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Missional Campus Ministry 5 (RJS)

posted by Jesus Creed Admin

It has been a while – but the Missional Campus Ministry series will continue on an occasional basis as resources or topics appear.  Today I would like to focus conversation around a recent blog post by John Stackhouse – Campus Ministry That’s Not for Every One.  Here is a brief excerpt… speaking about a visit to the University of Ottawa:

But what I liked the most about working with him in producing several
events on campus is that he is trying to reach the people most campus
groups don’t: the thoughtful, and perhaps even threatening, inquirer,
the smart student or professor who has been asking hard questions of
Christianity perhaps for years and hasn’t found even a safe place in
which to ask them, let alone a place to encounter satisfying answers to

It’s harder to reach these people on campus, not least because many
of them have had previous experiences with religious types and have
been disappointed and offended by the defensive, even
anti-intellectual, attitude they encountered. So they’re not likely now
to show up at a “Free Pizza Night!” to “Hear local pastor Rev. Bill
Jones speak on loving God better!” Rather than having their hard
questions welcomed in the spirit of the university, they have been
marginalized as troublesome party-poopers, spoiling a nice session of
grooving on Jesus. Or perhaps they indeed have been engaged by
Christians, but then their questions have exposed the Christians’
intellectual shallowness, their inability to articulate good grounds
for their beliefs that make sense beyond the circle of
already-convinced faith.

I will like to elaborate on these ideas a bit – focused on discussion of the following question:

What can be done to make an impact on campus – today and in the future, to move beyond “intellectual shallowness” or the perception of such shallowness?

The university or college campus is a mission field in many ways – and the pressures on eager undergraduates on their own for the first time are immense. We need organizations, both parachurch and church-based ministries, that concentrate on mission to the broad populations; ministries that provide a place for Bible study, discipleship, and fellowship.  The broad middle of the student a group in need of attention – and I appreciate the hard work that goes into evangelism, relationship, and discipleship in a wide range of active campus ministries. 

But we need more than this as well. I broached this subject back in April in a series of posts on Education, Discipleship, and the Future that developed off of Stackhouse’s post on Engaging the University.

We need to be able to … “meet the university on its own terms: discussion of issues that matter
in a way that meets the university’s own ideal standards of engagement,
standards of both courteous respect and intellectual rigour.
” (Again quoting Stackhouse)

There are a couple of comments on Stackhouse’s blog as I write this – both good, but one in particular caught my eye: An edited version is below:

I have to say, I consider myself extremely blessed to be taking my
undergrad degrees where I am. … We’ve been lucky in Regina in that
our IVCF staff worker has always stressed the importance of Christians
seriously engaging with the academy at large. He’s made it a priority
to identify academically-minded Christian students and help guide them
in their intellectual development. … By helping
students gain a strong understanding of their Christian faith in
relation to their studies, he’s helped to form individuals capable of
presenting an intellectual Christianity to their classmates and

I remember vividly one of my own professors confessing to me over a
beer that twenty years ago he would never have given Christianity a
second thought. At the time, he said, the Christians he knew seemed
quite shallow, intellectually speaking. But these days he’s finding it
harder to just “shrug off.” The reason he gave? Apparently some
Christian students like myself and a friend of mine … fail to fit his old stereotype of the simple-minded

This commenter also brings up a serious problem, a problem that several commenters on my original series also brought up from their perspective as they work in Campus Ministry.

Of course, the trouble with running an intellectual campus ministry
is that undergraduate Christians (in general) just don’t seem all that
interested in being academically relevant. … One such
Christian student told me a few years ago that, after a week of hard
classes, she just didn’t feel up to taking part in a small group if it
made her think too much. …
applying her intelligence to her faith? That seemed a wholly
unnecessary burden.

Where should we go from here?

From my perspective – having been a graduate student and now as a professor – we have a real problem. There are several facets of the problem – here are a few, you can probably identify more:

1. Many, perhaps most, Christian undergraduate students, even many, perhaps most, graduate students, do not want the unnecessary burden of developing an intellectually robust faith. (And perhaps do not even realize how much they will need it in the future.)

2. Shallow answers and an anti-intellectual approach will not engage the University at its root. It will not impact the serious scholars and thinkers, those who will be the next generation of leaders. More importantly it breeds an arrogance that allows many to simply dismiss faith as something not worth a second thought.

3. There is no safe place for a Christian with serious questions to go for dialogue and growth. This is a problem with two consequences – some simply lose faith. Others, while retaining faith, cannot be a real witness within the academy when they know that they do not really believe much of what they are “supposed” to believe.

