How Presbyterian Should Presbyterian Campus Ministry Be?

Our moderator, Bruce Reyes Chow, has encouraged us Presbyterian bloggers to participate in a monthly “Presbyterian Bloggers Unite.” This month, the focus is campus ministry.

I’ve been involved with campus ministry in some form or another for 7 of the past 8 years. After four years at a Presbyterian college where I was involved in a few different campus ministries. Then I went to Pittsburgh Seminary for three years and in two of those three years I worked part-time for a Korean immigrant church, heading up their campus ministry at Carnegie Mellon University. Now, I work half time as a Presbyterian church planter and three quarter time as a campus minister to grad students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon and Pitt through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

As I reflect on these experiences in campus ministry for Presbyterian Blogger day, what I find most interesting is that my experiences in campus ministry have been the “least Presbyterian” of all my experiences in ministry. Grove City is a Presbyterian college, yet my time there actually did more to expose me to alternative Christian traditions than it did reaffirm my “Presbyterianism.” My experiences at Grove City included my first exposures to charismatic worship, to parachurch organizations, and to people who didn’t think my baptism as an infant was an actual baptism. When I worked for the Korean church, which was Presbyterian, very few of the students were actually Presbyterian; many came from backgrounds in the Assembly of God or “non-denominational” churches. And the ones who were Presbyterian usually didn’t care to identify themselves that way. And now I’m working for InterVarsity, a national parachurch ministry whose staffworkers include Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and a multitude of other Christian backgrounds.

The significance of this is that most college students could care less about their denominational identity. College students don’t care about growing as a Presbyterian (or whatever denomination they come from). They want to grow in the core of the Christian faith: a life of walking with Jesus as his follower and disciple and in maintaining community with his body, the Church universal.

The problem is most Presbyterian congregations that I’ve seen are more concerned with keeping their college students Presbyterian, or worse, keeping their youth as members of their congregation when they leave for college. I’ve heard members of many Presbyterian churches complain that when their young people leave for college, they rarely come back. So, these churches will respond by doing what they can to keep college students connected to their congregation. One of their students will travel across the country to go to college, and the church will get their new address to send them church newsletters. Really ambitious churches will send care packages and cards. These are all fine ministries, but these things don’t provide students with what they really need and want: opportunities to grow and walk with Jesus in their new context on campus.

It’s in light of all this that I’ve realized the importance of parachurch campus ministries like InterVarsity.

I’ve only been working for InterVarsity for a short time, so a big chunk of my work at this point is raising my support. I’ve talked with a lot of leaders, pastors, and mission committees from a lot of congregations. I expected the churches near the university campuses to be the most interested in partnering with me. Ironically, they’ve been the least interested; they already have their own campus ministers working out of their church building. The churches who have shown the most enthusiastic support in partnership with me have been congregations further from campuses. These churches can’t hire their own ministers for college students; it’s not financially feasible and they simply aren’t located near any campus. But, supporting me, even in small amounts, gives them an investment in campus ministry. My ministry is now their ministry too.

On top of that, they’re not only partnered with me, I’m also partnered with them. I join them in wanting to see their students stay connected as they go into college. But, I want to see them do it by growing in their own context. As a staff worker for InterVarsity, I’m connected to campus ministers all across the country. As my partner churches send off their high school graduates to universities all across the country each fall, I’ll be contacting the campus ministers at each of those campuses with the names of those incoming freshmen. These campus ministers may or may not be Presbyterian, and the students may or may not be Presbyterian by the time they graduate from college, but they’re considerably more likely to still be a follower of Jesus when they leave.

The future of Presbyterian campus ministry has to include a lessening of distinct denominational identity. At the congregational level, it needs to include a desire to see students continue in walks with Jesus regardless of whether they continue in membership. Successful campus ministry has to be approached in light of the work of the larger Body of Christ on earth.

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4 thoughts on “How Presbyterian Should Presbyterian Campus Ministry Be?

  1. Then again, there are things about being Presbyterian that resonate with college-age folks. The idea of representative church governance, for example. And the Presbyterian emphasis on the importance of education and the intellectual life. And…at least in some Presby circles…an openness to vigorous and relational exploration of meaning, faith, and Christ.

    I tend to think that training college-age volk to demographically self-isolate from congregations just exacerbates their ultimate drift away from local faith communities. Small groups are fine, but they don’t ultimately provide a venue for breaking down the generational divisions that are imposed on us by our culture.

    1. It is true the Presbyterians have something to offer university students. However, what we ultimately have to offer is the gospel. Anything else is penultimate or antepenultimate. The problem with placing our emphasis of campus ministry on what makes us unique as Presbyterians is that we then only appeal to already Christians who are actually looking for a campus ministry to be a part of, which has a good chance of leading to competition with other campus ministries for students to be involved. That’s why any campus ministry, Presbyterian or otherwise, needs to make their first priority the gospel. I’ve met many students who have been looking for authentic relationships with God. I’ve never met a student who said, “I’d really like to find a campus ministry with representative government.”

      I agree that there is a great danger to isolating students. However, I think it’s important to realize that university communities are almost always in a bubble. Very few college students are invested in the community beyond their campus. College students do need interaction with people outside of their own generation. But, if congregations just wait for them to show up in their building on Sunday morning, they’re going to be waiting a very long time. Instead of waiting for college students to invest in congregations, congregations need to take an active role in investing in them.

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