Saturday Book Review: Guy Chmieleski

Reviewed by Dr. Guy Chmieleski, a campus minister at Belmont University and whose dept has a blog.

We are in a time of great change. Churches in North America are in rapid decline. Numerous reports detailing the issues that young believers (and non-believers) have with Christianity continue to bring shape to a country, a generation and a faith in transition. In an ever-changing world, our faith is supposed to be the anchor that keeps us steady, but with the decline in religious life it’s easy to see how the landscape of life as we know it is shifting in seismic proportions – providing many opportunities and challenges alike.

Questions: What do you think is most helpful for college years ministry? What helped you the most? What was the least helpful?

Enter ‘the College Years.’

College has always been known as a time of transition, preparation, illumination and transformation. The University setting has been understood to be a marketplace of ideas and opportunities, as well as a place for finding – or losing – faith. But in a postmodern, post-Christian campus context… faith is increasingly seen as a “hot-button” topic, divisive, and sadly irrelevant. Christian campuses are increasingly (denominationally) diverse, with increasing numbers of biblically illiterate and theologically shallow students arriving on campus and struggling to understand the significance of growing into, and living out, a vibrant faith. Non-Christian academic institutions are becoming increasingly hostile towards Christian groups and organizations that, by the very nature of being Christian, stand in tension with (or even in opposition to) other groups on campus – even if that tension (or opposition) is never overtly expressed.

I fear for the future of this younger generation, who struggles to believe, if we continue on our current trajectory. That’s why I was thrilled when Steve first told me about this book.

College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture is the first effort of Steve Lutz, CCO campus minister at Penn State University (copyright 2011). It is a non-fiction book on the strategic nature of ministry with college students.

This book is written to people who love college students – namely: campus ministers, church leaders and volunteers, students and their parents. This book is written with the intention of bringing about much needed change – in both thought and praxis — that will serve to better reach this generation of college students with the good news of Jesus. As a missionally-minded leader who has worked both on campus, and in the local church, Steve is uniquely positioned to help us make this important transition.

There are two major convictions that undergird Steve’s writing on this subject, the first is that college students are the most strategic ministry people group in the world today; and the second is that we need to change the ways we reach college students in order to help them become more missional.

It has long been believed that if you “reach the campus, you will reach the world,” and this is probably more true today than it has ever been. Campuses are increasingly global – drawing students from all around the world – making the opportunity for global change all the more possible. But as Steve is suggesting, college ministries need to reclaim the missional focus out of which they were birthed. Too many college ministries have become safe havens for students who arrive on campus with some form of faith and are looking for a community that will both provide them “safe” alternative activities on the weekend and a place where their “faith” won’t be challenged or threatened. This is woefully inadequate – and must change!

Steve spends some good time talking about the rebirth of missional-mindedness and ministry in the U.S., and other parts of the world that have entered a post-Christian era. In this way, Steve is setting the stage for college ministries to follow suit.

In fact, one of the strengths of this book (among many) is the identification of ten “shifts” that Steve has identified that have to be made in the thinking and practice of ministry with college students. For the sake of space I’ll highlight two that I’m particularly interested in: 1) from building a large group to reaching a large campus, and 2) from “Bible studies/small groups” to missional communities.

In the first shift, Steve builds the case for college ministries to quit spending the majority of their time, money and effort on a once a week event that is really designed for students who already know and follow Jesus. While there is nothing wrong with hosting a weekly worship experience, this can no longer remain the primary focus of what we do. Instead, Lutz would suggest, that we need to spend an increasing percentage of our time, money and effort on going into the different parts of campus where we are not already present – or Jesus has no distinct representatives – serving as a light in a dark place. We need to move out of our own gatherings and into the gatherings and spaces across campus where God might want to use us.

In the second shift I mentioned above, Steve contests that while Bible studies and small group are of some value (building a sense of community, creating space for students to encounter and grow in their understanding of God’s word, accountability and other spiritual practices – all good stuff!), they are not naturally moving students out of those communities of like-minded and like-hearted individuals and on to the campus – on mission with God and one another. So instead, Lutz suggests creating missional communities throughout the campus. Small, intentional communities grown within the different sub-communities across campus – led by individuals within those communities who are pursuing Christ (together) and reaching out to others within that sub-community on campus. It’s a shift from bringing all like-minded, like-hearted people out of their sub-communities to form a new one; to identifying the like-minded and like-hearted individuals within the different sub-communities, rallying them together and then empowering and equipping them to do life on mission within their context.

Steve has a lot of wisdom to share on how to become more missional on campus!

One point of clarification I would want to hear from Steve is in relation to how he uses the term gospel. At different points throughout this book he seems to shift between using the term “gospel” to more narrowly define “salvation,” and at other times, more broadly to describe the full life, death, resurrection, ascention and intervention as Jesus’ ongoing work on our behalf. I believe, if pushed, Steve would ascribe to the latter – more full definition – of gospel. The reason I bring this up is because I think this is where so many ministries have failed, and it speaks to one of the big reasons that such a high percentage of students walk away from their faith during their college years; namely, that they have “made a decision” to “receive Christ” at some point in their life – and naively believe that that is it. There’s nothing else to it. They believe that they are “saved” and that one decision is the sum total of the gospel. And eventually they find that partial understanding of gospel to be insufficient as they encounter new people, ideas and opportunities in the campus marketplace.

If I had to identify a point of contention with Steve it would come in the fact that he started the conversation about the relationship between the Church, para-church and campus in chapter 12, and only gave it 11 pages. I understand, for the sake of this work, that this was about as much time and space as he could dedicate to this topic… but for those of us who work in the field of college ministry, and understand the complexity of these relationships, there is a lot more that needs to be explored in this area. So I hope that this might be the next volume in Steve’s work on missional campus ministry. We simply must find ways to work better between ministries. There’s too much at stake.

