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Renovating university ministry

Saturday, 15 July 2017  | Arthur Davis

In October, a consultation here in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, will address the need for university ministry to engage with the university as a whole. It is one of six consultations across eleven regions worldwide in the
International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). It is particularly designed to explore how scholars and students can be united in ‘thinking Christianly’ about the big issues at large in our campuses and cities.

Terry Halliday has described university ministry as a chair with four legs: evangelistic, pietistic, apologetic, and dialogic. All four legs have a place. One leg, dialogue, has special significance for the university, yet it has been neglected. Renovations are needed: not to cut off some legs, but to shape the missing fourth leg.

This renovated direction in university ministry is characterised by full-bodied participation in the campus. It conceives of campus ministry as an interface between church and university as we strive to hold ‘word’ and ‘world’ in tandem. In this participatory approach, we enter into conversation with the university, recognising that Christ has already gone ahead. We are embedded as part of the campus rather than skating over the surface. Within IFES, this participatory approach emerges from Reformed theology seeking the lordship of Christ in all of life and a robust theology of creation. It is also in keeping with the engagement and interaction modelled by John Stott. So too is it a natural progression of discussions about ‘discipleship of the mind’. A video shows Vinoth Ramachandra conceptualising the approach.

 The global context of higher education

In a place like Tanzania, it is perhaps natural to see the campus as something Christians are an inherent part of. There has been a boom in higher education since the first accreditation of a private university in 2000. Of 21 private universities today, 13 have a Christian affiliation or foundation, and there is a great deal of interest in the idea of ‘Christian education’. A great many faculty, staff and leaders are themselves confessing Christians. This is part of a trend across sub-Saharan Africa.

There is also great potential for a close relationship between campus ministries and university staff. In Tanzania Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES, pronounced TAFF-ess), graduates of the ministry are known as associates and form a third facet of the ministry in addition to students and staff workers. Many of these associates are university faculty members, researchers, administrators or staff. They are typically mature Christians who participate in the ministry in a wide variety of ways. It is a similar story in other African IFES movements.

A participatory approach seems to make sense here, yet it will need cultivation. There is a need for Christians to lead by example, modelling conversation as a beneficial foundation for university life, and to check the temptation to think in terms of territory and sheer influence. Church denominations will need guidance in seeing the campus as a unique structure to be responsibly stewarded, not simply populated by Christian groups.

Elsewhere in the world, a participatory approach may seem more at home in research universities. In Australia it can be seen in a ministry such as the Simeon Network, a postgraduate and staff academic community affiliated with AFES. Yet there are good reasons why participation should also shape our approach to undergraduate students and Christian fellowships generally.

 Building on a conventional approach

A serialised book chapter by Tim Keller and Michael Keller makes for a good sounding board as we consider the nature of university ministry. The chapter comes from a book in honour of Don Carson, who has also been influential in Australian campus ministry. While the approach of Keller and Keller is not necessarily antithetical to greater participation in the campus, it is not obvious that it would give rise to this.

Keller and Keller treat the primary aspect of the ministry as evangelism; indeed, they seem to characterise campus ministry as evangelism. Yet in reality we do not limit ourselves to evangelism, even when we use evangelism as our organising principle or training ground. Considering the typical programming of Australian campus ministries, with investment in Bible study groups, mid-year conferences, day conferences and leadership meetings, it is clear that our ministries pursue things beyond outreach activities without these activities being neglected. More than that, all of this activity represents aspects of our witness on campus.

Keller and Keller conclude by providing three examples of fruitful public events on campus: the first is a high-profile debate, the second is a Q & A event, and the third is a jazz performance plus Christian testimony and Q & A. Although they point out that ‘relational groundwork is ten-times more important for the success of university missions than it was a generation ago’, and see a welcome element of vulnerability in the programming of these events, these three examples are not inherently dialogical, nor even straightforwardly beneficial to the campus. Indeed, they could still be seen as hallmarks of a ‘platform ministry’ that is primarily interested in the campus for its utility as a podium for a Christian message.

While they recommend augmenting our tone with ‘deep relationships’ and ‘disarming demeanour’, Keller and Keller hold out hope that campuses may still be ‘places of persuasion where individuals debate and accept differing explanations of the good, the true, and the beautiful’. However, the cultural landscape they map out – heightened polarization, ‘weaponized tolerance’, the ubiquity of new media technologies and so on – would suggest that we go beyond a modification of existing practices and consider developing a new set of practices.

As one of five principles for campus ministry, Keller and Keller posit the need for friendships and dialogues, yet this is framed in the individualistic terms of ‘one-on-one evangelistic friendships’ — a good endeavour no doubt, but is that really as far as it goes? We should also ask how our fellowships can build dialogue into their programming, and how our fellowships can create friendships with other campus organisations. Seeing campus witness as a collective, whole-group pursuit will revitalise our expectations. Friendship should not just be auxiliary to normal programming, but should shape the kind of events we host and participate in.

 Seeking full-bodied participation

Friendship goes hand in hand with conversation, the mutual give-and-take of ideas. A ministry shaped by conversation is an expression of love: we treat others as we would like to be treated. Hoping to be heard ourselves, how do we listen in a way that gives others a hearing? Hoping to have a voice ourselves, how do we speak in a way that gives others a voice? Creating space for conversation is a gracious act. This conversational stance is nothing less than an expression of our Father’s heart — the One who gives good gifts to all. This is therefore another aspect of our witness. In conversation we make our light shine. It honours the university and honours others, so that they might taste and see.

As campus ministers such as Andrew Reid and Lindsay Brown have reminded us, our methods must always be subordinate to the Kingdom vision of seeking Jesus on campus. The methods and structures are dynamic, and can be re-evaluated at any time to better meet Kingdom needs.

In that vein, here are two lines of inquiry about robust participation in the university. First, we keep in view the campus as a whole, and ourselves as a part of it. Instead of treating the ministry as a recruiting ground, we invest ourselves fundamentally in the good of the campus. It is not merely a ministry on campus or to the campus, but a ministry for the campus. Second, we encourage fellowship members, including students, to see themselves as part and parcel of the intellectual life of the university, and we equip them for the particular life trajectories granted by higher education. They may have a voice in the campus community, but they are also beneficiaries of it. We invest in their formation as conversationalists with the world around them.

It is not enough for someone to simply become a committed Christian at university, not if we hope to equip them for the complex, globalised urban environments of today. Unless they are afforded the opportunity to flex and grow their faith, such that it is responsive to the campus, social issues and their future walk of life, their formation will be stunted. Our hope in campus ministry is not merely to create more Christians, but a certain kind of Christian: someone whose pursuit of our Master can address the full gamut of academic, professional and urban existence. As part of a wider world, the university demands a faith that is dynamic and deep enough not just to survive, but also to grapple with questions of true flourishing.

Arthur Davis is an educator and missionary working with Tanzania Fellowship of Evangelical Students and CMS Australia. He writes together with Tamie Davis at meetjesusatuni.com.

Photos: University of Dodoma campus; TAFES staff retreat; campus staff workers relaxing; graduation day at St John's University of Tanzania.

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