Presbyterian Bloggers Unite // Campus Ministry

April 1, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Religion, Young Adult 

81This is the first in a new series of monthly blog posts from Presbyterian bloggers on various topics.   For more posts on this month’s topic, go to Presbyterian Bloggers Unite // Campus Ministry.

This month’s questions are:

  • how have you been personally impacted by CAMPUS MINISTRY?
  • what future commitment are you willing to make to support CAMPUS MINISTRY?
  • what are the greatest hopes and challenges that you think face CAMPUS MINISTRY in the future?

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How have you been personally impacted by Campus Ministry?

Personally, I was negatively impacted by Campus Ministry when I was a college student.  It’s a long story with good information for those involved in campus ministry or who are responsible for supporting it.

In the fall of 1986 (yes, I’m old) I was a new freshman student at Rutgers University.  I was specifically enrolled in Rutgers College, the main liberal arts college.  At the time I was heavily involved in church, serving as the youth member of Synod Mission Council and the Synod Nominating Committee, having just finished a summer on staff at Camp Johnsonburg, and having just resigned as a Deacon in my home church (because it’s hard to serve from college far away).  I came to college knowing that I’d end up leaving it either on the track to ministry or on the track to a computer career.  To that end, I enrolled in Computer Science and Religion courses in my freshman year, and I’d decide later which was my major.  At Rutgers the “main” campus is actually 5 campuses on either side of the Raritan River in the New Brunswick area.  The Rutgers College classes were mainly on the Busch (sciences, in Piscataway) and College Ave. (original campus) in New Brunswick.  I live on Busch my freshman year.  My classes were about evenly split between those campuses freshman year.

The Rutgers Protestant Campus Ministries was located (if memory serves) on the College Ave. campus.  We had campus buses that went back and forth, with a trip between Busch and College Ave taking 15 minutes to 40 minutes depending on traffic and which bus you took.  I’m the lazy sort and instead looked for an option available on the Busch campus.

On freshman move-in weekend, campus organizations had set up booths outside of the Busch campus student center.  I found two Christian organizations there – Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.  IVCF was giving away ice cream (a brilliant move on a hot late August day).  I looked at both, and the folks at IVCF just seemed friendlier.  I should note that the Rutgers Protestant Campus Ministries folks had sent me a flyer in the mail either to my home over the summer or in my campus box (I don’t remember which).

I started attending the IVCF meetings on campus (Sunday evenings, I think – when my old youth group had met).  I soon discovered that these folks had a VERY different theology than I did.  I was taught that Paul’s “be not unequally yoked” meant that we should not be friends with Jewish people unless we were trying to convert them.

I attended their fall retreat in October.  This was a retreat out in the woods of Pennsylvania, a drive of at least 90 minutes from Piscataway at a Christian camp.  The experience was rather cult-like to me.  The first 24 hours involved the attempts by the leaders (and even the other participants) to criticize my strongly-held mainline more liberal beliefs.  It began with the other students in my cabin, and as time went on I found that successively higher leaders took an interest in my “case”.  Around Sunday morning of this retreat I figured out what was going on, and started saying the “right” things.  This led to Sunday morning worship, which I believe involved what was probably an altar call (though I didn’t realize it at the time).  All I knew was that I was profoundly uncomfortable, my beliefs were being questioned and derided, and I was a long way from “home” on campus with no way to get there on my own.  I said and did the “right” things to get home.

After returning to campus I never had anything to do with this IVCF chapter again.  I’ve since been told that other IVCF chapters are nothing like this and that the Busch chapter at Rutgers was known in the late 80’s as having issues with how it was run.

Ultimately, this experience was 1/2 of the reason that I ultimately left the church the following fall (a departure that lasted 18 years).  The other 1/2 involved some odd things experienced at Synod council and the main Synod meeting, which I have written about.  I chose Computer Science as my major, and started taking Eastern religion classes to fill out my minor.

