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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Engaging the University

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

I delivered this address more than a decade ago to a conference in Toronto of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the global alliance of student ministries known in North America as "Inter-Varsity." I re-post it here (in slightly updated form) because friends in various countries have found it useful in their student work and I recently was asked to put it up again (it was on my previous website and somehow didn't make it over to this new one) by the excellent ministry in Dallas, Texas, the Fellowship of Christian University Students (FOCUS).

Introduction: Does the Mind Matter to Campus Ministry?

I have been involved in campus ministry in one form or another for more than thirty years. Out of that experience—as a president of high school and university chapters of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF); as a speaker to a wide range of campus ministries in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and New Zealand; as a historian who has studied the history of the IVCF in Canada; and as a consultant to various campus staff—I offer the following reflections on what campus ministry should, and shouldn’t, be doing today.

I write with some pain: pain over wasted resources and opportunities at the campus and national levels in some groups; over foolish leadership that did the wasting while pursuing distracting agendas; over needless or badly-handled controversy; and over chauvinism that kept similar groups from cooperating.

I write also, however, with admiration and gratitude for many staff of such organizations: admiration and gratitude for their warm and disciplined piety, self-sacrificial love, courage, and perseverance.

And I write with affection and concern for the many students, past and present, who have benefited from campus ministry and could benefit even more from campus ministry that is properly oriented.

I’m a text guy: I read and interpret and generate texts for a living. So I will begin by examining a particular text: the brochure of the conference that occasioned these reflections. I hereby acknowledge freely that my observations are circumscribed quite narrowly to my perception of the North American and British scenes. I trust, however, that the theological grounding of the main thrust of the article to follow will mean that it will provide something useful for readers from other contexts.

Let us muse, then, upon several particular quotations from that conference brochure.

“valuing of the intellect”

It is well to note positively that campus ministries exist at all, that someone, somewhere, wanted to provide spiritual service to students at secular universities, rather than abandoning them as compromisers or apostates who should have gone to Bible school instead.

Second, one notes particularly in the history of the British InterVarsity Fellowship (IVF), more recently the University and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), that the normal practice was to invite speakers to chapters, conferences, and university-wide missions who were credible at the university in both credentials and abilities. (This was a pattern only intermittently followed, alas, in the USA and Canada, as I shall further remark below.)

Third, to turn to the USA, it is impressive that in a previous generation Hymns was published by IVCF and ever since there has been some official encouragement of substantial lyrics in Christian song—a genre always threatened by cheap sentimentality.

Finally, one can remark with gratitude for the encouragement of good reading among the Navigators, Campus Crusade (now "Cru"), IVCF, and others, each of which has its own publishing house that has increasingly moved from basic devotional materials to substantial intellectual fare.

The intellect, however, has not been valued always and in every respect in campus missions.

Many activities provide but elementary instruction in Christian discipleship: the “quiet time”; the so-called “inductive Bible study” (which is rarely qualified by the last several centuries of epistemological critique of inductive reading of anything); the praise songs that are musically fun but lyrically thin; and so on.

Many campus staff—and leaders on up the hierarchy of campus organizations—have only an undergraduate degree, and often in a field that prepares them badly for ideological contest and Christian disciple-making (e.g., engineering, natural sciences, commerce, medicine). More recently, more have a master’s degree or better in a relevant field. But one wonders why such qualifications are not simply required, the way denominations and congregations require at least one theological degree to do the job? What is this job that requires so little theological training, so little philosophical awareness?

Similarly, one wants to ask why in Canada and in the United States, and likely elsewhere also, there has been so little premium placed upon having genuine intellectual experts as speakers? To put the point even more finely, why so few professors, who actually inhabit the university, rather than popular writers, “pop pastors,” members of that student ministry’s own staff—few of whom have academic qualifications that would qualify them even for assistant professor status? One can be grateful for ministries such as the Veritas Forum while asking why there needs to be a Veritas Forum if student ministries had been valuing the intellect properly, and particularly by networking with such experts and drawing them into campus work.

What one sees too much of in campus ministry instead is an arrogant amateurism. We’ll do it ourselves. If we see a need for pamphlets and books in a language and situation new to our movement (e.g., Spanish in Latin America), we’ll get our twenty-something-year-old staff members to write them rather than translate materials of experts or enlist those experts to write them for us. (This actually happened in the early days of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.) We staff don’t need advanced training in theology or Christian discipleship; furthermore, we’ll set up our own study centres and do the teaching ourselves rather than work with schools that already exist who have much better-trained faculty. The history of these movements shows that some staff will even innovate theologically and teach ideas that they enjoy thinking are “cutting-edge,” while what they breathlessly announce as “fresh” is simply the latest version of an old heresy that any genuine theological expert could spot at 100 metres. The intellect needs valuing better than this.

