A Scriptural year-in-review

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Now that the spring semester has wrapped up, I’ve taken a little time to reflect upon my first school year of ministry here in Boulder. It’s been a truly amazing 10 months, in which I have witnessed God work in a number of unique and unexpected ways. I’ve been consistently amazed and inspired by the dedication of our students in Christian Challenge, and the other staff members. I have had more opportunities to share my faith and engage in spiritual conversations than at any point in my life hitherto. I’ve also definitely felt myself stretched spiritually, and yet through the power and privilege of support raising, I’ve been connected with over 100 different individuals who’ve been praying for me and encouraging me! Each month, I’ve tried to share in my prayer newsletters some of the most significant occurrences in our ministry. This blog too has offered me a forum to think through some different questions and developments in my walk with the Lord, almost like a kind of spiritual “diary.”

For this post, I’d like to adopt a little more of a bird’s eye view to think about the 2014-15 campus ministry year as a whole. One of the things I’ve been striving to do this spring is go deeper with my daily quiet times in the Word of God. Whereas in the fall I tended to move around quite frequently in my Bible readings, now I’m progressing all the way through a book before moving on to another. This practice has really helped my focus, and it corresponded well with the small group curriculum I developed for the Bible studies within our ministry this semester. This spring, for our students, I wrote a series of lessons that covered every major section of the Bible, highlighting key passages in certain books, and the overall theme and message for every book. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how the “grand narrative” of Scripture shapes and informs our lives as believers. To this end, I want to reflect back upon my first year at CU-Boulder through the lens of Scripture. As I thought about my experiences in this new mission field, four categories came to mind—joys, challenges, vision, and gratitude. Within each of these different topic sections, certain verses also seemed to be most applicable in helping me to process and understand my spiritual progress so far. In some cases there probably could have been multiple verses that would apply. But I’ve tried to just find the ones that first came to mind, and seem to speak most clearly in helping me to explain to others some of what I’ve encountered along the way, while serving in a place and cultural setting which is very different from anywhere I’ve lived before.

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Joys

There have been so many positive experiences for me this first year in Boulder; three in particular have included working with a truly Christ-centered staff, mentoring students, and having opportunities to share the Gospel. A few years back, as I tried to discern where God might be calling me to serve post-seminary, one of the most important factors in that decision-making process was my desire to work alongside an experienced Christian mentor. I had an opportunity to learn so much being an intern at First Baptist Montgomery in 2013-14 with Pastor Jay Wolf and his outstanding staff team. And I’ve had the same blessing to be part of an experienced and teaching-focused staff here at CU-Boulder. Our director, Bobby Pruett, has been in Boulder since 1988, and has dedicated most of his adult life to campus ministry at the University of Oklahoma and Colorado. His associate, Derek Gregory, also has several decades’ worth of college ministry experience at Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Colorado. The other full-time staff member, Bobby’s daughter Bethany Pruett, has been on staff with Christian Challenge for a number of years after coming through the ministry as a student. She has worked extensively in women’s ministry, with internationals, and has a strong missions background. I’ve learned so much from Bobby, Derek, and Bethany, in large part, because like Jay Wolf at FBC Montgomery, they embrace a collegial, teaching-focused leadership style. When we make decisions about the direction of the ministry, it’s always done as a group, with everyone’s input being considered. Staff meetings too are never just about “business”. We always take time to reflect with one another about what God might have put on our hearts recently during a quiet time, and frequently, just as Jay did, Bobby will intersperse a moment of Biblical teaching into the middle of the staff meeting. So we never forget that it’s not just about getting things done, but doing them the right way, and allowing for those teachable moments which can deepen our spiritual growth, and which in truth we will remember once the items on the to-do list and the meeting agenda have been forgotten. In addition, Bobby is very good at identifying the particular and unique gift mixes of each of the staff members, and so he gives us freedom to serve in those areas where we feel most called and qualified for. As a result, I’ve gotten to focus on aspects of the ministry that I really enjoy, such as writing small group curriculum, and working with internationals. Proverbs 11:14 comes to mind as one description of the joy it is to work with a considerate and Christ-centered staff (sadly not always something you can take for granted even in the ministry world). “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.” Certainly, I feel like our staff together does a good job of vetting each potential decision, policy, or idea, considering always a fidelity to Biblical standards, and the welfare of our students, as well as our overarching desire to make the name of Jesus more widely known on the CU campus. Our ministry’s motto is “Changing the world through God-honoring relationships”, and one of the ways that we definitely live this out is through the way we interact and make decisions as a staff. No one person is pursuing their own agenda, and yet we each have the freedom and flexibility to employ our own unique gifts and talents for the overall betterment of the ministry. In Philippians 2:2-4, Paul exhorts that church to “Fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” These verses further sum up for me the ideal style of leadership in Christian ministry that I think our staff strives for.

