As our nation’s college campus’ grow increasingly diverse and decreasingly “Christian,” attractional models of ministry are having a much more difficult time making a significant dent in the 85%+ of college students that are unchurched, de-churched, or altogether unreached.
A growing number of college pastors around the country are gaining an ambiguous feeling that their inherited models of ministry are in some way flawed.
My own reflection on these tensions led me to recall a conversation I had several years ago with a seminary class-mate from a country in Africa. He had described his country as “post-Christian” — a former, European colony with a small evangelical contingent and a landscape of old “churches as museums” that romantically herald a past considered to be mostly mostly irrelevant with respect to modern societal dynamics.
Over time, the church had grown increasingly marginalized to the point that the popular opinion was one of apathy and ambivalence. As a result, evangelical churches began to “ghettoize” themselves, only reinforcing popular opinion and blunting their impact in the community. I asked my friend what he considered to be an effective form of ministry in his home country and he responded with an illustration that I’ll not soon forget.
He told me that, in his experience, there were essentially two kinds of “missionary teams.” Both share a desire to proclaim the gospel and see people place their faith in Jesus Christ. But the methods by which they position themselves for effective proclamation was radically different! Essentially, one group maintained an “extractional” model of ministry with the other adopting an “incarnational” model.
He described the first team as non-indigenous group of men and women whose monthly support was four to five times that of the people they hoped to reach. They would walk the streets in their khaki pants and collared shirts, passing out tracks and sharing the gospel with anybody that would listen, occasionally leading somebody to Christ and focusing the majority of their energies assimilating that person into one of the small, pre-existing, ghettoized Christian communities.
Over time, however, they would grow disenchanted with the lack of “fruit” and either leave for another, more attractive assignment, or (if they stay) gradually marginalize their presence in the community by spending more and more time leading Bible studies in existing Christian communities while labeling it “leadership training” to appease the supporters back home. Only no discernable gospel-impact had been made in the communities to which they were originally called.
When I asked him “why,” he responded, ”Because they failed to tap into the root system of the city.”
He elaborated on his response by describing a second kind of missionary team who adopts a more “incarnational” mindset toward his ministry. Upon arrival, they spend significant energy observing and eventually participating in the rhythms and customs of their host culture. Over time, he began to identify where God’s common grace was operative in restraining sin and promoting justice, virtue and beauty.
For instance, he described how corrupt local government had become a chief cause behind systemic poverty and economic hardship. Cause-oriented groups had been formed to try and restrain the effects of such institutional sin through initiatives aimed at addressing issues like poverty, hunger, and organized violence. Simultaneously, a local passion for indigenous forms of art and music served as a catalyzing adhesive for men, women, and families in the community.
So the team began to develop strategic partnerships with like-minded people groups around these manifestations of grace with the intention of bringing the gospel to bear upon each issue and relationship. One team-member went so far as to meet with local business owners in order to discover the greatest needs in their neighborhood. Upon finding out that there was no local source for fresh produce, he opened up a fruit stand in the middle of the downtown market, instantly building rapport and credibility with business owners and patrons alike.
Such initiatives took months and even years to create, but before long they had managed to “tap into the root system” and enjoyed a deeper, much more sustainable platform for proclaiming the redemptive power of Jesus found in the gospel.
My uneasy hunch is that much campus ministry today reflect the former group of missionaries over the latter. Both care deeply for the souls of men and women. The latter, however, cares for the souls and the city, understanding that the two are inseparable.
They understand that a city, at its core, is a sociological expression of souls-in-community. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot simply remain good news for the individual souls of men, but must make it’s way into the very expressions of those souls-in-community as they [often unknowingly] image God’s glory and character in their pursuits of justice, equality, beauty, virtue and the like (Gen 1:26-27). Therefore, if the city is a sociological expression of souls-in-community, then the gospel of Jesus Christ must be “good news” for both the individual souls of men and the city in which each is a part. We must bring the redemptive power of the gospel to bear on the very expressions of these ‘souls-in-community’ as they (often unwittingly) image God’s glory and character in their pursuits of justice equality, beauty, virtue and the like.
We should recognize that the college campus is essentially a city-within-a-city — a similar sociological expression of souls-in-community with its own political system, artistic expressions, language and value system. If we desire to take the gospel into the root system of our campuses, then we would be wise to heed to wisdom in the latter example above.
We can no longer drop in like para-troopers from the LORD’S AR-MY (that was bad, I know!), seeking to rescue men and women from the “worldly” institution that seeks to harm and devour them. Such a model communicate that we are not for the campus, but against it! What’s more: Our campuses believe this to be the case!
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself a question: When was the last time the local college contacted your church or ministry to partner in an important cause or issue on campus? They have the Greeks on speed-dial! Why not the church?
Take that question one step further: Why in the world would the college campus ever think that local churches and ministries are for the campus when our very models of ministry seek to extract men and women out of the campus and into our organizations by creating attractive, sanitized, Jesus versions of events, activities, and causes that already exist on the campus. The reason we are accused of being “separatist” is because we are separatists!
What if we were to begin reorient our campus ministry around the welfare of the campus to which we have been called? What if God is calling us to stop using the campus to bless and build our ministries and instead use our ministries to build and bless our campuses? We would find ourselves being absorbed by a story of redemption that is much bigger than ourselves — one that was “preached…beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall the nations be blessed (Galatians 3:8)!”
As God’s exiled people (2 Peter 2:11), the gospel should drive us into the root system of our campuses — these “cities-within-a-city” to which we have been called — so that we might be to them a deeply-rooted blessing:
Be rooted. Be a blessing.
Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffwiesner.