From Foxholes to Facilities: The Transformation Evangelical Campus Ministry Needs

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© 2017 Robert Osburn

Imagine the US military selling all its military bases and much of its military hardware (think missiles and tanks), then transforming itself into mostly special operations forces that deploy in small clusters at hot spots around the world, not just the Middle East.  If your response is, “Cool bring it on!”, then you are watching too many video games.  The truth is that this would be a disastrous nightmare, not just for protecting America’s borders; as a way of operating a whole military, it amounts to lunacy.

But the sad truth is that evangelical campus ministries have been run like guerrilla-style special operations forces since the end of the Second World War. Send a couple Jesus-loving staff to campus after they have raised just enough financial support to pay the bills; train them for hit-and-run ministry operations that pop up out of evangelical foxholes and into student dorm rooms, campus activity centers, on lawns and open areas; and then steal away on retreat with students who now sincerely love Jesus and want to give their lives for him, forever and ever. 

That was me in 1969 as a fresh young convert at the University of Michigan. I still treasure that. And we still need some of these special operations teams, but is it time for a serious rethink of our approach to campus ministry?  Could it be that we should consider foregoing some of the campus evangelical conversion drama for the dull, staid message of institutionalizing our evangelical campus ministries?

Before I am hounded out of town like Rodney Dangerfield who just “can’t get no respect,”  I want to  make the case that evangelical campus ministry needs to shed its guerrilla image and embrace an institutional presence where Jesus is the vital, dynamic center and reason for everything we do.  And then I want to respond to two objections to this proposal.

Before doing so, let me first define terms and then offer some necessary history.  The terms first…

By “institutional presence” I mean facilities, organizational structures, lectures and symposia, public voice, visible traditions, established ways of seeing reality, bodies of literature, student housing and community, and ceremonial practices.  By seeing themselves not just as a movement but also as an institution, as I am suggesting, evangelical campus ministries would publically embody the message that Jesus is Lord of the world of ideas, not just Lord of student’s hearts. As Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith has written, “Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation's potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight.”  

We are desperately overdue for an institutional presence that can’t be ignored by secular campus administrators and faculty.  This kind of campus evangelicalism would say by its presence, “God is building His gracious, generous, peaceable Kingdom. Come visit us, eat with us, share in our conversations.  We want to help our campuses discover the true basis for human flourishing.”  

Christian study centers like Anselm House (full disclosure: I was the director from 1996 until 2009, when it was known as MacLaurin Institute, having been founded in 198 by Dr. William Monsma) are beginning to embody this evangelical (and more broadly, conservative Christian) institutional presence. 

I’ve addressed the woolly term “institutional presence.”  Now, the history behind evangelical guerrilla-style campus ministry... 

Thanks to the GI Bill that covered most of their tuition costs, college campus enrollment exploded when American soldiers who survived World War II used their GI Bill to crowd campuses. Simultaneously, other returned soldiers founded evangelical campus ministries (think InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, Navigators) that exploded when these soldiers and others found Christ after surviving not only the bleak and debilitating Great Depression of the 30s anda heroic but exhausting war against fascism in the 40s, but also an aggravating war against communism in the Korean peninsula in the early 50s.

Often living on shoestrings, evangelical campus ministers could do little more than watch as large liberal denominational campus ministries (the Catholic Newman Center, Methodist Wesley Center, and others) built ministry facilities next to campuses. It is true that the evangelical Baptist Student Unions of the South were facilities-based, but most inter-denominational evangelicals justifiably wanted nothing to do with the theological liberalism and resultant decline and decay of many of the mainline ministries.  And besides, by passing the hat in churches and home meetings, evangelicals could field lots of young, enthusiastic campus ministers passionate for Jesus.  Who needed buildings when you could meet students in fraternities and in empty lecture halls in the evenings?

We’re still doing evangelical campus ministry the same way 60 years later, bolstered, of course, by the anti-institutional zeitgeist of the 60s that has revived with full vigor. Give us more guerrilla-style campus ministries! 

Now, to the threefold case for moving from guerrilla operations to institutional presence. (Or, to put it more bluntly, let me throw a bomb on our evangelical campus ministry party.)

First, institutionalizing our ministries is a theological necessity: The Church---in its universal, local, and parachurch forms---is called to visibly demonstrate God’s greater and multifaceted wisdom in all areas of human exploration (Ephesians 3:10).  By embracing institutional presence, evangelicals will give visible testimony to the fact that God ultimately is the source of wisdom for computer science, biotechnology, sociology, and all academic inquiry.

Second, there is a sociological necessity: Institutions make people sit up and notice, while guerrilla operations just make people nervous. No, this is not an argument for conforming ourselves to the world. But, as it is, university administrators are largely unaware of the over 50 paid evangelical campus ministers on some of their campuses! Imagine a coordinated, institutionalized evangelical coalition that engaged in regular communications with university officials.

Thirdly, the cultural necessity: As Western society disintegrates and as campuses, in response, impose more limits on speech and behavior in order to impose order in an environment where everyone demands their rights, a stable Christian institutional presence next to campus will be a life-giving witness to the Truth of the Gospel.  I have often wondered why God instructed Jeremiah to tell the exiled Jews in Babylon that they should plant gardens and build houses (Jeremiah 29).  Not only did the Jewish community need to ensure its own continuity, but they needed to be able to show the Babylonians that God offers something much better.

We’ve explored the meaning of institutional presence, the history of evangelical campus ministry, the three-fold case for institutionalizing our ministries, and I close with two objections.

Objection One: Institutionalization mean liberalization and Gospel decline.  Yes, theological liberalism and Gospel abandonment paralleled institutional advancement amongst Protestant mainliners of the 20th century, but this is not a matter of historical necessity.  If we believe that argument, then evangelical megachurches are all headed for the theological woodshed, right?

Objection Two: Sociologists have long recognized that once a foxhole-style movement reaches institutional stability, then stagnation sets in. After all, that’s what happened to mainline Protestant ministries, right? This worthy objection fails because: 1) Protestant mainline ministries aligned themselves with a liberalizing campus culture, and thus died the slow, agonizing death of all liberal religion in America, demonstrated as early as 1972 in this book; and 2) The story of institutional stagnation, while partially accurate, nevertheless fails to take account of the power of institutions to create alternative centers of cultural influence that are so desperately needed on our fractured 21st century American college campuses.  By having to compete for influence with universities, evangelicals will be forced to maintain a vivid, Christ-centered alternative.

What will this look like in practice?  Imagine large buildings next to campuses, serving as visible hubs for Christian campus life, lectures and symposia, and, yes, training and deployment facilities for campus ministers who still do their best work as guerrilla operators (we still will need special operations teams).  I am convinced that wealthy evangelical donors who are highly resistant to financial appeals from secular university development offices will jump at the opportunity to finance Christian campus centers that combine institutional presence with Christian student housing that fosters discipleship, high-quality public lectures, and strategic collaboration amongst evangelical and other conservative Christian campus ministries.

Has not the time come for some of us to courageously exalt Jesus Christ in the centers of cultural power and influence?