“the connection, but also the frequent conflict, between scholarship and the communication of the Christian faith to students”

Many campus ministries in fact are deeply conflicted by the presence of two cultures with two different views of such ministry. Some, without irony, see their work as that of “spiritual kindergarten teachers” while others want to train “university citizens.”

It is proper, of course, to fear a conceited and endlessly diverting intellectualism; a syncretistic and thus heretical liberalism; and an all-too-accommodating, and thus non-evangelistic, relativism—which, I agree with many others, first perverted and then killed the Student Christian Movement, and a number of chaplaincies and other ministries of mainline Protestant denominations. But it is also proper to fear their counterparts: an anti-intellectual amalgam of mysticism, moralism, and oversimplification; a narrow and fiercely insular fundamentalism; and a self-righteous and brittle dogmatism. Scholarship can indeed interfere with communicating the faith to students, but communicating a faith without scholarship, particularly on campus, is to hand on something badly attenuated.

“to articulate and reflect on their perceptions of the university and whether their understanding is adequate for mission in the 21st century”

In my experience of student missions, one finds precious little reflection, and even less informed and insightful reflection, on the nature of the university: its purposes, its structures, its roles in society, and how each of these have evolved over the twentieth century until now.

Similarly, one finds precious little involvement of the people who know the university best: not students, not alumni, not staffers of Christian groups, but professors and administrators, who inhabit and who shape the university far more than any other participants in it. To ignore them so consistently, which most student missions do at every level, is to try to work at a hospital without consulting physicians or nurses or administrators, or to work in a law courts building without consulting judges, lawyers, or police officers

In particular, one finds precious little involvement of those professors who inhabit ideological “hot zones”: religious studies, philosophy, psychology and other social sciences, native/women’s/black studies, and the like. All too often, instead, professors—when they show up at all—come from geography, engineering, medicine, and the like. In such domains there are, to be sure, some sites of moral and intellectual controversy from time to time, especially in bioethics. But in other disciplines intellectual contest is a central and even daily experience. Why are these resources, then, so rarely tapped, let alone thoroughly involved—as speakers, advisors, and board members?

As someone, therefore, who has been a university professor of religious studies and has been a long-time participant in IVCF and other student missions, I realize that I have just placed myself in the delicate position of having to put up or shut up. So I shall proceed.

I want to set out, first, a theological sketch of mission and vocation. Everything else I have to say depends on that theological sketch, as it should. (I have elaborated on this sketch in two books: Making the Best of It and Why You're Here, both listed on the Books page of this site.) Then I will discuss the particular institutions of university and church, and go on to analyze the peculiar social phenomenon of the student mission in relation to those other two, constitutive institutions. Finally, I will make some suggestions as to what a student mission ought to be and to do in the light of these crucial theoretical considerations—thus, not incidentally or coincidentally, “demonstrating the relevance of historical understanding and valuing of the intellect for the practical application of effective ministry to students today”—as the conference brochure promised we will.

Mission and Vocation: What in the World Are We Doing?

It is a commonplace in modern discussions of mission to link our mission with the missio dei, the “mission of God.” There is an immediate paradox in the idea of “the mission of God,” however, for the word “mission” entails “sending,” and who sends God? Yet it is God who sends himself; God who cares for the world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God who expends himself on the task he sets for himself: the redemption of the world he made, sustains, and loves.

As followers of Jesus, furthermore, and as those who have been adopted as children by the Father and who are indwelt, empowered, and directed by the Spirit, we are “co-missioned” by God to work with him in his global task.

The Bible bursts with insight, instruction, and illustration regarding our mission. But we can begin to attend to this welter of revelation by attending to four commandments of God, four mandates for our life and work in the world. These four can be grouped into two sets, what I will call “Creation Commandments” and “Salvation Commandments.”

First, the Creation Commandments:

The Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28):

Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."

Having created everything else, God then creates human beings specifically in his “image” and “likeness”—the exact words the author of Genesis uses to describe Seth, the child of Adam and Eve (Gen. 5:3). Whatever else we may say about the imago dei, we can say this: we human beings were created to resemble God, to be like God; and we are to be godlike particularly in a special role, namely, that of exercising lordship or dominion over everything else on the planet.

