By Greg Swinney
About This Article
Long-term ministries tell a story. Nearly two-dozen campus ministers with the Christian churches/churches of Christ have served in campus ministry for more than 20 years (many in the same location where they started). It’s not because they couldn’t find jobs elsewhere . . . it’s because they have a deep-seated passion, a burning in their hearts for the students who walk the concrete sidewalks of the academic jungle we call the state university.
This article draws upon more than 120 years of combined experience of four of these campus ministers.
Roger Songer, campus minister at Christian Campus House, serves at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He and his wife, Sue, have served in campus ministry for 30 years.
Dave Embree serves as campus minister in Springfield, Missouri, at Christian Campus House, where he has been for 31 years. Along with his ministry responsibilities, Dave also has the unique opportunity of teaching in the religion department at Southern Missouri University.
Mike Armstrong of Fayetteville, Arkansas, serves with Christ on Campus at the University of Arkansas. His 27-year tenure included publishing a campus ministry journal for a number of years.
Tim Hudson lives in Athens, Georgia, where he and his wife, Sheila, work with Christian Campus Fellowship. He will complete his 33rd year in full-time campus ministry next month.
The mission field of these four men alone encompasses more than 100,000 college students.
What is the spiritual climate on college campuses today?
Tim Hudson: Hunger, confusion, arrogance, fear. Here in the deep South we still find lots of students who identify with their home church and are quite religious. Other students have no religious affiliation but claim to be very spiritual, and/or secular humanists. The prevailing attitude I see here would be to let everyone do his own thing, “tolerance to the point of indifference.”
Roger Songer: Students tend to be antagonistic, cynical, or at least apathetic toward organized religion. But on the other hand, many of them do seem very interested in what it means to develop a relationship with God. For this reason, our campus ministry works hard to develop strategies to reach students with a message and a method that stresses what they are looking for—community, belonging, accountability, and challenge. They are not just looking for a place to “attend.”
Mike Armstrong: Today’s spiritual climate is a mixed bag. Among those students who aren’t Christians, there is openness to spirituality on campus, though not necessarily an interest in Christianity as they have seen and experienced it. Having grown up in a “tolerant” society, they’re uncomfortable implying someone else is wrong.
What about students has changed in your tenure of campus ministry? What has stayed the same?
Armstrong: When I started in campus ministry, there was no e-mail, no text messaging, no computers, no Internet. Today, most dorm rooms on our campus don’t have phones because students just use their cell phones. It is easier to communicate with students via Facebook than about any other method—including e-mail. A whole new wave of technology, and technologically savvy students, sweeps our campuses. But in the transition, a lot of students have traded in real relationships for virtual ones. Many would rather instant message on Facebook than to discuss the Word of God face-to-face.
Songer: Most of the issues that students struggled with in the late 1970s remain key issues today. It is funny, but the issues I deal with in counseling with college students have not changed much in the past three decades. They struggle with moral and sexual purity. They wrestle with finding their place in a group and feeling like they belong. Hand in hand with that, they fight the pressure to get into (or out of) the “party scene.” They argue with their roommates. There are constant boyfriend/girlfriend issues. College kids still have broken hearts and are recovering from broken homes.
Dave Embree: In my early days of ministry, college students expected to be “poor college students.” Some even took delight in renting attics or basements for $50 per month and living off canned green beans. They expected that after college they would make some money and do better. Present students expect their living conditions to be at least the same level as their parents, if not better. Students are maxing out their student loans in order to rent nice apartments and buy big-screen TVs and the latest Wii application. Some can’t imagine not filling their iPods with 2,000 songs at 99 cents each. They like to live well and don’t think much about paying for it later.
Hudson: What has stayed the same is that students need to be valued and loved. This is why the campus is the perfect place to proclaim the gospel! I have pastored kids whose parents were hippies and kids whose parents were titans of industry. Kids from great homes and from dysfunctional homes. Home-schooled kids to prep-school kids. But the one constant is that they need a place to come and belong and be loved and to learn to love others.
Why have you stayed in campus ministry for so many years?
Armstrong: I’ve stayed in campus ministry since 1982 because I believe it is the front line of ministry and the future of the church. It would be hard to find another ministry that gives more opportunities to reach and equip the next generation of leaders in the church, the U.S., and the world. The opportunity to work with such a diverse group of people from all over the world—athletes, artists, engineers, professors, and more—is incredible.
Embree: I knew within a couple of semesters of starting in campus ministry that I had no clue what I was doing, but I was right where God wanted me to be. The university campus is where the action is.
Hudson: Where else can you find a large number of people, all about the same age, all exploring, all with time on their hands, and all just needing the right spark to set them on fire? They are just starting their lives. They are free to dream. They are figuring out who they are and who they want to be with. They are broke and often broken. But they are all in it together. I love college ministry. And I really don’t think there is a higher calling than that given to those of us who minister at the crossroads of culture. I consider it a privilege.
Tell us about a recent spiritual victory you’ve seen on campus.
