College Ministry: Mission in Our Backyard

The following is another conversation in the College Ministry: Conversations and Context series. For more information about this series click here.

So, I failed in convincing a veteran campus minister, Rev. Erica Liu of Pres House to write a post for me. She’s one of my closest friends, and one would think it would be easy for me to coerce her into it. But, she’s on sabbatical right now. I felt guilty about trying to push her too much and guilt her into it. She’s worked so hard these last so many years, and needs this time off, and certainly deserves it. But, what she said when we Skyped last week is pure gold to me, I couldn’t keep it to myself, so I’m going to try my best to conjure it up here.

A little background: She and her husband Mark have been in Madison, WI growing this ministry from the ground up since 2004. They have multiple staff and interns, a director’s board, and a HUGE beautiful residential dormitory on campus in the heart of Madison. They have gone through so much on top of all that including finishing up a seminary degree long-distance, raising a new family, and almost losing their tax-exempt status. I believe they are not simply experts on college students or running a non-profit organization – they know about ministry. They know about community. They know about the pendulum of struggles and successes, joys and rejections, and how to continue to be faithful in the midst of it.

She shared the following (in so many words):

To say that we should approach campus ministry as a mission field means that we approach it like we would any other mission project the church is involved with on a regular basis. This may be a soup kitchen or food bank like 2nd Harvest, or Interfaith Hospitality Network. It means that we expect to pour our lives, our time, our energy, and our finances into it. And we expect nothing in return. We don’t expect them to sign up to usher. To sign up for choir. Or Sunday school. Or to be liturgist for a worship service. Or to pledge. Or to even sit in our pews. We love and serve, and live and give in the same way a missionary does in a different country.

The language of being missional in our outreach has certainly been around this last decade or so in terms of thinking about church revitalization. But, for some reason the way she framed it in the context of campus ministry finally really resonated with me.

And then this showed up in my reader from a UMC campus minister on the NCMA blog:

After a few years it finally dawned on me that there was an image that I could give to people that not only helped them to understand what I do, but it made the most sense in interpreting campus ministry to the broader community: I’m a missionary. A missionary to a college campus.

I’ll usually go on to explain that as such I have to learn the local language, adapt to the local customs, and I spend a lot more time “digging wells” than doing what would be usually seen as “church” stuff. That’s not to say that church doesn’t happen; it is merely to note that there’s an awful lot of relationship and community building that looks more like watching a movie with some pizza than it does like having a prayer meeting. But it is certainly church. And vital church…

Young adults are our missionary population.  They are a people in need of solidarity from the church.  As Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson said, “Young people have no interest in saving the church; they care about saving the world.  If we can show them that we can help them save the world, they’ll save the church.”  When we stand in solidarity with young adults, we validate their hopes, their aspirations, their longings.  We give them the context in which they can act to better their world and the hope that comes with the Gospel.

To me, the missional language I learned in seminary, and continued to read about later seemed to be missing something. After reading this blog, what was clearly lacking in my understanding of missional theology was a language of liberation. A liberative theology thickens and de-colonizes the meaning of mission. There’s solidarity. There’s mutuality. There’s an interconnectedness. It’s a more compelling language for me – and the moment we look beyond campus ministry as simply an offshoot or subcommittee of Christian Education or Evangelism (though these are a huge part), then I believe we will be able to pursue, in Erica’s words, “a vision worthy of the church.”

Erica concluded our conversation with an encouragement to dream bigger. I think that’s a requirement for missionaries. And I’m not talking about one person simply being that missionary. In a congregational-based model for campus ministry that means the people in the Presbyterian churches in town. They’re the missionaries. And just like the risk and sense of adventure that comes with the territory, I believe that dreaming big is a huge necessity.

One thought on “College Ministry: Mission in Our Backyard

  • April 24, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Oh that Erica Liu Elsdon…..Mrs. Wisdom, herself. LOVE this and 100% agree. Felt this way overseeing summer staffers too at camp. Camp became a more “real” and powerful church experience for them than many other more formal contexts.

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