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.