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 FaithONCampus.com.