This blog has mostly been about expressing my own “voice” in ministry, relating my thoughts, experiences, and even questions as I have sought to follow God’s calling in my life to minister to university students. However for this post, I’d like to share some from the wisdom and experience of others in ministry. I recently had a chance to attend Collegiate Week, a national college ministry conference held in beautiful Glorieta, New Mexico, which is just north of Santa Fe. There, over 2000 college students, campus ministry staff, and college ministers from local churches, gathered for five days of worship, fellowship, instruction, and inspiration. For me, it was the first time I’d had a chance to attend a national conference that was specifically geared towards collegiate ministry. I really enjoyed the opportunity to meet some of my peers and counterparts from across the country, as well as reconnect with good friends serving on other campuses in Colorado. There were so many good takeaway points I received from the speakers and during some of the workshop sessions of Collegiate Week, and much of what I learned is useful for anyone looking to strengthen their faith and walk with the Lord, whether involved in campus ministry or not.
Chip Luter, a pastor in Tampa, Florida, was one of the featured speakers during the evening sessions. He discussed claiming one’s freedom in Christ, by seeking to become spiritually mature. Even though Jesus has completed the work of salvation on our behalves, Luter noted how we still must strive to live in a spirit of obedience which will honor the sacrifice Jesus has made for us. As he so aptly phrased it: “what Christ has obtained, we must maintain.” Luter also reminded the audience that as Christians, we are preaching a message of reconciliation to the world, and yet we must be careful to always model such reconciliation in our behavior and our actions, lest our message be seen as hollow, or even hypocritical. Another keynote speaker was Tony Merida, a seminary professor at Southeastern Seminary, and pastor of a church plant in Raleigh, North Carolina. Merida delivered a wonderful, and thought-provoking message one night from Galatians 4, in which he explored how the concept of adoption can be used as a theological paradigm for us to understand the Christian life. Drawing from his own personal experience (he has 5 adopted children), Merida talked about how God has adopted us, through Christ, and made us children and heirs of His glory. In another message, drawn from Luke 14, and Jesus’ parable of the Great Feast, Merida discussed the importance of Christians learning to practice hospitality. He distinguished between hospitality and fellowship, the latter being a gathering often of friends and fellow believers, whereas hospitality is defined by showing love for “outsiders”—non-believers, people who are different from us, and those whom might we might not be naturally inclined to befriend. Spiritually, we were all “outsiders” whom Jesus has graciously invited to His great feast, and so Merida encouraged us to think about how in our ministries, churches, and daily lives, we can seek to be inclusive, living with Gospel intentionality. This connects to some things that he shared during a workshop session on “ordinary missional living.” He discussed a concern that in contemporary evangelical culture, missions is often sensationalized. People may feel that unless they go overseas or to serve in a difficult, closed country, they are not really fulfilling the Great Commission. But without in any way diminishing the courage and faithfulness of our brothers and sisters in Christ who are serving in such situations, Merida wished to highlight that all of us can learn to be more obedient to the call to missions, and live in Great Commission awareness in whatever setting God has currently placed us. With his own congregation, Merida encourages an intersection between acts of physical compassion and hospitality which then can offer platforms for an open presentation of the Gospel. He also talked about how to motivate people to begin thinking about missions in their everyday lives. We might eventually be called to share the Gospel in another country, but to start, we must learn to share it with our neighbors. Merida identified natural “networks”, that is groups of people who we’re already connected to and familiar with, in five different categories: familial, vocational (job-related), commercial (where we shop, eat, etc), geographic, and recreational. Within each of these networks, we should be praying for opportunities to naturally come into contact with a non-Christian whom we can we can then seek to bless through acts of hospitality. As the context of a genuine relationship or even friendship develops, we can share the Gospel with them. Through this process, Merida also stressed the importance of acknowledging the fact that many non-Christians today will not be Biblically “literate” in any way, and we cannot assume that they will understand even basic religious terminology. This reality forces us to learn how to best articulate the Gospel’s essence in plain, every-day language. Certainly this has been my experience serving in the secular and very Biblically-unfamiliar environs of Boulder, Colorado!!