This is a timely book, very well-written, and a must read for anyone concerned about the future of Christianity in America and how best to reach this upcoming generation during their formative college years!


Dr. Guy Chmieleski is the University Minister at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. He has 15 years of college ministry experience, on 4 different campus, spanning 3 different denominations. He blogs regularly at

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  • rjs

    This is an interesting topic. I’ve not seen this book, but have posted on a few things by Steve and interacted with him a little via e-mail.

    I agree that Universities are a strategic ministry – and an important one, but from what is written here might disagree with some of Steve’s advocated approach. It is hard to tell from a short review however.

    On the other hand – I agree completely that campus ministry too often becomes a save haven for preservation of faith, whit too little thought to real directed growth, both in practice and in belief. In my opinion the safe haven approach only works well (maybe) for those who spend four years in the University and then retreat back into a Christian sub-culture haven post graduation.

    The safe-haven approach does not nurture disciples who will make a significant difference in the University or in other contexts because it does not train them to do so or encourage them to grow.

    I have also known a significant number of postgraduate scholars who find the options for the most part to be to walk away or to retreat – either walk away from faith or retreat into a safe Christian sub-culture. They have no clue how to engage and interact.

  • RJS –

    Can you talk a little bit more about what you think you might disagree with?

    I don’t want to speak for Steve, but I also don’t want to misrepresent him in this review. I tried to give an accurate overview of the book; while leaving readers wanting more — a move that I hoped might encourage them to go out and buy the book.

    Is there something specific I can address?

    Regarding the “safe haven” approach to college ministry — I don’t think there’s a place for it personally. I think the college years are supposed to be a time when students wrestle with BIG questions (hopefully with the encouragement and assistance of well-trained, well-intentioned campus ministers and co-laborers around campus), and in the process, come to “own” their faith.

    I think students who don’t take the chance to do this hard work in college — likely never will. Why? Because I think there are few churches out there that really invite their members to question and doubt and search in the deeper waters of faith — a struggle that ultimately move us towards a faith that we “own” — and then live out.

    I think it’s critical that campus ministries move away from this model — and I believe that Steve is advocating for this very shift as a part of missional ministry with college students.

  • rjs


    We have a few extremes at work. One is the safe haven approach to “protect” faith. Another is the invitational approach which emphasizing inviting outsiders in and structuring gatherings to do so.

    The “safe haven” approach keeps people from being able to dig deep and truly own their faith. But so too does the missional invitational approach. Students cannot really ask and wrestle with the hard questions when the emphasis is on bringing others in.

    Some “safe haven” is ok, a somewhat larger dose of invitational outreach is good (even essential) – but we need a healthy dose of real “insider” education as well. This, I think, is what will allow people to grow into a truly owned faith – and one that can be held through challenge. Unfortunately only a small percentage of campus ministry workers are at all prepared for this last – and it seldom happens.

  • Guy–
    Thanks for the review. Good summary of those points, and those are fair questions.
    As far as how I’m using Gospel, I’m going for a both/and there. I want to push those who view it only in narrowly soteriological categories, and I want to firm up those who might lose sight of the centrality of Jesus as they get caught up in all the redemptive outworkings of the Gospel. I’m certainly no advocate of easy decisionism, and clarifying what is Gospel salvation will better help us live every day with Gospel intentionality. “What is the Gospel” is a HUGE question, and I couldn’t possibly do justice to all the nuances of it. I know Scot’s among those who have pushed this conversation along, and think it’s a conversation worth continuing. My concern for my largely campus minister audience is to be thoughtful in how we use faddish words like gospel and missional.
    As far as Church-Parachurch being late in the book and only 11 pages–I agree it’s a hugely important topic! It’s funny, some reviewers questioned including it at all, but I think those of us in the trenches know how crucial a conversation it is. I tried to give it as much attention as the other topics. Much more could be said.

    RJS–you may be interested to know that I advocate a more learned campus ministry, a la John Stackhouse and others, as well as deep engagement with Christian faculty. I also make the case for not just working with students, but redemptive engagement with all the other people groups on campus (faculty, staff, administration, physical plant, etc.), and the institution itself.

  • rjs


    I think we discussed some of this a couple of years ago – and what you say here doesn’t surprise me. But it wasn’t obvious from Guy’s review.

  • RJS ,

    My apologies. I honestly can’t remember the last time I crafted a book review.

    I am interested in continuing this conversation on “safe haven” Christianity. I think the kind of missional communities that Steve is encouraging us to move towards (and Steve, please correct me if I’m wrong) is neither safe haven nor shallow.

    Instead, it is intentional, deep, biblical, “others”-focused, challenging, accountable — and ultimately “attractive.”

    It is a return to the kind of authentic faithful living we see exemplified in many of the New Testament believers that is compelling to those who see it lived out — because they are seeing Christ in (and through) those individuals.

    I think the biggest challenge I see here is that the vast majority of students that come to our campuses are not prepared to live this kind of faith — or life. There might be some (few) that are, and some others who might be willing to make that radical jump — from the family faith that they’ve arrived on campus with, to something much deeper — but I think it might be scary (too radical) for a lot of the other young “believers” who just haven’t seen faith lived in this way.

  • Guy, I agree with you 100% here. When we’re talking about safe havens, I think we’re referring to those places where the GOAL is to hide out from the world, talk with only those who agree with us, and generally damn the rest of the world by our non-engagement with them.
    However, I do see the need for safe places as a MEANS to discipling, instructing, equipping, and forming students to grow in their faith, which is then lived out and shared in every area of life.