Another great joy for me this year, and one that I have already blogged about extensively in a previous post is mentoring. In that post, I shared how one man, Max Barnett, the longtime director of the Baptist Student Union at the University of Oklahoma, mentored Bobby, and many other individuals who would later go on to lead campus ministries at other colleges. Then I discussed some of the people who have mentored me over the years, before reflecting on the opportunity I now have to mentor students in our ministry on a weekly basis. One of the real beauties of our ministry’s structure is that so many of our students are both being mentored by an older believer, and at the same time mentoring a younger student. These two-sided mentoring experiences provide rich opportunities for spiritual growth, and have confirmed for me that relational, life-on-life ministry really must be at the heart of any successful campus religious organization. The best speakers, the most fun-packed and exciting retreats, and any other events or programming that our ministry sponsors are certainly an important component of what we do as a spiritual group. But as was revealed at our spring banquet, where we celebrated our class of graduating seniors, so often when students reflect upon their single most significant experience during their time in Christian Challenge, they will refer back to their mentoring relationships. Spiritual investment in someone else’s life cannot be done quickly. It’s time-consuming, and can’t always be neatly scripted and planned-for. Sometimes it can even get a little messy, as we open up in honesty to one another about our doubts, fears, and sin struggles. But what a joy to live life together as believers with a common purpose and in the model of course of Christ Himself, who spent so much of His public ministry in the select company of the Twelve, teaching, exhorting, and encouraging. Proverbs 27:17 is a great verse for summarizing the value of mentoring—“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Then, in the same vein, Proverbs 9:9 reminds us: “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.”

Finally, perhaps my greatest joy so far from serving here in Boulder has been the encouraging number of opportunities the Lord has provided me to share my faith with others. In many cases the students have themselves actually turned the conversation towards spiritual matters. This has especially been the case with many international students, and so I feel like the Holy Spirit has really provided me with some obvious openings where it was a relatively straightforward process to discuss the plan of salvation, as well as what Jesus has meant for me personally. Now as I will allude to in a moment, Boulder remains a tough place spiritually, and certainly my witness was not always received with a visible interest in conversion from the other person. But of course as Christians we are not called to, nor are we able to actually change people’s hearts. That is the work of the Holy Spirit alone. We are called however to testify to the Gospel, and its transformative power in our lives. Recognizing this, I can cite 1 Corinthians 9:16. Here, Paul makes it clear that witnessing to others isn’t some kind of special spiritual gift, but rather the everyday work that we are all called to as believers, and our privilege as Christ-followers! “For if I preach the Gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!” And while CU-Boulder can definitely at times be a challenging missions field, I am thankful that our organization is allowed to be on campus, and that we have the full freedom necessary to share the Gospel with anyone in the university community. This is certainly not a privilege or opportunity afforded to Christian groups everywhere, even here in America. Thus we should never take for granted the blessing and joy of being able to follow the footsteps of Paul as described in the closing verse of the Book of Acts, Acts 28:31“Preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”

 

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Challenges

There have been some challenges that I’ve faced this year too, but the Lord has really used them as learning opportunities. Two in particular that I’ve had to deal with have been overcoming peoples’ spiritual indifference, and working on time management as relates to my role as a campus missionary. Dealing with spiritual indifference has been challenging because initially coming to Boulder, and knowing that it has been ranked as one of the top five most secular cities in the country I imagined I would be potentially confronted with a lot of avowed atheist or anti-Christian sentiment. This hasn’t been the case for the most part though. More often instead, students at CU-Boulder are not so much hostile towards Christianity as simply indifferent towards it. They don’t particularly mind if someone else chooses to follow Jesus, however they can’t see the relevance of Christ to their own lives, have no conviction of sin, and are not even curious enough about some of the big questions in life to take a look in Scripture for possible answers. I am very much reminded of the truth expressed in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” I have found that sometimes when it comes to evangelism, it can be even harder to deal with indifference than with hostility. At least with hostility there are sometimes underlying reasons why a person is resistant to the Gospel that can be explored and discussed. But pure indifference and spiritual apathy can make it challenging to engage a person long enough to even be able to get at any of the possible underlying causes for such attitudes. I am consoled however by remembering that are often many different stages to evangelism, as Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8–“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through who you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” We often are tempted to view evangelism as a one-step process in which we share the Gospel, and the other person either accepts or rejects it. But sometimes the work of pre-evangelism is necessary to prepare a person to even be ready to fully hear the message of Christ with an open mind. To build on Paul’s gardening analogy here, it may be that we engage in pre-evangelism only for another person to later plant the seed of a Gospel presentation, and then perhaps still another individual will water and nurture that seed. Finally someone else will be able to see the fruit of an actual conversion. When a person comes to Christ, we never know who all may have been responsible for laying some of the groundwork to make it possible for that individual to be open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.