4. Many campus ministry workers are themselves ill equipped to engage the hard questions.

I have no answers today…but I would like to throw this open for discussion.

What can be done to engage the smart student or professor who asks the hard questions?

How can we disciple and equip the students who will go on to be professors and leaders? How should we provide encouragement and opportunity for growth?

Do you have any example of successful approaches to share – either from your ministry or from your experience as a student?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

Comments read comments(24)
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posted October 13, 2009 at 8:14 am

This is certainly a situation I find myself in. Through no intention of my own (and I have prayed for deliverance), my ministry, such as it is, has been to the intellectual. They are my own. Several things:
1. Be the change you want to see. Inadvertently, one of the best things I have “done” (I have really “done” nothing) is to confront my over-educated peers with the paradox of an undeniably educated, “intelligent” (from their point of view; from the point of view of what they –and I– value) person who also, undeniably “believes all that crap.” There’s nothing that challenges the stereotypical, knee jerk reaction that Christians are fundamentalist morons than a living breathing example to the contrary. This means, however, a willingness to be both bold and discerning: to be in touch with the Holy Spirit and know when to speak and when to shut up. But you can’t be a witness if people don’t know who you are–if you’re not willing to be a fool for Christ– and I know how scathing this kind of exposure can be–people can’t know that people like them can be Christians.
2. Tillich was helpful early on for me. I never hear him talked about now but the idea that there would be a unkillable truth value to the Christian story even if it were proven factually false really spoke to me as a non-believing college student. It relieved the anxiety of having to sign up absurdity. It was a stepping stone.
The two obvious:
3. Love, love, love. I am around Wiccans and Pagans and nontheists and universalists and etc. enough that I have learned to love them. It can be very spiritually painful for me as well as astonishing–you are a well-educated person ridiculing ME for my faith and you are lighting blueberry incense …to a Glinda Barbie doll (of course, you see, this is non-patriarchal) –but I have learned to love. And I have been humbled–some Wiccans are more pure-hearted and faithful to their gods and caring than many Christians, myself included at times, so what can I say?
4. Listen. Of course. You can’t begin not to offend people with your faith if you don’t know where they’re coming from. I’ve met more pagan types than probably should be the case statistically whose fathers were Christian clergy –think about that. These people have been wounded by the “message,” so, of course, any Christian language at all is a flashback to Nam for them. Etc….

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posted October 13, 2009 at 8:29 am

I believe a large part of the problem is that campus ministries tend to be 1) para-church organizations focused on 2) gathering incoming freshman who are already believers and providing them safe passage through the dangerous waters of the American University.
There may be some attempt at outreach.
I believe that part of the problem is the para-church philosophy. I tends towards compartmentalization of life, faith, ministry, community, mission, etc… by its very nature it does so.
The other part of the problem is a lip service approach to mission. This is not a unique problem of the para-church, and belongs to the church as well. A billboard is a great way to attract Christians from other churches to yours. It is not outreach. I am sure that much of this is innocent enough, after all, our best and brightest leaders are peddling this ‘church-growth’ good-stuff on every street corner…
Sorry if this is overly harsh, but I have had too much ‘Church Growth’ shoved down my throat recently, I can’t get away from it, and I see it tearing down good men and women who are choking on the lies…

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posted October 13, 2009 at 9:12 am

I don’t mean to distract too much, but . . .
You should have found a picture of a college with an ACTUAL football team.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 9:18 am

What can be done to make an impact on campus – today and in the future, to move beyond “intellectual shallowness” or the perception of such shallowness?
Christians need to be reintroduced to a philosopher who has been one of the intellectual underpinnings of the church since its inception: Plato. No philosopher is more relevant to today’s discourse than ol’ broad shoulders.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 9:36 am

I think a big part of the answer is for those who work in campus ministry to read and for the students to see you reading. If we want our students to engage, we need to engage also. This means reading philosophy, theology, and other books that are academic. While practical ministry books or books on how to be a better Christian do have a place, I recognize that in working with college students I am in an academic setting. Reading deep books is part of my job. This helps show the students by example the value of intellect in Christian life, especially when things from these books show up in my teaching.
When I am blessed with students who desire to pursue a more intellectual faith, I am able to recommend books that will help them in this and provide answers, or at least point them in the proper direction, to their questions.
I also face the challenge that after a hard week of classes, studying and work, students are not always ready for a super-deep Christian gathering. Some are, some are not. I think you have to find those more intellectual students and help them one-on-one.

