Campus Ministry Conundrum

This week I’m in the Houston area (The Woodlands, ya’ll) at a campus ministry conference called “Refresh ’08.” It is the third annual “Refresh” and it is a joy to hang around 160 or so dedicated Christians interested in college ministries and young people. We’ve heard great speakers, experienced edifying worship, attended helpful workshops and have enjoyed spending a lot of time connecting with one another.

I’ve been in campus ministry long enough that these folks really feel like close friends. Of course, I see some of them only at this event in a year’s time. For you United Methodist clergy types, it’s like going to annual conference (perhaps a tad more fun). It is NOT like annual conference in terms of acting on business items. The goals of “Refresh” are three: (1) be refreshed,(2) get connected with other college ministers and (3) find resources for your work.

For a research project I’m beginning to build, I looked at the Census Bureau statistics online to try to figure out just how many college students there are in the United States. I need to get back to the site, but I think, if I found the right number, there are almost 16 million college students in this country. Sixteen million. Did I say sixteen million?

Some of my friends in this work have – by the usual standards of measurement – huge ministries: several hundred students coming to a mid-week worship and engaged in small groups for discipleship and other practices of spiritual growth and ministry. They are the mega-churches of campus ministry. For others, the scope of their ministry is smaller, but no less significant. When I hang around these folks and listen to what they’re doing, I envision their students. They’re doing some really amazing things. I see the fruit of the ministry (some of their former students are now in campus ministry, or local church ministry, or on the mission field, or – perhaps the best – engaged in radical Christian discipleship in “secular” jobs). When I think of those sixteen million young people and the efforts of my friends and colleagues to reach some of them, my heart swells with joy.

But something else is going on at this conference. It is a common theme among us. Why are (especially) erstwhile mainline denominations – in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary – so fatalistically detached from the mission field that is college ministry? Why do we hear so much about new church starts (by the way, how are we doing on them?) and don’t see the field white for harvest among college students? Clearly, there are committed, interested, leaders, from the top of our United Methodist Church to the grass roots. We have two bishops attending our event. God bless them! Yet, I’ve also talked to denominational executives who are working hard and constantly frustrated by the lack of movement. Some of us have stood around in little knots, this week, during breaks, verbally scratching our heads about the inertia.

So, on the one hand, we can rejoice in the tremendous work that is happening. I thank God for concerned individuals working so hard to make a difference. On the other, when we go back home, save for a few notable exceptions, we will get back to work within an ecclesial (United Methodist) context that largely ignores us.

That is the conundrum of campus ministry.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. johnmeunier says:

    Great questions.

    Thank you for your work.

    I live and teach at a large public university and have seen the total collapse of campus ministry by mainline denominations in the last 15 years.

    Local congregations try to “attract” college students, but there is zero mission to the campus.

  2. Steve Rankin says:

    Ah, yes, the congregation-based approach to campus ministry. With the right people, it can be done very well and it is a good idea. But often, it is done haphazardly and without a core of committed lay people.

    Thanks for commenting. I’d like to know more about what you’ve seen at your university. If you’d like to email me, feel free.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: