Too often (to be honest, once would be too often, but I've heard it much more than once), people have questioned the value or validity of campus ministry. "What's the point of investing time, energy, and resources into this group of people who aren't investing their resources, time, or energy in our congregations?" This question betrays a defunct theology of vocation, a poor ecclesiology, and a limited missiology. But I can't fix any of that in a blog post. What I can do, however, is offer a few vignettes into why I believe campus ministry isn't simply worth doing, but a vitally important ministry of the contemporary church (and through that, I'll at least address some of those theological concerns).
Our goal in discipleship is both personal growth in God's image and helping others to experience that growth as well. In short, our campus ministry efforts should affect the church, but that doesn't necessarily we'll see that fruit born in our particular congregation. Simply because we don't see someones' discipleship coming alive firsthand doesn't mean that we should give up on our call as disciples to bring opportunities for abundant life to campus. Indeed, the vocation of a student is to be just that, a student. We ought to be first supporting them in their God-given vocations and helping their faith to come alive on campus, and then invite them to explore how that vocation connects with congregational life. That's a longer process, but it more faithfully reflects our Lutheran theological commitments and our call as Christ's disciples. As Paul reminds us, we're one body with many members, so while we're bound together by the Holy Spirit living in us, we don't all perform the same function or even worship in the same spaces. The church isn't bound by a particular hour on Sunday morning, but by the mission we share to help the world look, live, and love more like Jesus.
The limitation in missiology is equally problematic. We often view Christian mission as something that's done in the Global South by embedded missionaries, week-long service trips to perform disaster cleanup, or the street preachers that all too often give evangelism a bad rep. We assume that campuses are Christianized, and so don't need a Christian witness. We assume that in the 21st century Western world, there's not immediate suffering. We're wrong on all accounts. Just this week, I've dealt with students who can't afford regular meals because their job is tied to work study jobs, and so they rely on our ministry to help bridge the gap with food until work returns in the fall. I've dealt with students who can't afford rent because they've fled an abusive household and have had to declare themselves legally independent, leaving them homeless and unable to pay rent until financial aid comes through at the beginning of the semester. We support victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. We advocate for full equality and absolute integrity of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minorities on campus in a part of the country that's not often safe for them. Most important, we do this all through the unique and necessary lens of Jesus.
The confusion is understandable. The campus is one of those strange places that is both church and mission field. I say strange not because it's uncommon - in fact, much of our public spaces are intermingled in this way - but because we have such trouble comprehending their existence. We like to neatly categorize places and spaces, but the reality is much more complicated. The worth of campus ministry isn't just supporting Christians on campus, though it is that. It's not just inviting new people to experience the abundant life that Jesus offers, though it is that. It's both. And it's more.
There's also a dirty little lie that campus ministry costs more resources than it brings in. When I got to CLC, we brought in no money for campus ministry. This coming year, we anticipate $5,000 in grants and another $3,000 in direct giving to campus ministry. That more than funds the budgeted items we've committed to Radford University, and a consistent presence projects consistent growth. The time that I spend on campus comes back to the congregation through student participation in programs and assistance in community service, as well as the growth of faculty and alumni relating to the church's ministry.
Most importantly from a Lutheran perspective, our decreased funding from all levels - churchwide, synodical, and congregational - has left a gap that's too often been filled by destructive theologies. Theologies that deny the space for questions about God and instead force a false dichotomy of total acceptance of their litmus test or atheism writ large. Theologies that undergird the oppression of women, LGBTQ+ people, refugees, immigrants, and those with brown and black skin. Theologies that give lip service to grace but entirely lack forgiveness. In the midst of the gap we've left, distorted versions of God's Word seem true. This is a liminal space after high school and before total immersion into the working world, filled with potential that the church may serve. At this most opportune time in the lives of students, where they're open to education, to learning, to exploring the world beyond their wildest dreams, we've left generations of opportunities backslide through the front door. It's time to change that trend.
But the best vignettes are the good stories. Soon, one of our most recent Virginia Tech alums will head to South Africa as a part of the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program, an opportunity she discovered through campus ministry. Our Radford ministry is in a trial period of joint ministry with our Episcopal and Presbyterian siblings in Christ, hoping to better serve Radford by combining our resources and raising our critical mass. We're planning Sex Positive Spirituality presentations for each campus, approaching issues of consent, joy, and intentionality as God's heart for sexuality. We've got students discovering more than just careers. They're finding God-given vocations from faculty and staff who help students to envision how faith comes alive in work that's worth while.
Why does Lutheran campus ministry deserve our time and effort? Because that's where the church is now, and we're helping the church of the future come alive. Now is the time to embrace that idea, of being the church and building the church, with wonder, with purpose, and with joy.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.