Early September means the return of college football season, one of my favorite times of the year. I can think back also to my own years of playing football, 7th-12th grade in school. August and September, particularly in Alabama, are typically extremely hot and humid months, the weather feeling more appropriate for baseball or an outdoor swim party than for donning full pads and breaking out the pigskin. But even now that I dwell in the cooler, drier climes of Colorado, these times of the year still always take me back to those sweat-drenched, nerve-wracking, and exciting evenings under the Friday night lights. But to get to the thrill of the games themselves, a dreaded obstacle had to first be navigated, one familiar to almost anyone who’s played high school football: Two-a-days. This August rite of passage, a series of twice-daily practices leading up to the start of school and the beginning of the football season, were dreaded by almost everyone. Brutally hot temperatures, all-too-brief water breaks, punishing wind sprints, and hard, physical drills were the typical features of these sessions. And yet they were vitally important to the success of the upcoming year. Two-a-days are all about instilling and reiterating the fundamental skills necessary to play football effectively, as individuals, and as part of a team. Every year, the whole team, from the newest, skinny bench-warmers to the seasoned veterans, would learn once again, or for the first time, the fundamental gridiron skills of how to block, tackle, and execute basic skills from the playbook.
What’s interesting about two-a-days though is that they are not limited just to the high school level. Until recently in fact, most college and NFL programs also held similar practice schedules. The simple reason is that football players, no matter their level of ability or experience, need a constant re-education in the fundamental skills that enable them to play the game successfully. The greatest coaches have implicitly understood that the building blocks for football success have always started with making sure that players are well-drilled in even the most rudimentary of fundamentals. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi supposedly started out each season by entering the team locker room to deliver a simple object lesson. Holding the pigskin aloft, he would tell his squad “Gentlemen, this is a football.” As a life-long fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, one of my all-time favorite coaches is Paul “Bear” Bryant, legendary leader of the ‘Bama program from 1958-1982. Both at Alabama, and his previous successful stints at Kentucky, and Texas A&M, Bryant began his tenure by putting his squads through brutal spring and summer practices that laid the groundwork for all of his future success. Perhaps the most infamous of these took place when Bryant arrived in College Station, Texas to revive the fortunes of the failing Texas A&M Aggie football team in 1954. To prepare for the upcoming season, he took his squad to an isolated central Texas town called Junction, and put them through an unrelenting, no holds-barred series of grueling practices. One of Bryant’s players on that first A&M team was Gene Stallings, who would later coach Alabama to a national championship in 1992. Of the Junction experience, he famously quipped “we went out there in two buses and came back in one.” The attrition rate was indeed high, with many players sneaking out under cover of darkness to quit the Aggie squad. And although the team subsequently struggled to a 1-9 record in 1954, Bryant didn’t back off from his ferociously disciplined, fundamentals-first approach. Eventually it paid dividends as Texas A&M just two years later went 9-0-1 and won the 1956 Southwest Conference title. Successful coaches in other sports have also been characterized by a keen focus on the fundamental aspects of their craft. Bob Knight, who won 3 college basketball national titles while coaching at Indiana, maintained an obsessive focus on the basics. Steve Alford, an All-American shooting guard for the Hoosiers who played for Knight during the 1980s, noted in his autobiography Playing for Knight, how the legendary coach spent at least part of nearly every practice instructing players exhaustively on how to execute the three basic screens that were a staple of the Indiana offense.
These lessons about the importance of fundamentals have been on my mind recently, because August and September, for campus ministries, are the most important months of the entire year. During this period, just prior to, and following the commencement of the fall semester, we have the chance to meet, and begin to build relationships with the majority of new students who will be involved in our ministry for the remainder of the school year. One question that keeps getting asked as we are approached at our informational table, or engage students at some of our beginning of the year outreach events is “Tell me what Christian Challenge is all about.” I’ve responded to this inquiry in a variety of ways, seeking to find a succinct and clear way to express the essence of what our campus ministry strives to value and achieve. As I’ve shared before, our ministry’s motto is “Changing the world through God-honoring relationships”, and while these words eloquently express what we hope will be the end result of much of our work, they don’t as much describe the actual process of how we go about initiating and nurturing such relationships. Also, as I begin my fourth year working in campus ministry here in Boulder, I’ve started to become more reflective about the long-term impact I’m hoping to have on the students into whose lives I’ve been privileged enough to have an opportunity to invest. Last month’s blog post touched on this theme, as I reflected back on some of the special highlights from my first three years here. I’m now in the position where students who I knew when they entered the ministry as freshmen are now starting their final year of college. What is the spiritual legacy that they will carry with them when they graduate and leave our ministry? And is this a legacy which is to some extent transferable? In other words, will they feel properly equipped to be able to share some of these spiritual lessons they have absorbed while in Christian Challenge, regardless of the setting to which their jobs or life circumstances may call them?
