Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Vision for Collegiate Ministry

The PCUSA's Collegiate Ministry Task Force recently released its working vision statement: “We are a church that reaches, loves and teaches college students to be lifelong followers of Jesus Christ.” If approved at General Assembly in July, I believe it will be the first time that PCUSA college ministry will have a stated mission strategy. Of course, "vision statements" were not part of our vocabulary in previous decades of strategies, but this is still important. As collegiate ministry has been under attack by both benign neglect and aggressive denominational apathy, being able to articulate what we are about has become necessary for survival.

"We are a church that reaches...", so we take initiative and we take action to connect with college students. This phrase reflects the denominations' renewed interest in evangelism, and implies material support in order to be able to do the reaching.

"We are a church that ... loves... college students." I hope the Task Force means practical rather than theoretical love. Since the last mission strategy in 2001, the denomination has loved students in theory while neglecting them in practice. Do we love them enough to allow them to be students (who, in addition to academics, are studying how to be a young adult), rather than younger models of our typical 65 year-old lifetime Presbyterians? Do we love them enough to love sacrificially?

The combination of the verbs "reaches" and "loves" points to the radical hospitality which characterizes Presbyterian college ministry.

Loving college students should come before reaching. Search committees for campus ministers and chaplains discover this during their search process. They come to separate those applicants who first love students from those who first love reaching (evangelizing in its traditional sense) and teaching (in its purely academic sense).

"We are a church who... teaches... college students." The context of this ministry makes a teaching component a necessity. But what sort of teaching? Because it takes place within and contiguous to the academy, the teaching must be of a quality and sophistication appropriate to higher education. Simplistic answers will be rejected by the academic community. What is the purpose of our teaching?  Is our purpose to indoctrinate, or transform, or nurture? Hopefully the full report will address this.

"college students". I like that the mission isn't to Presbyterians, or to the unchurched, but to college students. All college students, including the ones who may never become Presbyterian.

"to be lifelong followers". Our mission is to equip and nurture lifelong followers. Some other campus ministries have a short term vision - make disciples today. The Task Force is calling us to keep the long term in focus. How do we help students be lifelong followers? How do we help them transition from their campus communities to their "real world" communities? How do we equip them for future challenges to faith when youthful answers don't adequately reflect the complexity of the adult world? (teaching, again, as above.)

"Followers of Jesus Christ". Our current culture is multifaith. How do we differentiate ourselves so as to understand and claim who we are? How do we follow Jesus Christ in a radically secularized culture which is rife with unhelpful stereotypes of Christians?

The Task Force is calling us to affirm that we are followers of Jesus. There are enough older Presbyterians who remember the 1960's -70's campus ministries which reflected the counter-cultural context of student life. Campus ministries, who were suspicious of the organized, traditional, inflexible church, were reluctant to use the vocabulary of the established church. As campus ministry distanced itself from the denomination, so the denomination distanced itself from campus ministry. The vision statement closes that distance. How can older members hear that? How can the academy hear that? How can the students who we love be reached and taught that?

We are a church that reaches, loves and teaches college students to be lifelong followers of Jesus Christ.” This is a vision statement worth living into.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Student Food Pantries

A number of Food Banks especially for students have been sprouting across the country. Apparently the first was the Michigan State University Foodbank in 1993. It now serves over 4,700 clients a year! Wright State UniversityIowa State, and the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, are among the growing number of institutions who have food banks or pantries for students. The recession is impacting students with limited funds.

Presbyterian congregations know how to do food pantries. Many congregations use their facilities and members to run a food pantry ministry to their communities. So here is an easy-to-sell and easy-to-start ministry for congregations adjacent to campuses. Local churches might also join in supporting such a ministry. (Presbyterian congregations know how to support food banks, when sometimes they don't know how to support the campus ministry of another congregation. )

For further reading:
"Owens Readies Campus Food Pantry for Students in Need of Assistance," The Toledo Blade, Jan. 30, 2012.
"Among Dorms and Dining Halls, Hidden Hunger," The Atlantic Monthly, May 2010.