Campus Ministry Insights
By Chuck Bomer
A past student of mine, Tim Shontere, is now a missionary in a tribe out in Papua New Guinea. I was recently chatting with him about the process it takes to actually reach the core of the tribe he’s in. There is a minimum 3-5 year process of getting to know the tribe’s culture before they even mention the name Jesus. The reason is because he has to understand how their social system works, how they function (and don’t)…he has to understand their worldview. Why? Well, first of all they need to understand the connotations their worldview places on words. By getting to know the core group of this tribal system they have a much great chance of being a part of transforming the entire tribe.
For instance, if they talk about Christ being a sacrifice these people can think of all kinds of different things. In other words the word “sacrifice” could carry all kinds of connotations for these people that could actually distract from/distort the biblical meaning. As missionaries they need to understand ALL of these things if they’re going to accurately portray the gospel message. They have to understand the system of thought. If not, they could actually undermine the entire mission.
Why is it that we as college ministry leaders feel like we’re an exception? Why is it we feel like we can just walk on a university campus, throw an event or something, and think that’s all we need to do? Is it possible that without even realizing it we’re actually undermining the core group of that system – and possibly our mission? Shouldn’t we know the core of that system before we just jump in?
If you truly want to reach a campus, here are some thoughts:
1. Get to know the people at the core of the system: administrators and professors. Maybe you ought to spend 3-5 years building relationships with the right people in the core of the system before you ever mention the name of Christ. The truth is that every campus has some Christian professors that are trying to reach the campus in some way. Not seeking the advice of these types of people could actually undermine everything God has been doing on that campus through them before we marched on with our immediate results mentality. Maybe they had a long-term objective of reaching that campus. It would be like you or I going into that tribe in Papua New Guinea to put on an event – without even knowing it we could undermine the life long commitment of the missionaries.
2. Have a long-term perspective. We too often want immediate results and thus create events designed to attract a certain number of people. This is a short-term mindset. We have to build relationships with the right people if we’re going to truly penetrate things.
3. Check ourselves. Do we really think we can reach an entire campus without at least some of the core of that system being on board? To me that just seems arrogant. It just doesn’t seem right to not work alongside some of these professors – who frankly are much smarter than we are. I have a Master of Divinity degree. That means I have some education in regards to theology. I also have somewhat of a grasp of philosophy and some other subjects. However, there are Christian professors that have spent their life thinking about how the gospel message plays out in higher education – and most in a specific area of higher Ed. The reality is they’ve probably thought about some things we haven’t. We can’t be so arrogant to think we could do a better job than them. Granted, some campuses have fewer believing Christian professors than others, but I don’t think that changes my point.
Now, let me list out some of the balances to the above statements. So, here are a few things I’ll add here that may balance some things out for you:
1. I know I worded things as an either-or issue in part one. I did that on purpose. However I don’t think this is an either-or issue at all. My point is to get those of us who don’t even think about connecting with what God is already doing on the campus before just marching in with our own agenda’s. The reality is that there are Christian’s in the “core” part of the “system” that God is already using. I think we need begin to think more about connecting with what He is ALREADY doing and come alongside of that instead of just charging in.
2. We cannot ultimately undermine God, but we can undermine some things He’s done in the past through others. Let me explain. Lets say you’ve been spending a ton of time with a co-worker. You’ve learned this person, their thoughts and experiences, and because of the time you’ve spent with them have a really good understanding as to why their perspective of Christ is off. You’ve been walking with this person for a year or so now, seeking to help them understand the gospel. Then, someone comes in and “preaches” to them – totally turning them off to any further discussion with you. Would you not be upset…at least a little? Sure, maybe you help them understand that the message that was preached is still the message they need to receive. But surely there could be some damage done to the process you’ve been in with that person. At the end of the day we embrace the sovereignty of God, but that does not mean that the process God had you in with that person wasn’t thwarted to some degree. This is what I’m trying to get us to think more about. Not that it’s wrong to begin a brand new ministry on a campus. But we ought to think much more about joining in with what God is already doing on a particular campus. This, my friends, is not a waste of time -but it does take some time to understand. Maybe 3-5 years is a bit of a stretch (again, I used those #’s on purpose to initiate thought), but taking a certain amount of time to understand what God is already doing and joining in that with unity is not a waste of time – or being unfaithful. I think it’s quite the contrary.
