of people who are saying, “I want to make it happen!”

I’d suggest we need to do at least 4 things to help contribute to the future:

1st some strategic people, those who care @ campus ministry must come together and clearly discern the difference between symptoms and root problems! Together they must begin to take some next steps to address those problems.

As important as we may think evaluation tools, certification and general conference legislation may be, they can very easily become solutions that are tinkering around the edges-handed down from some office with very little input from those who are really doing the work in the trenches.

I appreciate and affirm that some are willing to spend their time on these, but simply creating an evaluation form or certifying people will not take united Methodist campus ministry to a whole new level into the future.

We must address root issues as basic as appointment making to campus ministry, board development and new sources of funding just to name a few

2nd we must invest heavily in team building, leadership development, mentoring and networking in the context of an inspiring vision and clear mission.

Intern programs, campus ministry partnerships, training, mentoring and guidance for new campus ministers are just a few of the critical components as we move ahead , if it’s about leaders -we have to get our best people in there and then nurture them , support them and challenge them to accomplish great things.

Or here is an idea… I would propose a mission for campus ministry like:

To bear witness in the campus community to the mission message and life of jesus christ; and to deepen, enrich and mature the Christian faith of college and university students, faculty, and staff through commitment to Jesus Christ and to the advance his kingdom through the work of his people

How does that sound? I hope it sounds good because it is what the book of discipline says our mission is, we just need to do it.

3rd we must provide the very best of spiritual development, spiritual nurture , encouragement and spiritual resources to those doing campus ministry. Let me dare to ask: how is it with your soul? Do you have people in your life who care about your soul?

I have come to believe:

“If we will take care of the depth of our ministry , god will take care of the breadth of our ministry.”

4th We must constantly seek to discover where and how God is at work and join him in that work. I sometimes hear that we need to pay attention to the morale of those in ministry. Peter Drucker reminds us that no turnaround in any organization has ever occurred by focusing on morale. Is it mission impossible? Not for a minute. It is mission very possible.

However if our memories are more exciting than our dreams, we have already begun to die. The future of campus ministry is not the responsibility of the bishops, the general conference, not bhem or bod-not even the local church. Those are all important to the mix, but what is needed is a few people who are willing to say,

“The moment is right , the need is great and I will be a part of making it happen.”

Do your remember the words of the prophet? Behold I am doing a brand new thing, do you not perceive it? It springs forth like a stream in the desert..”Let those who must, despair. Let those who will, begin again.