A Vision for Public Campus Ministry

In the late 19th century, as states were taking advantage of federal land grants to establish major universities, Christians in many denominations caught a vision of these new schools as a ripe mission field. In some places, pastors of nearby churches began to reach out to students, while in other places, students of similar faith gathered together to support and encourage one another. Independent organizations such as the YMCA established student chapters.

This was the context in which Ellen White lifted up a similar vision before Adventists. And though this was a time when Adventists were struggling to get the first denominational colleges established, she said some should go elsewhere for their education:

There are those who, after becoming established, rooted, and grounded in the truth, should enter these institutions of learning as students. They can keep the living principles of the truth, and observe the Sabbath, and yet they will have opportunity to work for the Master by dropping seeds of truth in minds and hearts. …

But I scarcely dare present this method of labor; for there is danger that those who have no decided connection with God will place themselves in these schools, and instead of correcting error and diffusing light, will themselves be led astray. But this work must be done; and it will be done by those who are led and taught of God. (3SM 233-4)

Few responded.

Today, over a century after her call, Adventists have a spotty record when it comes to ministry on public and private college and university campuses. In North America, we have well developed programs at a few places like Berkeley, Knoxville, and MSU, a couple of conference programs (Michigan and Georgia-Cumberland), and active student organizations on a few dozen campuses. We have some training resources, like The Word on Campus (available from Advent Source), the ACF Institute, and trainings sponsored by the Michigan Conference. We have a part-time North American Division coordinator for Adventist Christian Fellowship, Ron Pickell, who is a full-time pastor. Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries endorses chaplains for this ministry … but few have gone through the process.

Back in 2008, these were among the topics discussed at a “180˚ Symposium” at Andrews University, sponsored by the Center for Youth Evangelism (the proceedings were published as Reach Your Campus, Reach the World). We considered some staggering statistics: there are 19,000,000 students at these colleges and universities in North America–the combined population of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix. Seventy to eighty percent of Adventist college students attend non-Adventist colleges.

Adventism in North America is “graying”–the median age of our membership is high, and not just because Adventists are living longer than the general population, but because we are rapidly losing young adults in their 20s, and have a dearth of members in the 20-45 age bracket.

How much wisdom and experience and giftedness have we lost through this attrition? How much tithe money has the church lost because today’s young doctors, lawyers, business entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and video game programmers did not find the church there for them during college and grad school?

The harvest is ripe. Where are the workers? Where is the passion? Where are the resources?

Why do we have so few full-time chaplains? Why are there so few churches near college campuses that make the campus a focus for their evangelistic efforts?

We talked about the problem of funding. Vast sums are spent on mass-mailings for evangelistic campaigns that result in a handful of baptisms–why don’t conferences spend some of those evangelism dollars on college campuses? What might happen if they devoted a mere 10% of evangelism funds for campus evangelism?

Not only are there few full-time ministers, but there is little stability in this ministry. As a result, we have little of the collective wisdom that is gained from years of experience. The few of us who do have the experience encourage one another and seek to fan into flame the sparks we see here and there, but it is hard work, and each time we meet we seem to cover the same ground and can cite few examples of forward momentum.

Much of what I am writing here I first published in Adventist Today in 2009.  Since that time, some advances have been made, most notably the establishment of a Director of Public Campus Ministry at the General Conference, and the hiring of Jiwan Moon for that position.  Those of us doing campus ministry in North America have a better perspective on what is happening around the world today than we did five years ago.  In the fall of 2014, Ron Pickell and I, together with Jiwan, participated in the AMiCUS Congress in Lisbon sponsored by the Inter-European Division.  Ron and Jiwan have had additional travel throughout the world.  Earlier this year, chaplains at public campuses gathered in Lansing, MI, and we were encouraged by our common vision and shared passion. And this week Jiwan is convening a Public Campus Ministry Summit, involving leaders from around the world.

Let me say a word about my own experience in this ministry. I left the Adventist church as a college student, returning in 2007. At the time I returned, I was in my ninth year as Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. I supervised a dozen ministers on multiple campuses with a budget of $750,000. Prior to this, I had been a campus minister at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Since that time I have served the Adventist church as a district pastor, a chaplain in the National Guard, an advisor on young adult and campus ministry, and now as Assistant Director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division.

In light of that experience, let me share some of my recommendations for the development of Adventist campus ministry for the future:

We need to capture a vision of the university campus as a mission field. While discipleship of students is critical, this ministry must also engage faculty and staff, and the campus as a whole.

We need to prepare men and women for this ministry who will immerse themselves in the culture of academia, who value higher education and its search for truth, goodness, and beauty.  We can’t see the university as something foreign, which we approach as outsiders, from ministries at the edge, which exist merely to pull students off campus.

We need men and women who are willing to enter into campus life as fellow participants in its great conversation; who are, as Ellen White urged, willing to follow the example of Paul and Daniel and the Waldenses and witness not primarily through proclamation and argument but through the quiet witness of their life and their questions.

We need to listen to students and faculty and staff and learn from their own lips of their hopes and questions and gifts and fears, and not merely assume that our prepared answers have anything to do with the questions they ask.

We need to give to this ministry the urgency and the funding and the manpower that we give to youth ministry and to public evangelism.

We need to appoint fully-qualified, experienced, and mature pastors with aptitude and passion for this ministry as full-time chaplains, as we do for hospitals, prisons, Adventist campuses, and the military.

We need to identify those churches near college campuses, and give them pastors who share this vision. We need to give them training. We need to keep them in place so that they can learn that school and its culture and become part of its life.

There is much work to be done–but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from the experience of InterVarsity and CRU and Newman Centers and Hillel.

Now is the time. Help us cast the vision. Help us fan the flame.