Another stirring message came from Vance Pitman, actually an Alabama native, who for more than a decade has served as pastor of a church plant in Las Vegas. His message examined Acts 1, and sought to learn some faith lessons from the original team of “church planters.” Most notably, Pitman highlighted how these early Christians, facing widespread persecution, and being told to start back in Jerusalem, the very place where their Lord had been crucified, were forced to turn to prayer for their very survival. He noted that nowadays, many of us, comfortable in our Christianity, don’t quite have such a desperation to pray, but then added that God, in His sovereignty, may choose to limit His activity to the prayers of His people. Pitman’s message was a timely reminder for me that, while serving in a spiritually challenging place like Boulder, prayer cannot merely be part of my strategy, but has to indeed serve as the very foundation for the whole ministry. I was reminded too, in gratitude, of all those faithful ministry partners whose prayers impact and bless me and the ministry on a regular basis!!
As I’ve shared in a previous blog post, individual mentoring is one of the cornerstones for our ministry at CU-Boulder with Christian Challenge. So it was very interesting for me in one of the workshop sessions to hear a discussion on mentoring led by Dr. Chuck Lawless, of Southeastern Seminary, and Chris James, a campus minister at the University of Masschusetts-Lowell. Both men highlighted the fact that in campus ministry, one can potentially reach a much larger audience than in seminaries or churches. Universities bring people together from so many different nationalities, and worldviews. And one tried-and-true method of spiritually impacting these students is through mentoring. Lawless and James talked about the markers of a good mentoring relationship. They discussed the importance of having a specific plan and goal for each student that you mentor, but then also being prepared to remain flexible, seeking to be good listeners, and always ready to meet students where they are, even if it means temporarily setting the agenda or plan aside. They also stressed that often mentoring occurs through the course of everyday life—and so building relationships by eating together, going to a sports event, or doing other causal activities ensures that there is “relational capital” to spend for those more specific teaching moments. All aspects of mentoring needn’t be limited to just discussing the Bible or theological truths. Instead, trust and a genuine relationship are built up over time, through life-on-life interactions, so that students then do feel comfortable opening up to their mentors about their spiritual questions and struggles. Along these lines, Lawless and James also urged campus ministers to think about finding non-believers who might be interested in a mentoring relationship. Even more so in those scenarios, it is imperative to develop some strong relational bonds that can provide a foundation for sharing the Gospel over the course of time.
Daniel Berry, a former collegiate minister at Auburn and Kentucky, now turned pastor in West Lafayette, Indiana, also provided some fascinating insights in his workshops. He talked about the importance of providing sound theological teaching to students, covering such foundational topics as the nature of Christ, the nature of sin, and what it means to be made in God’s image. Berry estimated that he spent a majority of his time in college ministry teaching on such foundational material. While there is a time and place to address more in-depth theological issues, or pressing social concerns such as homosexuality, you don’t want your ministry to become defined by its stance on every new hot-button issue that might emerge. Instead, ministries should be rooted in their ability to convey to students the core message of the Gospel. Berry added that this reasoning is related to his conviction that all teaching in a ministry needs to be premised on the concern that spiritual seekers and non-believers are welcomed, and made to understand the key truths of Christianity, without any assumptions that they have prior knowledge or understanding of Christian teaching. His stance echoed Tony Merida’s point that we can no longer assume any cultural familiarity with even the basic Christian message in 21st century American life. Berry added that campus ministry is really the spiritual “frontlines” where we have a chance to engage people who, at least initially, would never go to church. Building on some of what Chuck Lawless and Chris James had shared, Berry also stressed the importance of fostering mentoring relationships within a ministry, and noted that campus ministers should seek to cultivate three types of mentoring relationships in their own lives. There should be a “Paul” figure, an older wider person you can learn from, a “Barnabas” who is a peer and friend, and then a “Timothy”, a younger individual who you are influencing and pouring into spiritually. Berry concluded by noting that one truly can assess the value and success of a ministry only when the “rains” come. That is, through trials and challenges, we are made aware of how well we have instructed our students, and spiritually equipped them to deal with the stresses of life.
There is so much more I could share from Collegiate Week at Glorieta, and these excerpts are but a small sampling of what I learned during my time there. I feel very blessed to have had this opportunity to receive some outstanding spiritual instruction and encouragement just prior to the start of the fall semester. It is refreshing to be reminded just how many people across the country do have a heart for college students, and are striving every day to make the name of Jesus known on their respective campuses. I am honored to be in their company, and look forward to getting back into the fields, where Our Father assures us, the harvest is waiting!! (Matthew 9:37-8).