Shifting to a missional culture in campus/college-age ministry

24 Oct

I have a vision for our campus ministry that’s based on the idea of missional communities. Basically what I mean is that the campus ministry should function as a small group (or several small groups) of believers who gather together for meals, prayer, accountability, and outreach. They’d get together because they yearn for a deep commitment to a life that demonstrates what Jesus teaches and because they know they need help doing that. The relationship of the community to God, itself, and the world are the important parts. Worship happens as a natural expression of our experiences that week and is amateurish in the very best sense of the word. It’s organic, it’s deep, and it’s small.

So how do I do this in a system that expects success to look like a crowd and in a church that expects hard work to look like busyness? If only I could give you a good answer right now. Instead, all I can do is share some of the struggles to make cultural changes in my church and in the campus ministry.

 

Coming to terms with small

This is probably my biggest personal struggle right now. I truly believe there is tremendous growth that happens with a small group of deeply committed individuals. But, everything I’ve been told is that fruit looks like more people. This is a shift in my own trust that God is doing the work here, not me. I imagine anyone who’s shifting their expectations towards a missional rather than attractional model deals with the same feelings. Churches that are sponsoring campus ministries have to deal with a reality that the campus ministry will not be the thing that saves them from shrinking numbers.

 

Weed-whacking programs

A lot of campus ministries I know of are very driven by the staff and involve a lot of programming. Picnics, on-campus events, retreats, worship services, Bible studies, fundraisers, mission trips are the markers of an active, engaged ministry. But It seems to me that in order for that small community of committed students to take control of what they do and become more missional, we actually need less programs and less staff planning.

This year I ended our long-running weekly meal after worship at the church that sponsors the ministry. Adults were scared that it meant the end of student presence in church. Students seemed to care much less about the change because it wasn’t the reason they were there. After a few weeks, something amazing happened. The students started self-organizing their own meal because they wanted to spend more time together. The lunch had been a time the took for granted. The fellowship around the table was important enough to them that they took steps to make sure they were having it.

So now I wonder… what else should I cancel? If I start giving over control of the other trappings of campus ministry, how much will they take over? I certainly believe there’s a place for leadership in this. Many of these young people are planning things for the first time and need some guidance. There’s reframing that probably needs to happen so that what we do is theologically informed. But the idea that a professional has to be in charge of planning what the ministry does definitely needs to go. This will be hard for the adults in the church to understand, since they have been operating under a staff-driven model for decades.

 

Slowness

Everyone I’ve talked to who is involved in missional communities or knows people who are involved in missional communities or has read about missional communities tells me that the work is slow. Relationships form over time, growth happens gradually, and the transformation into a person living missionally is a life-long pursuit. Unfortunately, I’m a person who likes to get things done working in a church that wants to grow NOW living in a society that values instant gratification. So you can see the conflict.

 

Getting started, getting committed, saying “no”

We have a core group of students who are at worship and Bible study regularly, but the idea of a group that commits to meeting every week no matter what is a little bit scary. Tests, projects, group meetings, and other campus involvements inevitably crop up, so how do you realistically propose that they say “no” to everything else for that time every week? Just starting that conversation is frightening to me because I’m sympathetic to what they’re going through, especially on this particular campus. It seems like a recipe for driving students away. But perhaps this is really about that smallness; most people in the world will not want to life this way. Most American Christians will never decide to throw themselves in, head first, to a lifestyle that rejects the world in favor of following Jesus. And that’s okay.

So that’s where I am right now, trying to do something new and weird and hard in the midst of panic and expectations and busyness. There’s no failure in following Christ, so whatever happens…happens. This, just like all things in ministry, is about the process, not the product.

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Laura Patterson is the director of the United Methodist Campus Ministry at Washington University in St. Louis

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