A funny thing happened...

   A funny thing happened on the way to campus.  Well, it was not really all that funny...and it did not happen on the way to campus, but it did happen on campus.  However, subsequently I have occasionally thought about it on the way to campus.  I know, I know… 

   Nonetheless, I have noticed in those reflective moments, that over the years some changes in the way undergraduate Christian campus ministries form themselves and reach out to non-believers.  Hopefully, we can learn a thing or two from thinking about those changes.

   The changes have been taking place for years, in some cases over decades of time, so some of the changes are easy to miss if you are relatively new to the Christian scene on campus, or if you haven't been paying attention to its evolution.  You may ask, how does that affect me as a Christian professor at a secular university?  Let me explain. 

   First, I want to briefly call your attention to several of these changes that include 1) a change from the predominance of a "campus ministry" style of ministry to the predominance of a "youth ministry" style; 2) a change in the way the great things of the gospel are communicated; and 3) a change in the way the truth of the gospel is defended.  Then I want to show you why these changes are relevant to you as a Christian professor on campus and the difference it can make on how you conduct yourself.  That awareness can help you to form your Christian faculty fellowships/networks in certain ways and thus have a determinative influence for good, especially regarding the rationality of the Christian faith.

                         "Campus Ministry" Contrasted With "Youth Ministry"

   One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in the last 45 years of campus ministry (divided between ministry to undergraduates and to faculty) is the change in undergraduate ministry from a “campus ministry” style to a “youth ministry” style.  In the former case, there was a much more of a ‘reach the campus’ for Christ mentality through stages of growth in the movement, as the leadership of the movement developed and eventually attracted larger numbers other Christian students.  There was a strong emphasis on finding and building new student leadership, through recent converts to Christ that joined the fellowship.  Those converts and others who joined began to form a movement. Its student leadership grew spiritually and in ministry skills through conferences and personal training.  The original ministry starters had to be very strong in evangelism and apologetics.  They had to exhibit patience, sometimes for many years, in order for the size of the movement to really gain momentum…but when it did, the impact was remarkable.

   In the latter case that I mentioned--the "youth ministry" paradigm--there is a greater emphasis on attracting a large group initially and using that momentum to build leadership.  The means to gathering momentum, almost from startup, involved regular large and high momentum meetings—we used to call them "dog and pony shows."  It meant organizing great music, having or training great upfront leaders, great use of technical facilities (projection equipment, Powerpoint or Keynote software use).  What was different from the former was at the beginning there is much less demand on “seekers” in terms of commitment to the goals of the movement, other than to show up and join the fun.  A key was having inspirational and visionary speakers on a regular basis to point the people in the right direction and keep the momentum going.  

   Both kinds of ministry have their strengths and weaknesses—there is more than one way to skin a cat.  However, the thing to see is that there has been a very large shift away from the ‘campus ministry’ paradigm towards the ‘youth ministry’ paradigm of campus ministry.  There are a number of sociological reasons for the change and they include things like: easier entry point for believers on campus to join a movement, lots of momentum with the right kind of entrepreneurial and charismatic leadership, and as the number of evangelical ministries on campus multiplied in the 80's and 90's it became more and more the flavor of choice in ministry style.  It became the flavor of choice for so many campus ministries because it seemed necessary in order to survive the competition of sudden and fast startup evangelical types of ministries—they seemed to be popping up on so many campuses in the United States.  

   Christians on campus often opted the "feel good" social situations rather than for the challenging and demanding ambiance of the old campus ministry paradigm. The old style campus ministry thereby lost the extra students that were attracted to their meetings before, but were now going to other meetings. That evolution brought about a larger and larger body of involved Christians on campus, but now they were spread out into many smaller ministries engaged in survival competition. The result of the smaller groups is that it was very difficult for any of them to get the momentum that was more easily obtained in the less competitive past.

                                 Engaging Non-Believers with the Gospel 

  A second momentous change was how people were engaged with the gospel on campus. From the 60's and through most of the 70's and even beyond, the main means of evangelism on campus was through individuals sharing their faith with non-believers using little booklets that had diagrams to help people understand the basic propositions of a distilled gospel message.  It took some training to master how to use the booklet, but many people came to faith by this means of communication in the US and around the world.  