Time management is another aspect of ministry that can at times be difficult, primarily related to finding a balance between outreach, inreach, and staying connected to supporters. Ideally a campus ministry must ensure that its students are growing in the faith, being discipled, and challenged by the staff to reach their fellow classmates and friends. At the same time, a ministry is always looking outward too, envisioning what might be a more effective way to reach non-Christians, or those believers who have not yet found a spiritual fellowship on campus. And then finally, as a self-supported campus missionary serving under the auspices of the North American Mission Board, I need to spend time on a regular basis staying connected to all of my supporters, who through their prayers and financial gifts make it possible for me to minister here in Boulder. Sometimes it seems that if I make progress in one of these three areas, I may be neglecting another one. All are important, and so I’m learning to rely ever more on God and the Holy Spirit’s direction to best know how to divide my time and attention, without becoming too stressed or potentially burned out. Paul knew the importance of not letting precious time slip through our fingers, as expressed in Ephesians 5:15-16“See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” I’m reminded also of a verse that was inscribed over one of the doorways leading into the main building at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, where I got my master’s of divinity degree. It was from John 10:4, where Jesus solemnly admonishes: “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” Then the prophet Isaiah captures for us quite memorably the fleeting nature of this life, lest we have any pretensions about our own importance or the grand spiritual legacy that we will create. Isaiah 40:6-8: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” As a minister of the Gospel, I want my life to count, and I’m aware with each passing day that I have less and less time to accomplish my dreams and goals in the Lord’s work. So of course I want to use my time wisely, balancing my responsibilities and doing everything I can to build up our students spiritually, engage in evangelism, and remain connected with my family of ministry partners and supporters. But at the same time when pressure mounts and stress creeps in, it’s good to remember that all of our human efforts will ultimately fade into insignificance alongside God’s surpassing greatness, and the mighty works of Christ. Knowing that God’s Word and Truth will endure and prevail, regardless of what we may fail to accomplish individually is the greatest comfort and reassurance that any believer, worried with the stresses of life, can embrace.

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Vision

While life is fleeting, and my remaining time uncertain, nonetheless I am thankful that God has continued to provide me with spiritual vision this entire first year in Boulder. Vision, and what my pastor Jay Wolf likes to call the “sanctified imagination” are so critical in ministry. When God grants us the power to envision what could be, it helps to keep us fresh, excited, and motivated for the future, even though much of it is out of our control. At the end of the semester, our staff gathered together for a time of planning for the fall. We also attended a special retreat held in Colorado Springs for all of the Baptist campus ministry leaders from throughout the state of Colorado. These were great times for sharing ideas and vision casting—praying in faith about new ideas or approaches for better spreading the Gospel on our campus. These meetings got me excited already about the coming fall, and a new school year. Additionally, Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9 that we should never tire of doing the basics in ministry, those foundational tasks that we are called to, and which over the long-haul will yield fruit if we are faithful. “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” The inspiration to try new ideas and explore different ways of connecting with the prevailing culture in order to then connect people to the Gospel is thus balanced with the knowledge that the fundamental nature of our message is rooted in Christ, who will never change, as Hebrews 13:8 promises us—“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

I’ve also been blessed to receive vision from the Lord recently concerning missions. Our ministry is definitely Great Commission-oriented, and one of our goals is to be able to mobilize as many of our students as possible to reach the nations, starting with opportunities for missions both at home and abroad while they are still in college. I am very excited to begin envisioning what my role in the future not only as a missions mobilizer, but as a leader of potential student missions teams from our ministry here at CU might be. There are parts of the world and specific nations in Europe and South America that I certainly have a particular heart connection to. And as I continue to explore more specific details about missions opportunities in these countries, I think of the verses that I chose to include on the prayer card that I send out to each of my supporters: Matthew 9:37-8“The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” There are so many places in need of the Gospel, and God has prepared the hearts of many “people of peace” to receive just such a message! What there will always be a need for though is believers who are willing to say in the spirit of Isaiah 6:8“Here am I! Send me.” I am excited about all of the ways in which doing campus ministry will provide a platform for me personally to become more involved in missions. While I do not yet know the specific details of what that may entail, or where I may go, I thank God for giving me a vision to begin exploring some specific possibilities, hopefully in preparation for some sort of trip abroad in 2016.

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Gratitude

Finally, in closing, I think perhaps the single dominant theme and emotion I feel after this first year of service in Boulder is gratitude! I still cannot believe sometimes when I wake up in the morning what a privilege God has granted to me to serve in this dynamic and vibrant mission field. People from all over the United States, and the world have been drawn to Boulder for its natural beauty, innovative local economy, and the presence of the University of Colorado. Despite the prevalence of the drug culture here and the high degree of apathy towards Christianity, Boulder and the CU campuses are still places where God is clearly at work, because I have witnessed His power and Spirit moving there personally! If I can play even a small role in bringing some revival to this city and campus I will count myself very blessed! To be able to follow my calling to be a missionary to college students is such a high and holy privilege. And that God has provided for me to move out here from Alabama, and continues to sustain and support my ministry through the generous donations and faithful prayers of over 100 supporters is such a humbling reality for me. I am reminded constantly of how dependent I am on my Heavenly Father for making this possible, and when I think of my supporters and the Lord’s provision, two verses in Philippians seem very apropos. In Philippians 1:3 Paul writes “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.” And then I consider how God given to me so graciously, and abundantly, providing the resources and support to enable me to serve here in Boulder. Philippians 4:19“And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” It’s been a great first year for me, and I am looking forward to the future. Thanks be to God!

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