The 5 Big Issues in Campus Ministry Today: #1 Missiology
I’m devoting this week on the SENTinel to answering the question I posed last week: what are “The 5 Big Issues in Campus Ministry Today”? I’ll be writing on one issue a day. Today’s post is on Missiology.
[Note: I'm much indebted to various missional thinkers in this post, and in particular Tim Keller's succinct article on The Missional Church].
MISSIOLOGY is the theology and study of missions. It acknowledges that campus ministry is a missions endeavor, and that North America is one of the biggest mission fields in the world.
While talking about the characteristics and beliefs of college students is common in campus ministry, we need greater and deeper missiological work in three areas: our people-group, our context, and especially on a missional reorientation to all of campus ministry.
1. We need a missiology of our people-group, college students. This must include sociology, demographics, psychology, and worldview of college students. Who ARE we trying to reach, anyway? Perhaps you’ve heard some of the following statistics:
Less of this generation professes faith in Christ than any previously—one study (The Bridger Generation, by Thom Rainer) found only 4% profess faith in Christ.
Christian students know that fewer of their peers think positively of them than ever. UnChristian, by David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons, found that only 3% of nonChristians ages 18-29 have a positive view of “evangelicals.”
Nearly ½ of nonChristians agree with the statement, “Christians get on my nerves,” and 2/3 agree that “the Church is full of hypocrites.” (Lost and Found, by Ed Stetzer).
It’s become increasingly common to throw around stats like the preceding, but what do we do with our knowledge of culture, generational theory, and worldview? Missiology isn’t simply knowing some statistics—it’s knowing how to proclaim and incarnate the Gospel to a people-group. We can’t just cite these statistics, and then go back to our cloistered sing ‘n speaks and Bible studies. We must work hard at figuring out how to engage the legions of students who will never walk through the doors of our large-group meetings.
Too much of campus ministry is spent talking about the unchurched/dechurched, and not talking with them. For credibility’s sake, I’ll tell you that my ministry at Penn State features a weekly forum for skeptics of all stripes to question faith and doubt, as well as a network of small groups (whose leaders I disciple) designed to engage any and all questions that nonChristians may bring.
2. We need a missiology of our context: higher ed/academia. This is a failure in my opinion of the old guard campus ministries, who tended to just look at reaching students without much interest in redeeming & renewing places and institutions.
Where our ministry is located is not an irrelevant or extraneous detail. Each campus, and each city/community it is located in, is unique. Ministry to, and by, these campus communities must be shaped by context. We must continually ask, “What does it look like to communicate and incarnate the Gospel in this particular place, at this particular time, to this particular people?”
We should be asking, “What is it about Higher ed that makes it a particularly challenging, strategic, and exciting mission field? What are the common defeaters to belief here? What are the institutional, social, and cultural obstacles to the Gospel here? What would this sector of society look like if it was increasingly renewed by the Gospel?
Too many campus ministries barely seek to understand the campuses they minister on, let alone the larger context in which their campuses are placed. Reliance on prepackaged, cookie-cutter, discipleship-in-a-can techniques or materials, without contextualization, will not be fruitful over the large scope and long haul.
Complaints about how our campuses are so liberal/secular/relativist/postmodern are common. A missional campus ministry acknowledges all this, but does not take an oppositional posture towards it. Rather, it believes that God has brought students to their campus & community, and placed them on the “inside” so that they can learn about them and minister effectively within them.
Former President of the United Nations General Assembly (and Christian) Charles Habib Malik stated “The university is a clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world…More potently than by any other means, change the university and you change the world.“
D.L. Moody said “Water runs downhill and the highest hills are the great cities. If we can stir them we shall stir the whole country.” I would add that campuses, many of which attract students from around the world, are themselves global cities in microcosm, and that through them we can reach many nations of the world at once. We stir the world by stirring the campuses, and we do this by starting missional ministries and churches that reach college campuses.
3. We must also talk about what missional campus ministry looks like.
I’ve written more on The Need for Missional Campus Ministry, so I won’t go into as much depth here. But we must be concerned that most everyone is content to keep doing attractional ministry among the shrinking enclaves of churched kids. It’s not enough to attract a crowd anymore. We have to mobilize them for mission. What if instead of
entertaining students, we called them to the sacrifice and service of being a missionary to their campus? We live in a post-Christian mission field. Are we preparing students to engage the world they will live in, or the one we grew up in?