With such thoughts in mind I wanted to set out to explain those faith fundamentals which represent the essential truths our ministry hopes to instill students. Just as we have been discussing in the examples from the sports world, learning and practicing the fundamentals are the keys to long-term success, and this holds true spiritually-speaking as well. There are many Scriptures which speak to this, but a few in particular come to mind as I write. First, no one ever summarized the essential duties of Christ followers better than, well, Christ Himself, speaking in Matthew 22:37-40. Here, after having been asked what was the greatest of all commandments, Jesus perfectly summarizes the central intent behind the exhaustive list of 613 Old Testament commands: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” In a similar fashion, we could go back even to the Old Testament itself only to find how the prophets repeatedly offered a clear summary of the intent and purpose behind all of the provisions of the Law and Covenant given to the nation of Israel. Micah 6:8—“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” An even more forceful call to return to the faith fundamentals as outlined by the Covenant is found in Amos 5:21-24. There, the Lord rails against all the insincere forms of worship that the Israelites (like we today) offered in lieu of actually putting into practice the lifestyles and heart attitudes that God desired of the Jews. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
With Christian Challenge, we have three main areas of fundamental emphasis: outreach, evangelism, and discipleship. There is a course a good deal of overlap between these three areas, which is as it should be—we want our students to see that they are really all inextricably linked. In addition, we want them to know that this work can only be fully accomplished if their involvement in our campus ministry is supplemented and supported by their active participation in a local church. In emphasizing the ties to the local church, we often remind our students of the value of being part of the larger Baptist family of churches and mission partners. Now, let’s take a closer look now at these three areas of emphasis, and with each one I’ll also provide some key Scriptural references that help to define and pinpoint the spiritual values we look to impart in these different phases of the ministry.
Outreach—Many people might assume that working in campus ministry, especially in a very secular, “unchurched” setting like Boulder, Colorado, one’s first task would be the work of evangelism—getting the Gospel message out to those who’ve never heard it before. But while this is a vitally important component of our ministry, often our work begins initially with outreach. Precisely because so many around Boulder and at the University of Colorado have never really heard the Gospel before, or have only the most rudimentary background with Christianity, our first strategy is to simply bring them into situations where they can begin to enjoy fellowship with Christians. For many international students, coming from parts of the world such as India, China, and the Middle East, they may never have had a chance to meet Christ followers before. So with Christian Challenge, we are constantly seeking to refine and improve our methods for hosting creative outreach events that will introduce a wide variety of students to our group. On several occasions, students who’ve been checking out a Challenge event for the first time have commented on the diversity of our group. We have undergrads, grad students, transfer students, and even the occasional young person who’s not enrolled at CU, and is just working in the Boulder community. In addition we have a wide geographical diversity represented, with students coming from all over the world, and from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I think this is in part a result of the many different types of outreaches we plan. We’ve never sought to attract one particular “type” of CU student. In truth it’s very hard to even summarize who would even be a “typical” Colorado student, because CU tends to draw in lots of different people for a wide spectrum of academic, social, and what we might could term “locational” (read—the mountains!) factors. With this in mind, a big part of what we do as a Christian Challenge staff, and in conjunction with our student leadership team is to plan a wide range of different events that can draw in different types of students for an initial contact with our group.
In fact, as I think about the many ways in which we have reached out to CU students, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22 seem fitting: “I have become all things to all men, that I might be all means save some.” Certainly our students have tried to live out this truth, and time and time again have shown great versatility and creativity in coming up with new ways to connect with their peers. Many Colorado students are very much into fitness and the outdoors—not surprising given Boulder’s close proximity to all forms of mountain recreation. So we often plan active events: games of ultimate frisbee on campus, hiking and climbing excursions, ski days in the winter (my personal favorite!), and just this past Saturday, a fun day of riding boats and jet skis at a Denver-area lake. So important is the outdoor, active lifestyle for many CU students that we even have appointed one of our staff interns this fall to focus specifically on coming up with outdoor-related outreach events. For students who like to bond around sports, we’ve held special watch parties for big CU football games. On the other hand, some students enjoy a more relaxed evening in, and so for them we’ve held board game parties, movie nights, or baking/cooking events. We also try to connect with students “where they live”, quite literally speaking. So we’ve organized special outreach events for those CU students, mostly freshmen, who live in the dorms. These have included baking cookies for residents, and offering to take out their trash.