So for me, campus ministry was a profoundly negative experience that ultimately hurt my faith and relationship with God.  It’s clear to me that this is because I was involved in the WRONG campus ministry.

What future commitment are you willing to make to support Campus Ministry?

One of the biggest problems in the PC(USA) church is the graying of the church.  This is happening for one simple reason – our young people are deserting the church in droves, and failing to return “on schedule” when they are married and have children of their own.  Some youth are lost after confirmation and I don’t think Campus Ministry can do much there other than try to get them to return.  Many others are lost when they go to college and the connection to their home church is broken.

I currently work with the Senior High youth at my church.  As I have the opportunity, I encourage our youth to find a Protestant campus ministry.  When the personal connection is strong enough, I’ll even seek out the campus minstry opportunities at their soon-to-be college and recommend that they get in touch with one.  I encourage them to find one that works for them, even if it isn’t the Protestant or Presbyterian ministry.  I also give them some idea of the theology to expect at each (determined by the organization’s national statements or what is found on the local website at their college).  I do warn them to be careful of those whose outward persona may not stand up to a deeper look (the friendly recruiter vs. the reality).

I believe that a strong campus ministry is a necessity if we want to reverse the loss of membership in our churches and denominations.  Unlike some, I do not believe that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the church and the culture at large.  Regretfully, the loudest Christian voices insist that there is an incompatibility.  We in the mainline churches need to out-shout those who are driving our young people away from the church with their highly judgmental and exclusionary theology.

In my position, there’s not much that I can do to directly impact campus ministry.  I plan to keep on keeping on – to let my students know that there is a place for Christ at college, but to be careful of wandering into the wrong place.  I also plan to continue to push for support of campus ministries where I have influence.

What are the greatest hopes and challenges that you think face Campus Ministry in the future?

Problem 1 – the negative stereotype of Christianity popularized by those who are anti-Christian and those Christians who follow a judgmental and exclusionary theology.  We lose more potential Christians to bad behavior by ourselves – both our more fundamental and outspoken brethren (like the Westboro Baptist folks) and by our own internal fighting (like the current fight in the PC(USA) over gay ordination – which most young people consider settled in their own minds and a silly fight).  Put make it plain – Christianity as a whole creates its own worst publicity.  Campus Ministry has to fight a battle for the hearts and minds of students that is more uphill than it needs to be.

Problem 2 – the changing nature of spirituality in young people.  I’ve been reading Youth Ministry 3.0 by Mark Oestreicher.  He describes the changes from Youth Ministry 1.0 (your parents’ or grandparents’ youth rallies and crusades in the 50’s and 60’s) to Youth Ministry 2.0 (your experience of youth ministry programs – the herd method of youth ministry) to Youth Ministry 3.0 (today, where it’s all about relationships, communion, and authenticity).  Youth Ministry today will be more one-to-one or one-to-few, and less about the “big program”.  Campus Ministry needs to take that a step further because you can’t even assume that your students have the same starting point.  Some will come to Christ for the first time in college, others will drift in and out, and still others are so committed that they are essentially on the seminary track. Individualized ministry will be what’s required.

Problem 3 – money.  Put simply, churches and higher governing bodies are short on money.  As people are squeezed by the economy, churches, presbyteries and other higher bodies are going to be squeezed.  And let’s face it – campus ministry has never been a high funding priority for the church controlled by adults older than college age.  The biggest fear that I have is that we’ll give up and stop funding campus ministry completely.  Campus ministry needs MORE money and more help on campus, not less.  Along with this problem goes the age-old problem of results.  How do you quantify the change in a student’s spiritual life?  How can you, when the change may not become apparent for years?  How do you satisfy those who want to see results for their dollars?

Opportunities – Problem 2 is both a problem and an opportunity.  By keeping ahead of the shifting sands of ministry to these Young Adults, we can both stem the tide of losses and bring others to God.  That’s what we’re here for, right?