Thoughts on the future of campus ministry

by Karl Stevens

Part 2 of 2

Part 1 is here.

What can parishes do for students? And how can those of us who specialize in campus ministry help parishes engage with the students in their midsts?

To begin with, campus ministers need to understand that a big part of their role is to act as translators between the classroom and the pews. Scholars are always figuring out new ways to encounter the world, or digging in the past to show that the innovations that seem so frightening are actually based on very old questions. A few months ago I went to a talk given by Don Hubin, a philosophy professor at OSU. Don was talking about the way in which new social phenomena tap into very old questions, and he used Grand Theft Auto to raise this question: do the things we do in our imaginations matter in the world outside of our imaginations? There’s a whole philosophical and theological tradition built around this single question. Imagine what it would be like if parish priests were able to speak from that tradition to every grandmother who’s worried that her grandson is playing Grand Theft Auto? The academy is often more tuned-in to real world concerns than the church is, and one way in which we can learn to turn our gaze to the world outside our parish doors is by following the academy’s lead.

So a chaplain or campus minister needs to be engaged on campus – going to lectures, sponsoring lectures, taking classes, working with student groups. But they need to do more than that. They need to find a way to convey what they’ve learned while on campus to the church as a whole. This might mean writing newsletter articles and blog posts. It might mean finding compelling ways of inviting people in the surrounding parishes to those self-same lectures. It might mean regularly going and speaking in parishes about the things that the chaplain has learned. Or it might mean podcasting, or tweeting, or creating a Tumblr, or taking advantage of any of the myriad of communication tools available to us today. Doing so might have a double advantage – it might mean also managing to reach students who aren’t on any campus, but pursuing their studies online.

Because of the changing nature of campuses, and the decreasing engagement of students, many chaplains are finding that the old model of organizing a ministry around a group simply isn’t working anymore. Students will come to church but not to campus ministry dinners or Bible studies. They’re taking classes, working full-time, and, in some cases, trying to raise a family. The amount of time they have to give to any other interests has gotten very small. But they still want to be engaged somehow, and they still want someone to talk to about their faith. This means that work with students has become much more person-centered, and much less group-centered. A campus minister or chaplain’s job comes to include many more one on one meetings with individuals – lunches, coffees – and many fewer big group events. This is time intensive and requires a different kind of accounting for a ministry’s work. Five coffee dates per week don’t look as good as twenty students at a Bible study. But it’s much more in keeping with the emergent church, which is decentralized, non-dogmatic, and draws its authority from relationship. And this is another thing chaplains and campus ministers can translate from the margins into the center of the church. Imagine what a parish would be like if it had trained pastors in the pews. Episcopal worship is only mysterious if there’s no one who’s willing to explain it. But a stranger entering our churches can get it easily if someone will sit with them and guide them through worship, and get to know them in the process. The very nature of a chaplain’s job makes her well-suited to teaching others how to engage in this kind of ministry. The listening and conversational skills gained through many, many cups of coffee with individual students can be passed on to any parish member, and those skills can help parishes engage anyone who comes through the doors, let alone students.

Finally, the work and experience of campus ministers can help the wider church, and parishes especially, to discover new forms of assembly. It is true that where two or three are gathered together, Christ will be in the midst of us. But it’s also true that Christianity has, since it’s beginning, been about assembly – the bringing together of groups of people to worship and engage in acts of charity and justice. We are at a moment of disruption, when our old patterns of assembly (i.e. Sunday morning church) aren’t working as well as they used to, and don’t bring us into contact with the world outside of the church. Emergent campus ministries have had to rethink the idea of assembly, and not assume that it means the same set of people coming together for the same purpose every week. An emergent assembly might be a weeklong mission trip, or an art gallery opening, or a winter retreat. Maybe the people who assemble don’t see each other again for a month, or a semester, or even a year. But there are certain things that we can only do as Christians when we are together as a group, and there’s great value in being with groups, immersed in diversity and learning from a multitude of voices. Campus ministries explore many different kinds of assembly, and can encourage parishes and other church organizations to do likewise.

There is no set model for doing campus ministry well. In some places, particularly private liberal arts colleges, the old model, meant to cater to four year residential students, is still more than viable. But in many places, it is not. There is no single model that can replace it, since a set of ideas that will work well in one place may not work at all in another. But I hope I’ve outlined three ways of thinking about campus ministry (as translation between church and academia, as expert in interpersonal relationships, and as experimental in finding new forms of assembly) that will benefit students, those sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning, and the church as a whole. This period of disruption will not end in the near future. But we don’t need to fear it. It brings new opportunities to changing ministries, and opens the center of the church up to hearing the voices from the margins and benefitting from them.

The Rev. Karl Stevens writes at Praxis. He is an Episcopal Priest and a writer and illustrator. He is exceedingly fortunate to be the Missioner for Campus Ministry with the Diocese of Southern Ohio. He also got lucky when he married the lovely Amy Stevens, with whom he has one glorious child. Early in the summer of 2013 he and a bunch of parishioners from Saint James’s in Columbus set themselves on fire to demonstrate the properties of propane mixed with bubbly water and, of course, the power of the Holy Spirit. Everyone else got fantastic flames up and down their arms. Karl found that he had to cosset his flame like a small bird. He’s trying not to read too much into that.

Past Posts