For other types of students, especially internationals, we try to think in terms of what might give them a quintessentially “American” experience. We organize a lot of events around holidays—Halloween, Thanksgiving, the Christmas season, and Valentine’s Day in particular, to allow our international friends the chance to experience celebrations and customs they likely would not encounter back in their home countries. In addition, we hold special ethnic diner nights that allow internationals to showcase the food and culture of their homelands. Also, sometimes international students, most of whom do not have cars, just need some very practical assistance such as being given a ride to a grocery store or a Walmart to do some shopping. Lastly, a major service we can provide to international students, which can also double as an outreach, are English as a second-language classes. With Christian Challenge, and our ministry partners at Horizons, we try to offer informal, conversational English classes that are also fun times of fellowship and learning more about American culture. We are fortunate too that the University offers services to internationals that we can participate in. The most notable example is International Coffee Hour, a weekly time when CU invites all international students to meet up for coffee, snacks, and the chance to practice their English with American conversation partners. Almost always at these events the international students far outnumber the Americans, and so it can be a great opportunity for people in our Christian Challenge group to meet and befriend new students from all over the world.
As I think about the outreach component of our campus ministry, a key value that we are trying to teach our students through these events is the importance of Christ-centered hospitality. This is certainly a value expressed frequently in Scripture, and with Christian Challenge we have a weekly event, the “Friday Night Thing”, that particularly embodies the spirit of hospitality we want our students to practice, and our guests and visitors to enjoy. During the semester, we gather every Friday evening at our director’s house for a home-cooked meal, and a time of fellowship. First-time visitors, especially internationals, are often very thrilled to be invited into someone’s home, and furthermore during these times they get to witness our students demonstrating servant hearts. Much of the work in terms of preparing food, serving, and cleaning up afterwards is done by our students, while others focus on making sure that everyone has rides to and from the event, and on equally including all guests in whatever games or activities might follow the dinner. With outreach, our goal is always to move beyond simply initiating fellowship to the next step, where we can begin to build authentic relationships with the students we are meeting. As I mentioned earlier in this post, all of the skills that we hope to equip our Christian Challenge students with are designed to be transferable, and so are not specific to just the campus ministry context. The idea is that students can continue to practice these skills once they are out of school and in the working world. So if we can teach them the value of being hospitable, serving others, and being intentional about finding creative ways to reach out to and connect with a variety of different types of people, they will be better placed hopefully to continue reaching others for Christ once they graduate. Outreach can be tiring, even draining at times, especially at the beginning of the semester when it seems like we are having special events almost every night of the week. And at times students may be frustrated because while they are meeting many new individuals, it can sometimes be hard, especially initially, to gauge the level of long-term spiritual impact of a particular outreach event. So the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58 are good to keep in mind here: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” As we think about outreach, we also want to stress to our students that this component of our ministry is not confined merely to the initial fall recruitment period. We want them to always be on the lookout for new students who the Lord might be bringing our way, and for them to always be prepared to foster a new relationship that might open the door to a Gospel presentation.
