Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Campus Ministry Conundrum

This week I’m in the Houston area (The Woodlands, ya’ll) at a campus ministry conference called “Refresh ’08.” It is the third annual “Refresh” and it is a joy to hang around 160 or so dedicated Christians interested in college ministries and young people. We’ve heard great speakers, experienced edifying worship, attended helpful workshops and have enjoyed spending a lot of time connecting with one another.

I’ve been in campus ministry long enough that these folks really feel like close friends. Of course, I see some of them only at this event in a year’s time. For you United Methodist clergy types, it’s like going to annual conference (perhaps a tad more fun). It is NOT like annual conference in terms of acting on business items. The goals of “Refresh” are three: (1) be refreshed,(2) get connected with other college ministers and (3) find resources for your work.

For a research project I’m beginning to build, I looked at the Census Bureau statistics online to try to figure out just how many college students there are in the United States. I need to get back to the site, but I think, if I found the right number, there are almost 16 million college students in this country. Sixteen million. Did I say sixteen million?

Some of my friends in this work have – by the usual standards of measurement – huge ministries: several hundred students coming to a mid-week worship and engaged in small groups for discipleship and other practices of spiritual growth and ministry. They are the mega-churches of campus ministry. For others, the scope of their ministry is smaller, but no less significant. When I hang around these folks and listen to what they’re doing, I envision their students. They’re doing some really amazing things. I see the fruit of the ministry (some of their former students are now in campus ministry, or local church ministry, or on the mission field, or – perhaps the best – engaged in radical Christian discipleship in “secular” jobs). When I think of those sixteen million young people and the efforts of my friends and colleagues to reach some of them, my heart swells with joy.

But something else is going on at this conference. It is a common theme among us. Why are (especially) erstwhile mainline denominations – in spite of much rhetoric to the contrary – so fatalistically detached from the mission field that is college ministry? Why do we hear so much about new church starts (by the way, how are we doing on them?) and don’t see the field white for harvest among college students? Clearly, there are committed, interested, leaders, from the top of our United Methodist Church to the grass roots. We have two bishops attending our event. God bless them! Yet, I’ve also talked to denominational executives who are working hard and constantly frustrated by the lack of movement. Some of us have stood around in little knots, this week, during breaks, verbally scratching our heads about the inertia.

So, on the one hand, we can rejoice in the tremendous work that is happening. I thank God for concerned individuals working so hard to make a difference. On the other, when we go back home, save for a few notable exceptions, we will get back to work within an ecclesial (United Methodist) context that largely ignores us.

That is the conundrum of campus ministry.

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December 17, 2008 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education | 2 Comments

Christmas Pet Peeves

I know it’s the most ridiculously wrong time of the year to be talking about pet peeves, but I’ve got ’em. Here’s my Christmas list.

1. The sappy Christmas music that my favorite radio stations start playing right after Thanksgiving. OK, once in awhile I chuckle at some of the more farsical ones, but mostly, I’m just irritated. I heard Christmas stuff on the radio even before Thanksgiving this year! Which leads me to my next gripe.

2. Most of us Christians completely ignore Advent. That’s partly what bugs me about Christmas music. I used to get in a little trouble when I pastored in the local church. I made my congregations actually sing Advent hymns (there aren’t very many in our UM hymnal) during Advent. They are, except for just a handful, little-known. We want to jump right to “the good stuff” with Christmas, so we skip over all the yearning and desire and awareness of our need that Advent draws out. And then, of course, immediately after December 25th, we quit singing carols and stop celebrating too soon. Which leads to my next gripe.

3. Truthfully, the churches that do practice Advent seem to want to avoid all that “second coming” stuff about Jesus that Advent brings up. If you read the lectionary passages from the Gospels, it’s not about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” It’s about Jesus the Coming King. If we actually paid attention to the Advent scriptures instead of reading them through all the nostalgia associated with Christmas, we might more passionately worship the Newborn King! Which leads to my fourth gripe.

4. The liturgical calendar, which is something to which we should pay attention, gets treated more cyclically than linear-ly (clearly not a word, but oh well…) and we lose sight of history almost completely. The result of this theological amnesia is that remembering and preparing for Jesus’ birthday becomes the focus of our Advent. We start looking only backwards and praying for “Christ to be born in our hearts again,” which, on its face, is not a bad sentiment. It just means that we’re looking in the wrong direction. We should be looking more toward the future and the full coming of the Kingdom. Which leads to my final gripe…for now.

5. Why do we reduce everything to slogans? “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Yes, good reminder, but so pathetically shallow if that’s all the farther we ever go. “Happy Birthday Jesus.” I’m telling you, there ought to be some sort of ecclesial ban on putting this one on a church sign or board or bulletin!

Christmas gets close and all the pop-culture practices fairly nearly cause all of us – even and especially Christians – to miss the point. Christmas is ultimately much less about Jesus’ birthday remembered than it is about the Incarnation of the Word of God. It’s not just a day on the calendar that we have romancticized to the point of nauseum and sentimentalized into meaninglessness. It is (along with the resurrection) the most startling, unexpected, “impossible,” awesome event that has or will ever, ever, ever take place.

Now, before you go off on me as nothing but an old scrooge, consider this truth: the good is the enemy of the best.

December 10, 2008 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | Leave a comment