Armstrong: God has blessed us with a great location—you can’t get to a bar without going past our building. One of our favorite ministries is our 2:00 AM Grill—serving hamburgers and hot dogs to students as they return to campus when the bars close. Often we are just serving hamburgers and talking to people (some of whom are too inebriated for important conversation), but there are also some significant conversations. This semester, one of those resulted in a young man getting plugged in to our ministry (which isn’t unusual) and opening doors to the guys in his fraternity house. One hot dog provided the chance to share the gospel with a whole group of men—and changed the life of at least one of them.
Songer: A year ago, the administration of our university asked all of the student organizations—including the religious organizations—to participate in a study on the university’s “volunteerism.” The college asked every group to report on volunteer service hours. When we finished tallying all that our students had done in a year we were staggered. The students involved in Christian Campus House at Eastern Illinois University had logged nearly 17,000 hours of volunteer service. In fact, we were the No. 1 volunteer organization on campus—and no one else even came close.
It was a spiritual victory because the results of the study were reported to the university administration. Probably nothing we have ever done has so impressed the university with the validity of campus ministry and the impact we have on our community.
Hudson: Gary (not his real name) entered our radar when he transferred to UGA from a private school. His alcohol abuse coupled with the divorce of his parents had sent him into a tailspin. He was attracted to us because our men’s ministry was watching Band of Brothers each week. The emphasis on brotherhood, watching your brother’s back, and doing something significant intrigued Gary.
He began meeting with our men’s minister and soon they were studying the Scriptures together. Gary made a commitment to stop drinking and when he failed, he was held accountable by his brothers while being given grace and love. He had never experienced anything like this—no condemnation just great expectations!
About a year later Gary confessed his faith in Christ and was baptized. To say it was a great night would be a huge understatement! Gary graduated in December 2008 and is currently an exchange student with Globalscope in Pueblo, Mexico. He is praying that God will lead him to a ministry of his own one day.
Many churches want to reach out to college students and invite them to feel a part of the church family. What practical suggestions can you offer?
Embree: Congregations don’t necessarily need a specific “college program,” but they really need a “20s” program. Do some sort of innovative Sunday morning small group or class or coffee-and-discussion thing for those who grew up getting up on Sunday mornings and think that’s the best time to do “God stuff.” Offer a small group or some other event for this age range at some other time for those who don’t like to get up early, but do something every week. Don’t get discouraged that they aren’t consistent or that the class evaporates entirely over Christmas break—be faithfully consistent to all your “20s.”
Songer: If your church wants to have a dynamic impact on the university or college in your community, you must come to grips with the three most important secrets to successful outreach to the college community. They are: location, location, and location (just like the first rule of real estate). A ministry’s visibility and accessibility to the college community is a key to its ability to establish itself as an influential force on campus. Get a core group of students to start a student organization, find a meeting room on campus in a visible location, and publicize your group’s activities, Bible studies, and worship gatherings.
Hudson: Students today need to belong before they believe. What that means is if you want students to feel a part of your church family, you have to create an environment where community happens. Social events, work events, mission trips, retreats—once they connect with your church family, you can teach them the Scriptures. Don’t segregate them from the rest of the church.
What can churches do to better prepare their teens to attend a state college?
Embree: Congregations need to recognize that 85 percent of their kids will not go to Bible college no matter how often speakers or music groups from those schools visit their services. Visionary church families will put more energy into linking up their state school-bound students with campus ministries on those campuses. Congregations should develop a new perception that their high school graduates will be missionaries to the secular campuses where they will study. Welcoming those missionaries home over breaks with encouragement and joy for their faithfulness is essential.
Hudson: Most students who enter our ministry, whether from churches or not, are biblically illiterate. Students who know the Bible well are the exception to the rule. Church leaders need to take stock of how much of their youth curriculum is really teaching students how to use God’s Word as a real resource for their daily lives. A biblical curriculum will not only prepare their teens better for college but for life.
Armstrong: Campus ministry is about preparing the next generation of leaders for the church. Churches must let their high school students know they will not be alone on the state college campus. Take them as a group to visit the campus ministry if it is near enough. If not, put them in contact with the ministry during their senior year. Many campus ministries have newsletters or e-mail devotionals or Web resources the church can use to link their students to the campus ministry.
What do you sense as the most formidable challenges for the future of campus ministry?
Armstrong: When we determine the value of Christianity based upon how it meets my needs we are in big trouble. My prayer is for a church that grows in worship of and obedience to Christ because of who he is and what he has done on our behalf.
Songer: On a practical level, the economic crisis has arisen as a supreme challenge. Campus ministries are nonprofit, local mission efforts. We rely on financial support from churches and individuals outside the circle of people to whom we actually minister. The students themselves cannot possibly fund a campus ministry. When the economy falls apart our ministries suffer.
Embree: It is sometimes discouraging that so few churches seem aware of what we do, despite our best efforts to keep the information flowing. Too many congregations see their responsibility ending when they get their young people past high school graduation. We need churches and campus ministries to be ever working in closer harmony, providing different sorts of shepherding to young people during this essential season of their lives.
Greg Swinney is senior campus minister with Christian Student Fellowship in Kearney, Nebraska.