• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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!