Campus Ministry That's Not for Every One

I’m just back from several days on the University of Ottawa campus in our nation’s capital. I had a blast working with David Robinson (a recent alumnus of Regent College) and his team, who work out of St. Alban’s Anglican Church to serve students and professors at U of O.

David is an unusually capable person: superb academic record, extraordinary organizational ability, articulate speaker, and fine networker. But what I liked the most about working with him in producing several events on campus is that he is trying to reach the people most campus groups don’t: the thoughtful, and perhaps even threatening, inquirer, the smart student or professor who has been asking hard questions of Christianity perhaps for years and hasn’t found even a safe place in which to ask them, let alone a place to encounter satisfying answers to them.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate much of what most campus groups do, whether Inter-Varsity, Navigators, Campus for Christ, University Christian Ministries, and the various denominational or ethnic ministries as well. And I’ve been privileged to speak to such groups from time to time throughout North America.

But in my experience, most of these groups aim at a broad middle and a lowest common denominator of student interest. They normally offer basic Bible study, informal prayer and worship meetings, and maybe the occasional visiting apologist to stir things up in a campus debate (David and I stopped by to take in one of those at U of O earlier this week). What few campus groups seem to be trying to do, however, is to meet the university on its own terms: discussion of issues that matter in a way that meets the university’s own ideal standards of engagement, standards of both courteous respect and intellectual rigour.

(I set out what I’d like to see in campus ministry more extensively here.)

It’s harder to reach these people on campus, not least because many of them have had previous experiences with religious types and have been disappointed and offended by the defensive, even anti-intellectual, attitude they encountered. So they’re not likely now to show up at a “Free Pizza Night!” to “Hear local pastor Rev. Bill Jones speak on loving God better!” Rather than having their hard questions welcomed in the spirit of the university, they have been marginalized as troublesome party-poopers, spoiling a nice session of grooving on Jesus. Or perhaps they indeed have been engaged by Christians, but then their questions have exposed the Christians’ intellectual shallowness, their inability to articulate good grounds for their beliefs that make sense beyond the circle of already-convinced faith.

Not every campus group needs to aim its work at those asking searching questions. It takes unusually well trained leaders and a non-defensive, intellectually serious Christian fellowship to reach such people. But someone ought to be aiming to befriend and serve these people, and I’m glad David and the house are doing so. If you’re doing the same, let us know—and blessings on you, too!

0 Responses to “Campus Ministry That's Not for Every One”

  1. Andy Rowell

    It has been fun to interact with several people with InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries (, some with Regent College connections (Bob and Debbie Clark and Laurel Gasque),and now at Duke, Steve Hinkle as well, who share a similar vision of meeting graduate students and even faculty where they are intellectually.

    CCO also does outstanding work in the Eastern USA.
    Their Jubilee conference is amazing:

    You mention the “occasional visiting apologist” but it is hard not to like what Veritas Forum puts on in terms of rigorous resources:

    I appreciated the anecdotal evidence presented by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp in their recent book “I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus” that the intellectual component is indeed a real aspect of coming to faith for many students. They identify Trusting a Christian, Becoming Curious, Opening Up to Change, Seeking After God, Entering the Kingdom, and Living in the Kingdom as key “thresholds” that college students tend to work through.

    Finally, it seems to me that there are a number of Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA and PCA) who tend to do a lot of the heavy lifting intellectually near college campuses in the United States. I think the Reformed tradition has some glaring weaknesses (and for that reason not all college students are attracted to them) but their emphasis on education and the intellect provide a good place for professors and students to find theologically rich sermons and music. But in Canada, I think it is Anglican churches like St. John’s Shaughnessy Church (Anglican) in Vancouver and St. Alban’s near University of Ottawa that fill this role.

  2. Captain Thin

    I have to say, I consider myself extremely blessed to be taking my undergrad degrees where I am. (I’m currently in my final year of two concurrent Honours degrees at the University of Regina, after which I’ll be heading off to grad school.) We’ve been lucky in Regina in that our IVCF staff worker has always stressed the importance of Christians seriously engaging with the academy at large. He’s made it a priority to identify academically-minded Christian students and help guide them in their intellectual development. I know he’s been a significant influence in my life (and in the lives of quite a few of my friends who are now in Masters and Ph.D. programs across the nation). By helping students gain a strong understanding of their Christian faith in relation to their studies, he’s helped to form individuals capable of presenting an intellectual Christianity to their classmates and professors.

    I remember vividly one of my own professors confessing to me over a beer that twenty years ago he would never have given Christianity a second thought. At the time, he said, the Christians he knew seemed quite shallow, intellectually speaking. But these days he’s finding it harder to just “shrug off.” The reason he gave? Apparently some Christian students like myself and a friend of mine (now in a Ph.D. program at UBC) fail to fit his old stereotype of the simple-minded Christian.

    Of course, the trouble with running an intellectual campus ministry is that undergraduate Christians (in general) just don’t seem all that interested in being academically relevant. Over the past few years at the UofR, I’ve seen fewer and fewer students willing to join small groups that make them engage seriously with their faith. One such Christian student told me a few years ago that, after a week of hard classes, she just didn’t feel up to taking part in a small group if it made her think too much. It’s not that she wasn’t intelligent; she was. But applying her intelligence to her faith? That seemed a wholly unnecessary burden.