Missional Campus Ministry orients everything towards reaching students with the Gospel of Christ, and equipping them for the missio Dei.
The Gospel is understood and experienced as inherently missional. It’s not something we do—it’s something we are. The people of God, on His mission. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:11,14-21, it is Christ’s love that compels us to make the Gospel message known, by transforming us from self-absorbed creatures into ambassadors of the Gospel of Christ.
Being missional changes our methods. Paul said in 1 Cor. 9:22-23 “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” This is the heart of missional ministry. We “become” things that are different than—maybe even undesirable to—our natural selves, in order to win people to Jesus Christ, for the sake of the Gospel! This changes how we live, how we dress, how we talk, what we do for fun, who our friends are, what music we listen to—in short, everything!
Missional outreach engages the “Defeaters” of the Gospel. Several culturally-based beliefs regularly combine to make Christianity appear implausible and literally unbelievable to non-Christians. These include the common charges of Christians being intolerant; the objection to Jesus being the only Way; the merits of other religions, Christianity and political beliefs, and many others. Missional ministry takes these objections seriously, and humbly interacts with those who hold them. Dealing with Defeaters simultaneously engages unbelievers, and models to believers how to engage in these conversations in informed, winsome, courageous, and most of all, loving ways.
Missional outreach doesn’t view evangelism as merely a program or activity. Missional is an adjective for everything that a church or organization does. “Canned,” impersonal evangelistic campaigns, often utilizing tracts and approaching strangers, are recognized as both ineffective and reinforcing of the defeaters people hold against Christianity. As Keller states, missional ministry “must be more deeply and practically committed to deeds of compassion and social justice than traditional liberal churches and more deeply and practically committed to evangelism and conversion than traditional fundamentalist churches. This kind of church is profoundly ‘counter-intuitive’ to American observers. It breaks their ability to categorize (and dismiss) it as liberal or conservative. Only this kind of church has any chance in the non- Christian west.”
Missional outreach speaks in a language that the unchurched can understand. Because we don’t live in Christendom anymore, we can’t assume that people are fluent in “Christianese.” Terms must constantly be explained. This doesn’t mean watered-down. Rather, great effort and care are taken to speak faithfully about spiritual things in ways non-churched people can understand. There is a constant stream of “translation” to a foreign culture.
Insider lingo, and sentimental religious-speak, are avoided. Speakers do not assume they are reminding people of stuff they already know, but that they are explaining new things to them. They always assume that unbelievers are present with them, people who are likely biblically-illiterate and whose own faith is composed of a hodge-podge of spiritual ideas. Speakers are very careful in their humor, and avoid “us vs. them” language. The only offense that should be caused is that of the Cross itself. This is important in setting the tone for Christians as well: it models to them how to speak with unbelievers, while also encouraging them to invite their friends, neighbors, and coworkers into the Christian community.
Missional discourse—having recognized that the Church has lost its place of privilege in society—embraces its new outsider status, and regains its prophetic role to speak out against injustice and abuse of privilege in those institutions that remain in power. The motive for all of this is not marketing or better PR, but love for our neighbor. It is the expression of our willingness to do anything and change anything—even dearly loved traditions or practices—so that some would be saved.
Missional outreach is familiar with, and engages the various “gospels” proclaimed in culture, particularly through movies, music, etc. Because “all truth is God’s Truth,” many points of contact exist in popular culture, points which provide ample opportunities to connect people’s experience with the Gospel story. This takes wisdom and discernment, as well as a deep awareness (and appreciation) of both the biblical (meta)narrative and the cultural narratives. “Because the kingdom is our model, we must be wary of every generation’s tendency to tout a “new” culture to replace the kingdom” (Mark Driscoll). Being aware of the Gospel story empowers us to engage the gospels of culture with the genuine article, which in turn exposes the counterfeits.
 A Christian Critique of the University (Pascal Lectures on Christianity and the University), IVP, 1981