This leads me to our next area of focus within Christian Challenge: evangelism. Just because I mentioned outreach first does not at all imply that we don’t prioritize spreading the Word through sharing testimonies, and telling students how they can enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus. With Christian Challenge, we encourage our students in both direct, and more relational forms of evangelism. Because one never knows when or how the Spirit of the Lord may be at work, it’s good to practice multiple types of evangelistic approaches, and also to never hold back from introducing and identifying with Jesus as early as possible when meeting a new contact for the ministry. I’m mindful of the advice with which Paul exhorts his protégé Timothy, in 2 Timothy 4:2—“Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season.” Just as with outreach, we stress to our students that evangelism must be a year-round mentality, and not something that is just emphasized at the beginning of the year. In terms of direct evangelism, we’ve tried a variety of different techniques. During the beginning of the fall semester, we always engage in a campus-wide push to do spiritual surveys. This year alone, we surveyed nearly 500 individuals to gain a sense of their initial spiritual interest and background. In addition, all students on our leadership team, or those who wish to serve on it in the future, are required to take a training class called “Theology of the Gospel.” In this class one of the weekly assignments is to ask different spiritual questions to friends and classmates. We’ve also tried to capitalize on certain times of the year when students might be more open than usual to spiritual overtures, such as during Christmas and around Easter. One year, in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, we handed out specially designed tracts that discussed the significance of Jesus’s birth. Then just this past spring, we organized a large-scale evangelistic outreach called “Good News Week” leading up to Easter Sunday. This included two collaborative worship services held with other campus ministries, as well as having a Christian Challenge book table where we gave out numerous tracts and copies of apologetic texts like Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter and Lee Strobel’s Case for Easter. With direct evangelism, one doesn’t really have any prior context or relationship to the person whom you are interacting with. And often, unless a more in-depth conversation happens to develop, they might not be any chance for follow up. However just as Matthew 13’s Parable of the Sower teaches, there is no way to know who, upon hearing the Word might eventually be receptive, and so there are certainly seasons and times within the life of a campus ministry when it makes sense to “sow broadly.” Also, similar to the verse from 2 Timothy 4:2, one of my other favorite passages on evangelism comes from 1 Peter 3:15—“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.” It’s important for our students to learn about more direct methods of evangelism that can be implemented but that are still not so confrontational that they instantly turn people away. Although many people, including myself are at times not naturally as comfortable with this “cold call” approach, it’s a valuable lesson in stepping out in faith, and seeing how God can work even when we have no context or relationship to help foster a spiritual conversation with someone.
But as our earlier-stated motto reflects, the heart of Christian Challenge’s efforts to tell others about Jesus could be considered relational. This is where the outreach component of our ministry connects substantially to the work of evangelism. Our goal, upon meeting students through the different fellowships and social events we organize is to then build a relationship that will allow for the opportunity for them to hear our testimony, and learn how they too can have a personal relationship with Jesus. One of the main things that we teach our group is how to have a Gospel Appointment. This is time when you meet up with a ministry prospect for food or coffee in order to learn more about them. You find out about their story, perhaps details about their family, hobbies, interests, and what led them to attend CU. You also find out if they have any spiritual background or beliefs. A special effort is placed though on listening well, and letting the other person talk without interruption or impatience on our part. Then, there is a brief transition in which we teach students to share a little bit about Christian Challenge and our activities. Lastly, and most importantly, they then segue into a closing sequence where they share some of their own testimony as well as a Gospel illustration which succinctly outlines the plan of salvation. We teach our students an easy-to-remember system that using just one verse, Romans 6:23, and a visual diagram “The Bridge”, that helps to make some of these spiritual concepts a little more tangible, especially for someone who perhaps has never before heard the Gospel message. We present the Gospel Appointment to our students not as a rigid checklist that has to be followed, but more of a loose structure and a basic foundation within which a lot of flexibility remains for them to highlight aspects of their own Christian story and personality. We also teach that the Gospel Appointment is very often not the conclusion of one’s evangelistic efforts, but likely just the beginning. Numerous follow-up appointments and discussions are often necessary to help someone gain a clear understanding of the Gospel. But relational evangelism allows for us to be patient, because having built a genuine friendship with another person, there needn’t be pressure for them to have to make a spiritual decision before they’re ready. At the same time, we do want to cultivate within our ministry a sense of “holy urgency”, along the lines of 2 Corinthians 6:2—‘Behold now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” In everything that we do as a ministry teaching-wise, we try to always keep in mind the fact that we may have people showing up at a weekly meeting or a Bible study small group that have no prior experience with Christianity. Thus we want to make all of our content evangelistic in nature, and never only directed towards Christian “insiders.” With all of our work in evangelism, we share the desire of Paul in Colossians 4:3-6—“To speak the mystery of Christ…that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”