In order to accomplish this task (this mission) of dominion, God tells the first humans to spread out over the face of the planet: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”—three mentions of reproduction. And why do so? With the purpose of bringing the whole earth under cultivation: “…and subdue it; and have dominion….” The burgeoning human family is to move out from the initial garden, planted by God (Gen. 2:8–15), to make a garden of the whole planet as “little lords,” as deputies of God, doing his kind of work and in obedience to his commandment. Thus God calls us to procreate in order to co-create.

At least two fundamental implications follow from this commandment. First, caring for the earth and making the best of it is our primary duty under God. I do not mean by this to diminish the fundamental importance of love of God or of neighbor: I take those for granted in the present discussion—as doubtless also did the original Hebrew author and his original Hebrew audience—and I will discuss the Great Commandments below. Nonetheless, whatever else we are to be and to do, in the Bible’s account we literally are gardeners first. God has never rescinded this commandment.

Furthermore, it will be our task, and our glory, to carry on this mission of dominion in the immediate presence of our Lord Jesus: “If we endure,” Paul promises, “we will reign with him” (II Tim. 2:12). And in the Revelation to John, the Christian faithful several times are described as reigning with Christ (Rev. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5). Over what or whom is there for resurrected humanity to reign with Christ, all of his enemies having been removed from the scene forever? The answer is this: a renewed earth, as we continue to be and to function as the “image of God.”

The second fundamental affirmation here is that all of our fellow human beings share the dignity and responsibility of this commandment. Those who obey it, whether they intend to honor God or not, are doing his will, and God continues to bless humanity with both a degree of correct orientation to this task and resources to undertake it. We Christians (along with the Jews) have this Scripture to show us that fact. And inasmuch as any of our neighbors are, indeed, cultivating the earth in whatever might be their work, art, leisure, and so on, we can recognize it, approve it and cooperate with it—again, whether or not the name of God or of Jesus is invoked in the enterprise.

The Great Commandments (Mt. 22:34-40):

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This story comes from the life of Jesus, but Jesus quotes, not something new and surprising, but something old and familiar—old as the Torah and familiar as the Ten Commandments: Love God thoroughly and above all others, and love your neighbor as yourself.

I suggest that these two commandments form a unit that I am calling the second of the creation commandments. For surely these commandments do not begin to operate only in the giving of the Law to Moses, but from the creation of Adam and Eve. Implicit in the Garden of Eden is the expectation that the first humans will love God above all else—obeying him particularly in his command not to eat of the forbidden fruit—and will love each other as himself or herself.

We can draw a couple of implications from these commandments. First, we are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. There is nothing we can justify doing if it means not loving God above all else and with all that we are. There is nothing we can justify doing if it means not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Second, we must recognize that inasmuch as our neighbors are loving God and loving their neighbors, they are doing the will of God. And, having recognized this goodness, we can approve and cooperate with it.

Yet we do not dwell in Eden. Our situation has changed, and drastically. Thus our mission is altered also, as God redeems the world and draws it back into line with his original purposes.

This new mission is outlined by two Salvation Commandments.

The New Commandment (Jn. 13:34-35):

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another."

In this part of John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the end of his earthly mission and the extension of theirs—really, of his, too, through them. As part of this mission, then, he gives them what seems at first to be an odd, if not offensive, mandate: to love each other particularly, rather than simply to love their neighbors as per the Great Commandments. Now, this Jesus had spent much of his public career opening up doors in walls people had erected between one kind of human being and another: between Jews and Gentiles, between rich and poor, between men and women, between adults and children, and between “the righteous” and “sinners.” Why did this Jesus then, at the end of his career and to his innermost circle, command this “scandal of particularity”? Why did he place this priority on loving fellow Christians in a way somehow distinct from the love given to neighbors in general?

Jesus gives the reason: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry can help us here, as we consider a parallel to ancient Israel. Israel was singled out by God in the Old Testament as a nation through which God would demonstrate his power and love to all nations, and thus through which he would call all nations to himself. Israel, when it was functioning properly (that is, according to the Torah) would stand as a beacon amid the murk of other ancient civilizations. It would exemplify order, security, prosperity, community, justice, and holiness—in short, shalom.

Thus also in the New Community of the New Testament, its life in the world would shine as a city on a hill. Such love—love in the same Spirit as Christ’s love for them—would image Christ to the world and show the world what happens when Christ is in a community and a community is in Christ (so John 15, later in this Discourse). The paradox of the New Commandment to the church, therefore, is in line with the paradox of Israel’s entire existence: a special case that seems exclusive, but is in fact a special case whose purpose is globally inclusive, a particular that functions to bless the whole world.

The Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20):

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”

The risen Jesus, about to ascend into heaven as the crowning display of his divine authority, yes, but also as his hard-won authority as head of the church, the first-born of many siblings (Rom. 8:29), the Son of Man as well as the Son of God—this Jesus tells his disciples to do one thing in particular. And this one thing is remarkably parallel to the cultural mandate: in paraphrase, spread out through all the inhabited world and discipline it. That is, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” What is fundamentally wrong with the world is the human worship of something other than God. So go and bring them back to the worship of God as disciples of Jesus, the true image of God (Col. 1:15), who have been inaugurated into this new/original life via baptism in the name of that one true God, now revealed as triune.

We see, then, that the Salvation Commandments do not supplant the Creation Commandments, as some Christian communities seem to think, but instead they serve the larger purpose of the Creation Commandments. The Salvation Commandments are emergency measures for an emergency situation. The world is fallen and needs redemption in order that it may resume its proper function as manifest at the creation.

The Salvation Commandments therefore are temporary, and direct us only in this particular phase of the Story. For in the New Jerusalem, there will be no need for the New Commandment, no need for the Great Commission, and no need for the church. The Creation Commandments, by contrast, are God’s abiding will for humanity and the creation under our care—apposite in Eden, apposite after the Fall, apposite in our day, and apposite in the world to come.

It is this relationship of the Salvation Commandments to the Creation Commandments that I think best explains why the New Testament is preoccupied with the former. It is because the New Testament does indeed presume the Old: the Creation Commandments are never revoked, but rather assumed to be still in full sway. Thus the New Testament focuses upon the distinctive calling of the church and the project of redemption. The Old Testament—and, indeed, the apocalyptic in the New—remains as testimony to God’s original, abiding, and final concern that all human beings garden the earth and thus promote and enjoy shalom.

In this light, then, we must not restrict Christian ethics to the project of salvation and thus to its particular vocabulary of self-sacrifice and non-coercive invitation. Yes, salvation is all about these things. But salvation is not all that we’re about. To say so would be to ignore the Old Testament and, indeed, to misunderstand the New as being cut off from and uninformed by the Old. Rather, we must see the salvific project and vocabulary as relating to the distinctive (but not the total) work of the church, which is nested within and indeed contributive to the generic mission of all human beings to cultivate the world. As the church lives as the new humanity, we exemplify what God wants to do to and for the whole world. The church thus provides, by God’s grace, a picture of the life to which our evangelism invites people.

University, Church, and Campus Ministry

In the light of these fundamental theological considerations, I suggest a scheme within which we properly locate campus ministry. First, I suggest that the university maps nicely onto the cultural mandate, the generic human calling of caring for creation. The church, by contrast, maps nicely onto the redemption commandments, while also calling the world—and thus the university—to see its cultural work in the proper context, namely, as including the imperatives of love of God and love of neighbour. What, then, is campus ministry in this context?

Immediately we confront a problem of terminology that always afflicts this discussion, namely, the categories of “church” and “parachurch,” with campus ministry being placed in the latter. Three models of relationship are extant:

· parachurch as parasite: doing what the (local) church is already doing, and siphoning off resources and personnel;

· parachurch as backup church: doing what the local church should be doing, and currently isn’t—or, perhaps, doing it, but not as well as certain parachurch leaders think it should be; and

· parachurch as paracongregational church: campus ministry is the church of Jesus Christ differently deployed in order to accomplish something better than the local church or denomination can do.

I do not mean to say that campus ministries are churches, in the sense of congregations. I think they could be, in extremis (for instance, under an oppressive political régime that made normal organization impossible). But normal church life draws together people across lines of gender, class, race, age, and so on, with recognized pastors and regular administration of the sacraments. Still, the church is not confined to the structures of congregation and denomination, although many leaders in those organizations think it is. Campus ministry is the church in action in a different mode than the local congregation. So what is the call of God to the church deployed in campus ministry?

When I first went to university, my parents gave me excellent advice as to how to spend my time while there: “Give preference to what you can do only during this time and in this place.” In line with this sense of specific vocation, we can ask, What are the special, intrinsic challenges and opportunities of the university for students and for university graduates? These considerations should get priority, even exclusive attention, in campus ministry. Thus I urge that generic Christian formation should be done by the local church. With this division of labour, we can avoid both overlap and diffusion of resources, and enjoy strong affirmation of each other.

