People don’t always understand what it is that I do.  As a campus minister, I find that people often suppose that I am basically a youth group leader for college students.  “Do you have services?” they’ll ask, surprised to discover that we have a full-fledged worship program, including a choir, a worship committee, and student-written liturgies and prayers.  But the questions don’t end there and it never seems that people quite get what campus ministry is.

Campus Minister as Missionary

After a few years it finally dawned on me that there was an image that I could give to people that not only helped them to understand what I do, but it made the most sense in interpreting campus ministry to the broader community: I’m a missionary.  A missionary to a college campus.

I’ll usually go on to explain that as such I have to learn the local language, adapt to the local customs, and I spend a lot more time “digging wells” than doing what would be usually seen as “church” stuff.  That’s not to say that church doesn’t happen; it is merely to note that there’s an awful lot of relationship and community building that looks more like watching a movie with some pizza than it does like having a prayer meeting.  But it is certainly church.  And vital church.

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See, we understand this with our missionaries abroad quite well.  We know that they’re going to be spending a lot more time digging those wells, or working for farm workers’ rights, or simply sharing a meal with people than they will conducting worship services.  Now, there are those missionaries who travel far and wide essentially to “bring people to God”.  But in the United Methodist tradition, shaped so profoundly by E. Stanley Jones’ experience in India, we do not so much “bring people to God” as help them to see where God already is in their midst.

A Ministry of Solidarity and Presence

Another important point to remember about mission work is that one of the primary values of what the missionary does is stand in solidarity with the people being served.  Our United Methodist missionaries (indeed anyone who has ever gone on a mission trip) will tell you that they don’t go abroad to solve the problems of others, they go to stand beside the people of that area as they seek to attain their own justice, their own freedom, their own well-being.  The missionary represents the solidarity of the One who stands in solidarity with us, through life, death, and resurrection.  In so doing, the missionary preaches a powerful gospel of presence that is truly transformative.  For it is a gospel that says, “You matter to God and that is why you matter to me—I am here with you.”

And doing so requires being present.  With the people.  Mission cannot happen at a distance or by invitation to a location other than where the people already are.  No one would seriously suggest that the General Board of Global Ministries merely send out invitations to people around the world to visit one of our fine United Methodist Churches here in America.  Neither would anyone suggest that a local church identify a staff person to work 30 hours a week at the church and 10 being a foreign missionary.  We shouldn’t suggest the same thing with campus ministry.

A Commitment Made

It is not impossible for local churches to do campus ministry, but it requires those churches to commit someone to be the full-time presence to that campus.  As we have seen in the experience of our own campuses, part-time ministry from a local church will always yield to the immediate—and important—needs of that local church, as one would expect.  At present there are approximately 70 colleges within the boundaries of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, an area that contains well over 600 churches. And yet, the only campus ministries in the Conference are Conference funded.  If local church based part-time campus ministry were a viable model, shouldn’t we expect to see many more of them, particularly in a region where churches outnumber colleges nearly 9-1?  All we can conclude from this staggering absence is that local churches are either unwilling to dedicate the time to campus ministry or, as a result of the considerable demands on the local churches, unable to do so. Either way, the need for dedicated, full-time ministry to our college campuses is clear.

Budgetary concerns and a shrinking denomination have put a lot of pressure on campus ministry.  Where once our annual conference had 17 campus ministries, today there are four.  But where there are campus ministries, exciting things are happening.  Young people are discerning call to ministry and to other vocation in light of their faith.  Authentic Christian community is modeled.  Skills in worship planning, mission work, justice organization, Bible study and devotional reflection are all being learned by young adults who will become active and engaged lay members in our congregations.  The Gospel is preached in a time of incredible importance in the formation of young adult identity.  The campus ministries are dynamic centers of the church.  Methodism was started on a college campus and Methodism will be renewed on our college campuses—if we commit to campus ministry.

Saving the Church by Saving the World

Young adults are our missionary population.  They are a people in need of solidarity from the church.  As Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson said, “Young people have no interest in saving the church; they care about saving the world.  If we can show them that we can help them save the world, they’ll save the church.”  When we stand in solidarity with young adults, we validate their hopes, their aspirations, their longings.  We give them the context in which they can act to better their world and the hope that comes with the Gospel.  But if we do not commit to being present with them in meaningful ways that demonstrate a commitment to them, then all of our talk about wanting young adults in the church will be for nothing.  For we will have shown them our assessment of their worth through our indifference.  And the harvest of decline that we will reap will be the fruit only of what we will have sown.

We are a church called to be in mission and the present and future of our church depend on being in mission with young adults, particularly college-aged young adults.  Let’s be sure to send them the missionaries they need.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain
American University

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