As a natural extension of our evangelism around campus, we also teach students in Christian Challenge to embrace missions, and develop a heart for the nations. This could begin organically enough from working with international students at CU, or perhaps God has specially placed a particular country, region, or people group on their hearts. Certainly when it comes to missions, I am reminded of the blessing of being part of a campus ministry that is affiliated with a larger church network. As a Southern Baptist group, Christian Challenge benefits enormously from the extensive network of SBC missions partnerships that have been developed across America and around the world. We offer our students many different opportunities to be involved in such partnerships. We always have a spring break mission trip, which in the past has led us to work with SBC church planters and other Baptist-associated ministries in Denver, as well as in Los Angeles. Each summer, students also have the chance to talk part in a Denver-based mission enterprise called “Project Impact.” This involves them taking full-time jobs, while receiving specialized spiritual training in the evenings and on weekends, with a particular focus towards learning how to share and live out their faith in the workplace. We also offer numerous chances for overseas missions trips to students. Q-Joy international is an organization started by our former director Bobby Pruett, which specializes in training students to work with special needs children from a Christian missions context. They organize both a summer training program for students in Denver as well as a subsequent overseas trip to work with schools for these children in Kenya. Then as I have already shared in a previous post, I had the exciting opportunity this summer to travel to Germany, where we have partnerships with three different campus ministries that are connected to the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. The hope is that I will be able to return to Germany next summer with a full student team to continue our missions partnerships there. We’ve also been fortunate enough to host two different mission teams here in Boulder in just the past year–a group from the University of Alabama’s Baptist campus ministry in the spring, and then a team from my former church, First Baptist Montgomery (AL), this August. Our theme verse for the fall 2017 semester with Christian Challenge is taken from Habakkuk 2:14—“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” That is why we always will prioritize evangelism, and look to use every available opportunity to leverage the relationships God has given us to give as many CU students as possible the chance to hear and respond to the claims of the Gospel!
As a necessary corollary to the work of both outreach and evangelism, Christian Challenge’s third area of emphasis is in discipleship. This is a topic I’ve already written about in the blog, because I’ve personally benefitted form some outstanding mentors, and the chance to disciple others has long been one of the most rewarding aspects of campus ministry for me. When students become actively involved in Christian Challenge, the next step is always to encourage them to enter into a discipleship relationship with a staff member or an older student. In fact, one of the requirements for participants in our student leadership team is that they all must be discipled by a staff member. The optimal situation is one in which our older students become engaged in “two-way” discipleship. They are being mentored spiritually by a staff member, while in turn they are investing into the life of a younger student in the ministry. Discipleship within Christian Challenge seeks to emphasize certain key, fundamental spiritual disciplines which we feel confident will serve our students well later in life, regardless of where the Lord may lead them, vocationally, or ministerialy—speaking. These disciplines include studying Scripture together, Scripture memorization, prayer, and talking through spiritual problems/challenges in their lives. Discipleship meetings can take many different forms as well. Sometimes it may be a one-on-one setting, perhaps gathered for a meal. But at other times, discipleship might happen as part of a shared life experience. I enjoy going skiing with students I’m discipling, because we have all day together to talk about a whole host of life and spiritual topics in a relaxed setting. Disicpleship opportunities also frequently can overlap with the other two main components of Christian Challenge’s work—outreach and evangelism. I’ve often invited a student I was discipling to come along and attend a Gospel Appointment with me, or to go and do some spiritual surveys together. But discipleship gets at the heart of one of the main overall goals we have with all of our ministry work in Christian Challenge—that these lessons become transferable, something that can be passed down from our current group of student leaders to the next generation of collegians that will come through the ministry. It is this generational transfer of spiritual wisdom that Paul advocates in 2 Timothy 2:2—“And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” As I discussed with both outreach and evangelism, discipleship is a continual, year-round process. Every student progresses at his or her own unique pace, and certainly we never attempt to teach or instill a “one size fits all approach.” However, these shared spiritual disciples—revolving around Scripture, prayer, and living out one’s faith form the core of those lessons that we are seeking to instill in students through the process of individual teaching and investing in another’s life.
Ultimately the fundamentals, by their very nature, are those lessons and truths that we return to again and again in order to achieve success—whether in the world of sports, or in the spiritual realm. My most fervent desire in campus ministry, and what I believe will be the truest indicator of any success on my part, will be the extent to which decades from now, our students will still be able to retain and build upon some of the spiritual lessons and tools that we have equipped them with. Much of what we do may currently be centered on the particular context of the university campus, but the full impact of our ministry is best appreciated off campus, and away from Boulder, as the students we have equipped to make a Kingdom difference go out into the various parts of the world the Lord has called them to.