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Kurt Anders Richardson

posted October 13, 2009 at 10:10 am

Let’s not kid ourselves; by the 1990’s campus ministry had totally dedicated itself to Christian parents. I remember one of my students at seminary, a national leader for Crusade, recounting a story of how fewer and fewer among the campus leaders had come to faith through Crusade – almost none by that time. On the intellectual front, Mark Knoll’s book ‘Closing of the Evangelical Mind’ eerily coincides with that decade and its effects to the present moment. Theological ideology and nostalgia had completely taken over Evangelical institutions. While I don’t think that Tillich is the answer at all, serious engagement with science and critical theory had been replaced entirely by apologetics at various levels of sophistication. But apologetics is never serious intellectual engagement; and I write this as a serious theologian committed to the historic creeds. Interestingly, then, the fact that we have immunized ourselves against the vulnerability that is always involved in free intellectual inquiry and that our campus ministries do precious little front line evangelism is a telling connection.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 10:32 am

Kurt #6-
I am not sure what you mean by,
“by the 1990’s campus ministry had totally dedicated itself to Christian parents.”
And although evangelism is clearly very important, another aspect is how ministries (such as Crusade) are doing with discipleship.
Dave #5 has a good point- discipleship methods for the students will vary from student to student.
I would also like to add to something RJS touched on, “And perhaps do not even realize how much they will need it in the future.”
Students may not be looking at the more intellectual aspects because they are not being told about the numerous benefits of such a mindset, both for themselves and for the Kingdom in general.
:mic #3-
Now that is funny.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 10:37 am

That hurts — the picture wasn’t “found” … it was taken.
Excellent point. If those in campus ministry do not read and think about theology and the faith they will not be in any place to lead students to a faith that is more intellectually robust. Part of the job is reading and learning. This doesn’t require a seminary degree, but it does require disciplined effort.
Perhaps one of the things a site like Scot’s here can supply is a place to read and discuss some of the kinds of topics and issues necessary for the work.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 12:08 pm

This post hit the issues right on the nose in several ways.
As a campus ministry leader/coordinator for the last couple years, I have noticed one major problem with combating the anti-intellectual nature of college Christians: their leaders are no different.
If we hope to engage the students and help them grow in their minds and understanding both of apologetic issues and, more importantly, their basic theological understanding (which is the basis for solid apologetics anyways), then campus leaders/missionaries need to be there themselves, and we are not, by and large.
Whether it be IVCF or Crusade or Navigators, by and large, leaders and not eqquiped to do this. The ministry I lead has a specific focus upon changing this reality, and it has come down to a couple things for me:
1) Serious life-one-life discipleship must be at the foundation of everything we do, and then 2) we can build a robust theological passion in students lives. Often times students who get excited about apologetics use it as an excuse to not really focus upon their deep rooted passion for the glory of Christ, and it turns into an obstacle, which adds ammunition to those who paint the use of apologetics in a bad light. Students need serious Christ-centered discipleship, especially when their minds are actually growing as well.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Kurt (#6) — excellent points! (Your work on Barth looks very interesting, glad to see you post here.)
You said: “But apologetics is never serious intellectual engagement; and I write this as a serious theologian committed to the historic creeds.”
I respond: I think this gets to the heart of the problem. To the extent campus ministry goes beyond basic relational stuff, it tends to be “apologetic.” The kind of apologetic employed tends to be of the “Biola School” — heavy on rational philosophical argument and defenses of the Bible. I’m not such a Barthian that I’d say we need to do away with apologetics. But I agree that our apologetic efforts need to be refocused. It seems to me that we’re often trying to “defend” the wrong things, in the wrong way. Since John Stackhouse’s stuff started us in this thread, his book “Humble Apologetics” is (IMHO) a good start on a way forward.

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Your Name

posted October 13, 2009 at 12:58 pm

As someone who came to embrace faith in college, looking back on those years I realize that very few avenues existed for connecting theology to discipleship and service. I went to a Jesuit school and so the theology built into the curriculum helped to build up the intellectual foundation for my faith. As well, I needed the intellectual rigor I found in sermons to nourish that foundation. I saw the sermon in part as a hyperlinked text. As the preacher recounted theologians, books, personalities and philosophers, I quickly jotted them down and researched them, which led to more inquiry and exploration of theological topics. But when it came to dumping this huge reservoir of knowledge and resources into the funnel of prayer, service, and vocational formation there were precious few ways to connect the dots. A faith thought and a faith lived need a bridge between them. Oddly enough, I found a nice little synthesis in the Shabbat Dinners my Jewish friends put together. The mealtime, the rituals, and the conversation all provided a bridge between ancient stories and a active living community.