    If campus ministry is going to succeed in engaging academic non-Christians on our campus, we first have to solve the more troubling problem of getting Christian students to seriously and intellectually engage with their faith.

  3. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these good comments, friends.

    (And Andy, I was partly poking fun at myself by my comment about an “occasional visiting apologist”! You’re quite right about Veritas…)

  4. John Stackhouse

    One more thing, though, Andy: In my experience of various campuses in North America, even hosting an event of the high quality of Veritas does not always produce much in the way of discernible fruit. In fact, I have heard from many staff workers from several different campus organizations that these Big Events sometimes seem not worth the trouble in retrospect.

    Why not? Well, perhaps these staffers are not using the right categories to measure success. But they do point to the fact that their membership didn’t grow, that few converts were made, and that relationships with the other sponsoring societies forged in the joint project disappeared within a year or so.

    Again, there is more that a Big Event can accomplish than those things. But these testimonies deserve attention.

    What those staffers then usually have said to me is that their groups were really not ready to capitalize on the Big Event. The event itself might have succeeded by all appearances. But because their members were not in strong friendships with inquirers and because their groups were not characterized before and after by atmospheres of intellectual safety and curiosity, they failed to reap the full benefit of such special experiences. The stone sank into the pond, the ripples dissipated, and things largely were as they were before.

    It’s that kind of situation I was briefly characterizing in my post: groups that are not intellectually serious can have the best Veritas Forum in the world and it can have very slight effect–at least within and for the group–if the group itself does not have, before and after, the right ethos.

  5. francois taylor

    Allow me to first quote you: “…but because their members were not in strong friendships with inquirers and because their groups were not characterized before and after by atmosphere of intellectual safety and curiosity”. This insightful comment had me thinking about my context in Québec:

    Student ministries in Québec are experiencing little success in reaching the Québécois. In fact, things seem to be working the other way around: the falling off rate is dramatic among young french-speaking evangelicals once they start CEGEP and University. (very rough estimates vary between 75 to up to 90%).

    There are several reasons for this (many having to do with the cultural disconnect and alienation created by the adoption by converted québécois of a very otherworldly, puritanical and anti-catholic evangelical subculture). But the one factor relevant to our discussion is the fact 98% of the churches planted in Quebec (we need to remember evangelicals have had a significant presence only in the last 30-40 years)are part of the free church movement (Fellowship Baptist, Pentecostal, etc.)

    The vast majority of the missionnaries that shaped the ethos of these churches were not highly educated and, most importantly, had a mostly belligerent, negative stance towards the world of ideas.

    All this in a context where, at 17, upon starting CEGEP (with its compulsory 3 philosophy courses), young people are immersed in a complex thought world. Because they embark on this demanding journey with almost no tool in their intellectual toolbox to even begin to work at integrating their faith and their learning, they leave the Church.

    I am aware that all this amounts to a very grim and depressing picture. Years of observation and discussions with fellow pilgrims lead me to say that this very sketchy description is not sufficient to accurately convey the extent of the crisis.

    On the catholic side, things are almost as bad, mostly because the institution is still in the grip of a downward spiral that seems to know no end.

    There is no simple solution to this predicament. But, to quote you again, one key element is probably working at having ” unusually well trained leaders and a non-defensive, intellectually serious Christian fellowship”.

  6. James Giroux

    Hey! Through twitter I somehow ended up finding this blog and I wanted to say it’s great to find a Canadian perspective on ministry to university students. I’m a student ministries pastor here in the city and we are currently in the midst of launching missional hubs at U of O and Carleton University in the next week so this post is quite timely for our adventure. Glad to read your thoughts and although our target is more the main stream uni student who spends his thursday to sunday nights hanging with other people (aka partying it up), it’s neat to hear about some of the other stuff going on. So yeah, thanks for the post and the approach to ministry you take. Keep it up! Incidentally, I grew up in Quebec with a Pentecostal background attending a Fellowship Baptist church and did the whole CEGEP thing. I avoided philosophy classes at all cost, they were just boring and not nearly as fun as Literature classes.

  7. Ben

    Professor Stackhouse,

    I so appreciate this blog (and this particular topic) for so many reasons.

    I was raised in a Christian home and community, and my initial interaction with the non-Christian world was very limited.

    I attended a Christian elementary school, and it wasn’t until attending a secular high school that I began to run into objections to my faith that the apologetics I was raised with failed to answer. Part of the problem was my lack of education on stuff.

    In undergrad, I ran into far more objections, but once I actually learned to listen to people instead of immediately react, I found them much less intimidating, and educating myself helped (and is helping) a lot too.

    I’m passionate about careful, humble apologetics today (so I like the title of your book on this, though I still need to read it). Here’s one big example (a nearly 10-minute clip) of why this kind of thing is so important to me (these are the Austin atheists who were discussed in an earlier “Did Jesus exist?” post, talking to a young apologist):

  8. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for the good words, Ben. And I’m delighted to see such personable, carefully spoken atheists as these guys on TV. I don’t think the world is as bereft of good arguments as they say it is, thank God, but I’ll bet these guys have run up against some bad ones–and even some good ones that weren’t good enough–and dispatched them appropriately! And in so doing, they do Christians a favour: bad arguments need dispatching, and if we won’t prune our own, they can help us.

    I haven’t been to Austin in a while–I have a brother and sister who live there–and the next time I go, I’ll have to try to take these guys to lunch.


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