Following Jesus on Campus

By Greg Swinney

Richard Nixon was president, a first-class postage stamp cost 6 cents, Neil Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for man,” and Gary Hawes began as campus minister at Michigan State University in East Lansing. It was 1969. We spoke with Gary earlier this year, after his 45 years of fruitful labors and nearly 4,000 university students baptized into Christ.

How did you decide to enter campus ministry? Who influenced you?

It was late in the 1960s and it was a wonderful time to get started in campus ministry. The Jesus movement was really moving. They held an entirely different mind-set than the rest of our culture.

Gary Hawes baptizes a student in an icy Lake Huron during his ministry with His House Christian Fellowship.
Gary Hawes baptizes a student in an icy Lake Huron during his ministry with His House Christian Fellowship.

Some churches came together as a group and called me to be the campus minister. I remember the first day I arrived on campus at Michigan State University. Grand River Avenue (the main street of the university) was lined on both sides with National Guard troops in full riot gear. I had a very interesting introduction to this new ministry on a secular university campus.

Some of our cities were burning, sit-ins were held around the nation, and one year later four Kent State students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. We desperately needed a voice for the gospel on our campuses.

Early on, I was asked by area church leaders to help our students preserve their faith. But in those days it was difficult to even find “our” students. The Jesus followers, from the Jesus Movement, weren’t concerned with preserving faith, they were wholeheartedly committed to spreading the faith. I was skeptical of their methods and many other things about them too. Still, I couldn’t miss seeing their passion for following Jesus.

I find it interesting today that many preachers are referring to Christians as Christ followers. Maybe we are trying to recover that same passion that existed in the 1960s.

Tell us something about your early experiences.

It was in the winter of 1970. A student came to me who had made a 14-foot cross. An odd looking sort of guy, this Jesus follower told me he was going to drag a heavy, 14-foot, wooden cross around the campus and share the gospel. He invited me to walk along. To be honest, the last thing I wanted to do was be seen with this guy (wrapped in a sheet with a rope as a belt) in the middle of a cold Michigan winter on our campus. But I agreed.

A student came up and faced us right in front of President’s Hall. This guy set the cross down and boldly said, “Jesus died for you on a cross something like this. Can I tell you about it?” Then, in 45 seconds, he explained the gospel clearly and lovingly. The student listened intently. We walked on.

After setting down the cross beside the fifth student we met, my Jesus follower friend said, “I’ve got a friend here, and he would like to tell you about Jesus.” I swallowed hard and shared my faith.

As we walked, students began to follow us. Later, in an open area, he spoke to nearly 400 students gathered around the cross.

I became a campus minister that day.

What do you see as the purpose and mission of campus ministry?

Very simply put, our mission is to win, build, and send. This has always been my prayer. When someone would ask me, “How are you doing?” I’d respond, “Terrible, we’ve missed hundreds and thousands. But we are doing our best to be faithful.”

My goal as a campus minister was to afford every college student in the state of Michigan the opportunity for spiritual growth. I knew we had to go to them. Planting ministries around the state became a primary focus for us, and we were thankful as God blessed our efforts. We now have campus ministries (all with multiple staff) on 12 different campuses throughout Michigan.

All ministries and mission groups face obstacles. What obstacles stand before our campus ministries today?

This may surprise you. It doesn’t come from a sociological study or demographic analysis, just my years of experience on university campuses. I believe our biggest obstacle is biblical ignorance. The Bible must be the center of our eventual discussion with others. Many students today have never read the Bible, and others discount it. Years ago we had a common starting place. Now we don’t.

Secondly, the largest percentage of students we are involved with today come from either dysfunctional or divorced families. They are broken. That’s a tough obstacle. I would begin to identify with students as an “adopted” dad (or grandfather). In many cases, we became family, and still are.

Tell us about a time when you feel the campus ministry was experiencing the blessing of God through a fruitful season. I can remember one semester when more than 200 students were baptized into Christ through the Michigan campus ministries. That’s an average of one student every 24 hours. How did that happen?

I remember when it all started many years ago, back as far as the 1980s. Everything had been going wrong. We had small numbers at Bible studies, students seemed apathetic, and I was discouraged. I was working on my PhD at the university, and that was going slow. Someone I really admired, Dr. Lewis Foster, offered me a great opportunity at Cincinnati Bible Seminary. As appealing as it sounded, I knew I needed to decline the offer and stay on the university campus for the long haul.

I couldn’t believe I had just passed up a great opportunity. But it was exactly the right thing to do. Soon, we began to explode with growth on the campus. More students wanted to become Christians. More positive things happened. Students committed to ministry and missions. Hundreds gave their lives to Christ. In the years following, more campus ministries were started around the state. Then, in the fall of 2008, we experienced the blessing of baptizing nearly 200 university students. The Lord blessed our faithfulness in such surprising ways.

What factors contributed to your staying so long?

My wife, Carole, and I have been married for nearly 52 years, and she is the perfect campus minister’s wife. There were some years I was driving 1,000 miles every week to our various campuses. She has always shared the ministry with me and would often travel along (even with our kids). Her constant support often kept us going.

Another thing for me is friendship. Deep relationships made all the difference. I never saw students as an attendance number or a “project.” They were people I wanted to know as my friends.

Some of these students later became board members of our ministry. One medical doctor, who works as a cardiac surgeon, has become one of my closest friends. He later served on the personal physician team for President Gerald Ford. Some of my best friends are staff and former staff members. I still stay in touch with them.

Ultimately, passion for the mission kept me going—passion for ministry among the staff, passion for a genuine walk with Jesus. Maybe I caught it those many years ago from that crazy guy carrying a 14-foot cross telling people, “Jesus died for you; can I tell you about it?”

Greg Swinney works as the ministry facilitator for Crossroads International Student Ministries, Kearney, Nebraska, and serves as the national representative for the Association of College Ministries.

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