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Your Name

posted October 13, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Great post and comments here.
There needs to be a sense of mutual relevancy all the way around. So that Christian students find relevant on a deep level the studies in which they’re engaged in the university, as well as a relevancy between their faith and action. And that other university students are helped to see that in some way as well as in more than one way, students who are Christian are relevant, both in a way that’s beyond them as well as in ways that are evident. Why can’t Christian students sit at the feet of an atheistic professor drinking in his teaching and doing so openly- accepting and critical as in engaging in a humble learning-oriented kind of way, in significant part because of their faith?

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Ted M. Gossard

posted October 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Great post and comments here.
There needs to be a sense of mutual relevancy all the way around. So that Christian students find relevant on a deep level the studies in which they’re engaged in the university, as well as a relevancy between their faith and action. And that other university students are helped to see that in some way as well as in more than one way, students who are Christian are relevant, both in a way that’s beyond them as well as in ways that are evident. Why can’t Christian students sit at the feet of an atheistic professor drinking in his teaching and doing so openly- accepting and critical as in engaging in a humble learning-oriented kind of way, in significant part because of their faith?

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posted October 13, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Good post and good questions. I can think of a couple of things:
1) It was helpful to me when I was in grad school to have a small group of grad students (with one Professor), independent of any parachurch ministry, where we could talk about difficult issues of faith (RJS knows the group to which I refer). How to nurture such things is an interesting question.
1a) It also helped that the church I attended in those years, while moderately Evangelical, did not have an anti-intellectual tone, or even undercurrents as far as I experienced. I often wish that the college town where I currently live had such a church (and should be asking God what I can do to make my current church better in that regard).
2) To the extent college students read books anymore, they can be exposed to Christian material that, while not lofty and inaccessible, has more substance than garden-variety Evangelical reading. More NT Wright and Scot McKnight, less Rick Warren and Josh McDowell.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I regret at this point that I didn’t spend more time with that group as a student – but I wasn’t ready for it then, and I was bit put off by the gender ratio and the married vs single ratio at the time (my first year the others were almost entirely male and married). And I must admit, I was pretty much as “flaky” in my commitments as all those students current ministry leaders complain about. Times have not actually changed all that much.
I speak from experience though when I wrote that students “perhaps do not even realize how much they will need it in the future.”

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posted October 13, 2009 at 4:18 pm

RJS, your questions remind me of Kelly Monroe Kullberg’s books “Finding God at Harvard” and “Finding God Beyond Harvard.” Have you read either of them? The latter especially, seems like a good book to give to people in campus ministry, to show them what intellectual engagement with the campus at large can look like.
Relatedly, the Veritas forums and related resources can (IMO) be a good way to interact with and minister to the types of people you are talking about (the intellectually curious person who has never engaged with a thoughtful Christian). I know you and others may not agree with all of the content of all of the Veritas forums and speakers – but then many of us probably wouldn’t agree with all of the content of a typical Intervarsity or Campus Crusade meeting either.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 8:14 pm

I have mixed feelings about Veritas Forums – many are very good, but sometimes the engagement doesn’t quite seem to meet the level I would like. Perhaps my standards are unreasonable though. I have downloaded and listened to a large number of the presentations from their website.
Such presentations and programs though, are only really effective if they interface with ongoing smaller interactions on campus. Stackhouse points this out in a comment on his blog.

What those staffers then usually have said to me is that their groups were really not ready to capitalize on the Big Event. The event itself might have succeeded by all appearances. But because their members were not in strong friendships with inquirers and because their groups were not characterized before and after by atmospheres of intellectual safety and curiosity, they failed to reap the full benefit of such special experiences. The stone sank into the pond, the ripples dissipated, and things largely were as they were before.

It?s that kind of situation I was briefly characterizing in my post: groups that are not intellectually serious can have the best Veritas Forum in the world and it can have very slight effect?at least within and for the group?if the group itself does not have, before and after, the right ethos.

The big event can certainly be useful – but only when the foundation is there to use it. My biggest concern is with the lack of foundation – in students and in those most deeply involved in front line campus ministry.