It’s simply trying to tune in to what God is doing, being sensitive to the Spirit, and working in unity with the body of Christ.
3. James 4 speaks about the arrogance of going into a town with a plan of our own. I think we need to be very careful of our arrogant attitude and approach. Some college campuses are much larger than towns or cities. I think this certainly applies to this context. In addition I am also issuing the thought here that maybe it’s not the Lords will for you or Ito begin a new ministry on a particular campus, but instead join in with what He’s already doing there. This, unfortunately, is typically not something we even give the time of day.
Here are 4 final thoughts I want to throw out on this topic:
I. Pursuing unity. Students are only on a campus for 4-6 years, so there is limited time. So, there is a sense of urgency we ought to have with bringing the gospel message to them. But first of all, this does not automatically excuse us from
“being diligent to preserve the unity of the body” (Ephesians 4), including those members of the body of Christ that are on faculty or the administration side of the “system.” It’s one thing to say we’re not living in disunity, it’s another to say we’re being diligent to preserve unity!
2. Dig deep into our hearts. We have to be very careful and dig really deep into our heart motivations! Too often our ministry becomes about getting people to come to our ministry – but of course we would rarely say this. But we can see our heart motivations in one thing: what we do when they graduate? Do we put as much energy into making sure they connect with a church body when they leave as we did trying to get them to come to our ministry? If not, we’re missing the whole point and we have wrongly placed our ministry above their spiritual health.
3. Overturning the system. The university system, in general, is not a God-honoring system. In this regard, I would say I would love to see God overturn the system. But how do we do it? I don’t have all the answers, but what I can say is that in all the years of our “march in and do our own thing” without bringing any of the “core” members of the university system into the mix, certainly hasn’t worked. The reality is campus ministries more often than not compete with one another in an unhealthy and unnecessary ways with who God is already working through on a particular campus. There are some ministries that are in unity with others which is phenomenal. We ought to pursue these partnerships much more . Unfortunately I don’t think being unified with what God is already doing is our first objective. More often than not, our sinful desire takes over and we rationalize building our own empire.
4. Urgency to our mission. There ought to be a sense of urgency as believers…but with a condition: that our urgency isn’t about us getting another “notch” on our belt of someone else that has seemingly accepted Christ. Frankly, too often evangelism is about our pride rather than about the salvation of souls. We might say our heart is for the person we’re trying to reach, but then too often we issue a count of the people that were “saved,” or the amount of baptism’s we were a part of. To me, this is more of a “notch” thing, than a Christ thing. There was a time in which a long time friend did his best at articulating the gospel to me and I confessed my sin before God, excepted His forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice and I also, at that time, told the Lord I wanted to honor Him in everything. But fully embracing the gospel message in my life takes time and is much messier than that prayer or when I was baptized. I’m thankful to one commenter that talked about walking with people after their initial decision to follow Christ is made. Simply counting the amount of prayers or baptisms is simply an American way of measuring success, not necessarily Christ’s way of measurement. You can easily see in the gospels that Christ did not judge success by the number of people that “confessed” to believe!
The reality is I think there is a difference between our mouth and heart. I think if we opened up our hearts we scream a different story than our mouth articulates. The university is a mission field and we ought to view it that way. Mission is not about us, it’s about the people we’re trying to reach. Its not about making ourselves look good, it’s about doing what’s BEST for those we’re trying to reach. It’s not about avoiding disunity, it’s about diligently preserving it. We cannot do this without bringing the other believers on a campus into the mix.
From the Simply Youth Ministry newsletter: www.,s-implyyouthminist corn July 2008