By T.R. Robertson
Believers—and nonbelievers—from a wide range of backgrounds gather under the influence of campus Christian ministries. How do they experience and express the reality of this motto?
James was raised in a Christian family, part of a rural Missouri church that brought him up to know and follow the teachings of the Restoration Movement.
Both James and Gary attended the University of Missouri when they left home, and both became involved with the Mizzou Christian Campus House, a Christian church/church of Christ-affiliated campus ministry.
Most campus ministries with Restoration roots serve a majority of students from other denominational backgrounds—or no Christian background at all. Typically, the percentage of participants from a Christian church/church of Christ background can be as low as 10 percent. This is due mostly to the high number of other students who are attracted to the teaching and approach of Christian church/church of Christ campus ministers.
An alarming number of “church kids” leave the faith within their first year at college. James and Gary both beat the statistics and not only retained their faith, but grew stronger in their commitment during their time on campus. James is now involved in a Christian church and is employed by a denominational missions organization. Gary has returned to the denomination of his youth.
Whether you consider those outcomes as success stories may depend on how much you truly believe the Restoration Movement motto, “We’re not the only Christians, but Christians only.” What you need to know, though, is that both James and Gary worked out that principle through training and trial during their campus ministry years.
Free Market of Ideas
Daily interaction with believers from other denominations can be a new and unsettling experience for many young Christians.
“Coming from a nondenominational background, I was somewhat at home at CCH,” says James. “But as someone who had spent a lot of time in high school hitting the books trying to understand theology the best I could, to debate with someone who didn’t believe as I did on the free will vs. predestination deal—it really was a challenge for me.”
Gary experienced the same challenge, from the opposite perspective. “Since I came from a Baptist background, adjusting to CCH was a huge lesson in swallowing pride at first. I had to hold my tongue when certain doctrinal issues came up. And honestly, at first, I only held my tongue to make friends. I didn’t want to anger anyone.”
Corey Whitaker, who has been a campus minister at the University of Washington and at Missouri, remembers first days at college. “You’re just realizing for the first time there are other people who love Jesus but they’re from a different church background. What’s that about? If there are differences, they can’t both be right, can they? Or are they just preferences, and they don’t matter?”
Whitaker says it’s part of the process of students discovering who they are and what they think. “You talk about it with people who are on the same journey you are. Campus is a place where it’s a free market of ideas; people talk about competing values and evaluate them.”
“I try to remind students,” he says, “that the Bible you’re getting your doctrine from is the same Bible that teaches us to love one another and to make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”
“I’ve noticed,” says Mizzou CCH director Lance Tamerius, “that the people who come on really strong about their doctrinal opinions are the same ones who are dogmatic about their sports teams and their politics.
“I talked to one dad who says, I can’t get my kid to go to church, but you’re telling me he’s coming on too strong, telling people they need to be baptized? It doesn’t make sense.’”
As students make friends with other believers, they tend to sample each other’s church choices. The average college town offers a smorgasbord of options for the churchgoing student.
Campus ministers view the students’ church shopping as a potentially healthy activity, albeit one with inherent risks.
“There’s less brand-name loyalty than there used to be,” says Whitaker. “Newer churches adopt names that tend to hide their true affiliation. The danger is that you don’t know what you’re getting when you go to a church that’s ‘nondenominational.’
“One student came to us and asked, ‘Are you really nondenominational?’ She was wary because she had gone to another campus group that claimed to be ‘nondenominational,’ and it turned out they were actually part of a major denomination. The experience taught her a wariness that you’re hiding what you really are.”
Whitaker says it’s important to be open about a ministry’s affiliation. “Like everybody, we have a background. ‘Nondenominational’ doesn’t mean you just appeared one day, straight from Heaven. Everybody has a background, some theology. I tell students that if a group claims they don’t, you don’t want to be a part of them anyway.”
Students have opportunities to sharpen their perspective on doctrinal differences through involvement in ministries and missions. As they become involved in the real-world needs of people, they learn to focus on what really matters.
Gary spent a summer as an intern with an overseas mission, where the names and categories began to blur. Some who called themselves Baptists came across more like charismatics, while others seemed obsessed about competing with other denominational mission groups. Beyond the divisions, Gary saw people who just needed to know Jesus.