   There was also a group dimension to this methodology, where trained speakers who had mastered the propositional content of the Christian message of the gospel took the initiative to speak to many social and leadership groups on campus.  A method used less often during this time was what could be called an exploratory Bible study where a leader would form a discussion group with non-believers.  There was training on how to start and lead the group and what to say and more importantly what to ask and how to ask good questions.  Many people came to faith in Christ by this means as well.

   Those methodologies still go on, but one of the big changes that has come in more recent years involves less sharing of the propositional elements and truths of the gospel and more encouragement to introduce and involve non-believers in the community life of believers.  From involvement in the group context, non-believers are thought to come to understand what the gospel means by the situations and attitudes of believers within the group.  This new methodology has the feel of socialization of a non-believer into Christian fellowship where the importance is given to relationships and community.   

                                      Defending the Truth of the Gospel

   A third way things have markedly changed in evangelical undergraduate ministry is an increasing disinterest in using propositional and polemical “arguments" to defend the truth of the Christian gospel. This change is in some part due to the trend among evangelicals to do less proclamation evangelism in favor of what is described above as a more “socialization" of non-believers into Christian communities.  

   One of the fascinating sidebar issues is that in the 60's and 70's on campus there was precious little availability of top-level apologetic material in the evangelical community.  There were some tracts about historical evidence for the resurrection and maybe the most serious piece of scholarship that evangelicals pointed to at the time was F.F. Bruce’s Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?  

   That situation has changed over the last forty years! There has been a renaissance among evangelical scholars producing quality apologetic materials and instances of Christian scholarhsip in the disciplines—too many to cite.  Now there is a larger and much higher level of sophistication found in Christian scholarship that evangelicals can point to, much of it written by converts in the 60's and 70's who went on to earn seminary degrees and Ph.Ds. in particular disciplines at secular universities.  Some of these went back to teach in seminary while others joined secular school faculties, but some of the best from this era were highly productive in terms of producing an increasingly sophisticated defense of the gospel.  Despite this encouraging turn of events there has been an ironic disinterest among some campus ministries in using those new resources!  

   Now how does all this—the three shifts we have talked about—affect you?  I think it affects you in at least two ways.  

   First, there is a trickle “down" or at least a trickle “out" influence from the ambiance of undergraduate student ministries on faculty people like you.  Some of you might have grown up in post-secondary academe and were involved in one of the evangelical ministries on campus.  Those types of experiences can profoundly affect how we see things thereafter regarding the style of ministry.  Most likely, we simply gravitated to places where we felt comfortable with the people and style of things.  In the earlier part of the era I’m talking about, there were only a few choices among evangelical groups, now there are literally dozens of choices

   Second, many Christian faculty have spoken at student meetings on campus or have become faculty sponsors of campus Christian groups and those experiences continue to shape our knowledge of what is going on in the evangelical undergraduate ministries.  We simply build on those experiences as we think through what a ministry to university faculty  might look like.  

   Now we are getting down to what I want to say about this: as Christian faculty on secular campuses, you have a profound leadership role in the larger campus Christian community.  Christians and non-believers will look up to you because of your academic achievements as they would look up to any professor who makes it on their campus.  As an academic person, you have also been trained to investigate and form opinions over a range of paradigms—not just refining the latest.  What an opportunity for you to increase your future influence by becoming a better and better student of these trends, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the differing approaches.  This will equip you to best influence people and the things that maximize the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses of any particular approach to organizing ministries—including faculty ministry.

   I am not saying these histories of change only reveal a matter of preference among us, but often they do.  However, in the case as to whether increasing levels of sophisticated apologetics and sophisticated Christian scholarship in the disciplines are important or not seems to me a different thing.  It is hard for me to see where faculty leadership or a faculty ministry on campus can completely set aside this issue because to do so is to make the most vulnerable on campus—the undergraduates—very vulnerable indeed.  It therefore behooves Christian professors to take defending the rationality of the Christian faith very seriously.


aconnectionsi@gmail.com © Academic Connections, International