What, then, would a curriculum look like for campus ministry? I suggest that it include at least the following elements:

Explain the university from a Christian point of view

· what it was;

· what it is now;

· what it’s for—according to its multiple stakeholders;

· how it functions—officially and actually; and

· what are its special challenges, opportunities, and resources for Christian students.

Explain the vocations of Christians in the university

· the generic human vocation of cultivating the world, and thus all disciplines in the university can be pursued to the glory of God and the benefit of creation;

· the specifically Christian vocation of disciple-making, and how it can best be done on campus and among university graduates; and

· my vocation—helping individual students sort out their particular callings, both now and later.

· Thus the emphasis on recruiting students for “foreign missions,” typical of IVCF and some others, needs to be maintained—but in this proper theological context, not lionizing it as the supreme calling, but also challenging students to consider this especially self-sacrificial work as a great calling indeed.

Explain how to get the most out of the university experience

· the special opportunities of a contemporary university: social, athletic, multicultural, ideological, expressive, aesthetic, recreational...and, yes, intellectual!

· how to set good priorities;

· the disciplines of healthy living, whether sleep, diet, exercise, private and corporate worship, and so on; and

· how to engage well in local church life.

Teach students how to respond to university challenges and opportunities

· how to respond to diversity (ethnic, ideological, moral, rhetorical) in the classroom, and beyond;

· how to respond to antagonism to Christianity in the classroom and beyond—speaking the truth in love, and only after listening to, and understanding, what is really being said;

· how to love your neighbour in a university context; and

· how to share your faith in a university context.

Offer opportunities and resources for mission

· for service to other students and the campus at large—for its own sake, and not as an evangelistic gambit; and

· effective apologetical and evangelistic programs and events both to instruct students in such work and to provide occasions for them to do that work.

Foster Christian ecumenism and mutual edification

· through teaching about the church—including the identity and role of the “paracongregational” and the necessity of local church membership; and

· through worship, fellowship, and mission—including with other campus groups.


Much campus ministry over the last century or so has merely been an extension the local church work of basic disciple-making onto a nearby campus. Should it continue? Perhaps it should, especially with international students and others who might need extra time to integrate into local churches. But to offer a “spiritual kindergarten,” I suggest, is not the central mission of campus ministry. It is the main responsibility of the local church, and campus ministries instead should do what they are peculiarly situated and, I trust, equipped to do.

Evangelism on campus? Of course that should continue. That’s “on-the-job evangelism,” which every Christian ought to do. And with a special “people group” in view—namely, university students and professors—one can tailor apologetical and evangelistic initiatives to their distinctive needs. When people do respond positively to such initiatives, then campus ministries must connect them with local churches and their helpful programs in basic Christian life: with Alpha programs, small groups, Sunday School classes, and the like.

Without this clear sense of what they are to do versus what the local church is to do, campus ministries neglect their particular work. Thus they compound the problem by competing with local churches: “Why even go to a local church? It’s so much less interesting than this student group”—which in the nature of the case is tailored to and includes only this nicely homogeneous demographic!

Thus campus ministries in effect train students in a “non-local-church” paradigm, which devastates them upon graduation as they must, in fact, make their way into local churches or flounder alone.

A further, crucial implication follows. This special work of campus ministry requires staff who are special people with special training, rather than generic Christians doing generic Christian work that just happens to be on a campus. I challenge those Christians engaged in campus ministries to get the training they need and, if they are leaders of such ministries, to require such training and to help their staff get that training—especially with financial assistance, perhaps by loans that are paid off as per years of subsequent service.

Campus ministries also require leadership teams—boards, advisors, and so on—who understand the university and can help staff and students identify and carry out their mission. Such leadership teams particularly should draw on professors and administrators, and most especially those in fields that require the most self-conscious working-through of what it means to be a Christian citizen of a university.

I hope that this depiction of campus ministry may prompt some organizations and leaders to re-think just what they are doing, and whether they should be doing something else, even something different than maybe they have been doing since they started. Perhaps others ought to continue doing what they have been doing, but doing it much better than ever before.

I love the university. I love the church. And I love campus ministries. I hope these reflections will, at least a little, help them all.

If you are involved in campus ministry and would like to consult further regarding these issues, or would like to talk about partnering in campus apologetics—which I have enjoyed undertaking in universities as diverse as Stanford, Queen's, and Otago—please contact me here:

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