Students are also watching to see whether “we’re not the only Christians” is just a catchy saying or if their campus ministry leaders put it into practice.
“Just about every year there will be a group of students that wants to have some kind of unity event,” says Tamerius. “We’ve done a few of those. It’s not that we aren’t committed to unity. But when we try to find unity in some program rather than in who Jesus is, it can be a frustrating situation.”
Much like local churches, campus ministries don’t tend to do much joint programming with other denominational ministries. But the ministry staffs do tend to develop relationships between one another.
At the University of Arkansas, Mike Armstrong gathers weekly with other campus ministers to pray. At Washington, Whitaker says, “The campus ministers realized we needed to get together to pray. There were certain programming things we couldn’t do together because we would present the gospel differently, but that was OK.”
Waging a Different War
Tamerius describes the campus as a mission field. “There are more of them than there are of us. The first question when you meet another Christian is not, ‘What denomination do you belong to?’ but ‘Are you a Christian to begin with?’”
College students have become increasingly resistant to the necessity of believing in Jesus as the only way and the Bible as the only truth. Armstrong describes it as “a cultural move toward tolerance and a distrust of absolute truth.”
Jacob Epperson, at the University of Oklahoma, addresses that skepticism by devoting weeks to conversational discussions of the reasons to believe in the reliability of the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus, and on the history and formation of the Bible.
Armstrong emphasizes deep exegetical teaching. “Our students know, because we state it quite often, that we are going to use the Bible as our guide and that we all need to evaluate what we believe and how we live by that measure.”
In a culture suspicious of doctrinal partisanship, campus ministers must find effective ways to teach the doctrines that set them apart from other groups.
“Roy Weece was a mentor for me,” says Joe Belzer, who has been in campus ministry at Truman State University and Mizzou. “I learned from him that you just teach the Word and when you come across them, you teach the distinctive doctrines.”
At most campus ministries, baptisms are intentionally very visible. At Mizzou CCH, baptisms take place in Grindstone Creek, a couple of miles from campus. It’s become such a tradition that there have been times they’ve actually broken ice in order to baptize someone who insisted on doing it in the creek. Each trip to the creek prompts a lot of questions in the following days and weeks.
One of the biggest tools in the campus minister’s kit is patience. Becky Doran, a campus minister at Mizzou CCH, tells of a student who decided to be baptized, so she went home to her Lutheran church and was sprinkled.
“She came back to CCH the following semester and through a small group learned that the word baptism is from the Greek word that means dip or plunge. After encouraging her to look into Scripture to see what it had to say about baptism, she decided she needed to be immersed.”
Coming out of Bible College, Belzer says, he expected he’d fully convert each person to a Christian church mind-set. “And if I hadn’t done that,” he says, “I’d failed. But that’s not true. Sometimes you just plant some seeds or move people a little farther along. Maybe they left behind infant baptism and realized they need to be immersed. They take a few steps.”
“We can lead people to right decisions about baptism even if they have wrong beliefs about it,” says Whitaker. “Do I understand everything going on in the process or belief and repentance? Can I tell you every single thing that’s happening? No, I can’t. And I’m OK with that mystery.”
Students who spend time at a campus ministry will graduate some day and go back out into the world. Some will find a church home with roots in the Restoration Movement. Others will land elsewhere, perhaps returning to the tradition where they were raised.
All of them, though, will have been through a crucible that refines their faith. They’ll have moved a few steps forward in their thinking about the importance of doctrine and in living out the idea that, whatever their choices, they are “not the only Christians.”
Gary’s college experiences helped him realize the importance of leaders who genuinely love and want to serve Christ. “And that’s what I found at CCH. I just want to hear the Word of God. I’ve learned to get along well with people from other groups. I’m just so thankful they’re believers.”
“When I left CCH,” says James, “most of my core doctrines were unchanged, yet at the same time everything had changed. I was beginning to realize that anyone can come to know and follow Jesus, even if they have these other beliefs that I find weird. We can disagree about some finer points of doctrine and still worship the same Jesus.”
T. R. Robertson is a business technology analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he has been involved with the Christian Campus House off and on for more than three decades.