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Micheal Hickerson

posted October 13, 2009 at 9:53 pm

I help lead InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network, and we are very much trying to “disciple and equip the students who will go on to be professors.” Some of the successful approaches we’ve seen include connecting students with good Christian mentors and role models, and encouraging students to explore the historical depths of Christian belief and practice. Connecting students with older Christians who can help them in the intellectual and professional journey is a major part of our strategy.
I really don’t have any answers to your questions, either, RJS. If a campus minister with IV or Crusade wants to develop intellectually, there are more than enough resources to allow them to do so: free and discounted books, discounts on theology courses, opportunities to connect with faculty on their own campus and nationwide…
As I speak with campus ministry staff around the country, I repeatedly hear about their sense of overwhelming busy-ness. That’s a major part of the problem. If your task list is filled to overflowing, you’re not going to spend time in prayer and study. I don’t know what is causing this sense of busy-ness or what can be done to replace it with peace and shalom, but I think at least some of the problems you identify stem from the stress and rush felt by campus ministry staff.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 10:01 pm

That’s a great point, RJS. The need for a foundation. That’s kind of what I had in mind with the suggestion of Monroe Kullberg’s book as a place that some campus ministries might be able to start – giving them a vision for what that kind of faithfully committed, intellectually stimulating community might look like on campus. But then you still need leaders and attendees who find that vision attractive and are willing to seek to carry it out.

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posted October 14, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I think that a campus worker with IV has ample resource. I wonder how many actually think that continuing education is important though? And I know that you and others are trying to make sure that resources are available for students as well.
On the other hand I know some people – even with IVCF – who seem to think that the primary role of a campus ministry is worship – all else takes a back seat. Others take a position as teacher rather than facilitator (I find it rather annoying when a philosopher proposes to teach me why science is wrong for example – but I would be open to conversation on our different perspectives, eye-to-eye).
This is a complex problem though.

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Matt Stephens

posted October 15, 2009 at 12:58 am

Thanks for writing this. This really is my passion, as I went through a difficult and dark period during my latter years of college and first year out. Exactly as you said, my church and the Christian university I attended were uncomfortable with the questions I was asking, I’m guessing because they didn’t know how to address them. I’ve posted a response to your question regarding what the church can do over at my blog.
Blessings as you continue to process this.

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Micheal Hickerson

posted October 16, 2009 at 7:40 pm

I guess it all depends on how you define “worship.” :) At IV’s Following Christ conference in December, Dora Rice Hawthorne, who teaches classics at Baylor, gave a great talk to the Humanities track about Anselm’s habit of pausing in the middle of his classroom teaching to pray and give thanks to God. Dora observed that, even at a Christian university like Baylor, pausing to worship God in the middle of the classroom would be seen as a tremendous breach of protocol. Yet a large part of me thinks that doing so – worshipping God *for* our academic studies and the truth revealed through them – would go a long way toward reforming the intellectual shallowness you mention.

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posted October 16, 2009 at 8:48 pm

You are right – worshiping God for our academic studies and the truth revealed through them would go a long way …
In the instance I was thinking of … the campus ministry worker seemed to think that what faculty need most is another worship meeting (this time with faculty) on a regular basis … singing, meditation, prayer. This was consistent with the person’s overall view though – because the chief end of man is to worship and glorify God. I find many opportunities for worship – in my local church first and foremost. I see no real added value in another such commitment at work.
On the other hand there is a real place for worship in the sense of your comment (and perhaps even taking it a bit further). It would be useful to have a place to build a foundation to worship for and through our academic disciplines and the truth revealed through them – and local churches in general are not equipped to play this role.

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posted November 12, 2009 at 6:26 pm

#9 Luke – I appreciate your comment of how students who get super-excited about apologetics can come to a point when they do not focus on their deep rooted passion. I am finding the real question with the students I interact with to be one of their core…their deepest convictions UNDERNEATH all their answers…under all their memory verses and theology. There is no seeming deeper conviction that wells up from within themselves. It is more of a desire to know all the right answers.
on the other hand…
#5 Dave – I also really agree with your challenge to those of us as leaders to be seen reading. If attitude reflects leadership…if leadership trickles down…what do we lead with? Do we get the sense that our students are “spiritually lazy”? It has caused me to search myself honestly to find that I have been leading with a certain sense of apathy. That stuff leaks!!! So do I get a sense that some of my students are not living from their core? Am I truly leading in a way that presents a life lived from my deepest convictions? Do I wonder whether or not my students are really reading well, thinking much, and living faithfully? Then I have to determine how I am leading them in these areas.

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