Presbyterians: The Lame Campus Choice?

I graduated from Florida State University in 2000. It was a momentous year.

First, the world didn't come to an end despite the predictions of countless doomsdayers including Pat Robertson and his ilk on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Y2K ended up being nothing but a few t-shirts and a lot of wasted news time. Second, after my 14-year college plan, I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature and History.

Yes, I was a double major. That's how I roll.

Because it took me 14 years to graduate from college I was rather old by the time I did it. I was also married with a kid when I hit the college campus at FSU, which limited my ability to rush a fraternity and stay out all night raiding panties, or whatever it is those kids today do with their free time.

I did get to spend a lot of time with students, however. And, since I was the student pastor at one of the local Presby churches in Tallahassee, and a field representative for a para-church college ministry at FSU, I got to see a lot of campus ministry schtuff. Believe it or not, that is the second time I have used the word "schtuff" in as many days.

The Presbyterian Student Center at FSU was an old house on the edge of campus, sort of right in the middle of fraternity and sorrority houses. Several students lived there, but it didn't seem to be good for much anything else. The director at the time wanted to spend time talking about the divisions in the PC(USA) denomination, and how all of that was playing out rather than talk about his ministry to the students. I figured out after a bit that there really wasn't any vibrant ministry to the students of the campus--at least not the kind of campus ministry that I found in other areas, sponsored by other denominations.

Maybe that has changed since then. Maybe that was just my own jaundiced view at the time. I dunno.

It's always been my belief that Presbyterians pretty much abdicate ministry on the campus to their evangelical counterparts. This is a trend that probably could be traced back (If I was so inclined and actually had time for such things) to the mid-1960's when the Presbyterian Church (both Northern and Southern) sort of fumbled the whole youth thing, and never recovered the ball. In the 1970's when former mainliners like Mike Yaconelli and Wayne Rice began revolutionizing youth ministry in America, mainline churches for the most part were oblivious. 13 years ago when I was a fledgling youth director in a small Presbyterian Church, my pastor bequested to me his collection of "Ideas" booklets that he had purchased from Yaconelli's fledgling Youth Specialties company. They were filled with pictures of teens wearing bell bottoms and flowered shirts. Honestly, the ideas from "Ideas" hadn't really been used in his church since bell bottoms and flowered shirts were fashionable.

Meanhwile, the conservative, evangelical churches were pouring a lot of energy and resources into youth and campus ministries. By the time I hit the college campus working for Fellowship of Christian Athletes as a field representative, the only "major players" on my campus were other conservative, evangelical student organizations like mine. They were the ones with the buzz, with the staff people on hand to effect ministry and connections and the money to make it all happen.

I know that there are probably exceptions to the rule, and that there are plenty of great Presby groups out there making a difference, but on the whole, is the PC (USA) the lame choice for college students seeking campus ministry opportunities? Are we really doing anything to inspire and draw students to the campus ministries that we do have in place? What gives?

Some "mainline" churches are getting it.

The Presbyterian Church in America has done an excellent job of reaching college campuses across the country through Campus Outreach. While Campus Outreach is technically not beholden to the PCA church, so to speak, it draws its major support from the denomination and through local PCA churches. I currently support an ex-student of mine who is a Campus Outreach minister at the University of North Florida. Their goal is to have a campus ministry in every college campus across America.

They're also very conservative and very evangelical.

I read a book a year and a half or so ago called "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement" by Lauren Sandler. She was writing it in reaction to the 2000 and 2004 elections when it seemed like the Religious Right had a stranglehold on things. Her fear was that in twenty years, America would begin to look like an entirely different country (one that she didn't want to live in, quite frankly) if the conservative evangelical Christians continued their massive and successful recruitment of students to their cause.

But things changed. The Iraq war slogged on, the economy took a dive, and Barack Obama breathed hope and energy into a whole new generation of students who became part of his historic election.

This young and not-so idealistic generaton had grown tired of easy answers to difficult questions and wanted something worth believing in... I could go on about this, but you get the picture.

I believe that the time has come for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to begin investing heavily in student and campus ministry. The very things that students are interested in being a part of have been part of our tradition for a very long time: peacemaking, justice, mission, Creation care, etc. And we cannot be afraid of evangelism--sharing the Good News of God's grace and salvific designs for all of Creation, or the power of a transforming, life-giving, relationship with Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can't resort to throwing out the Gospel with the proverbial "bath water," even if said bath water is filled with legalism and narrow-mindedness and needs to be tossed.

What I would love to see the PC (USA) do is begin putting its money and its mouth into vibrant, active, well-equipped, well-staffed campus ministry with serious goals about reaching students, connecting them with ministry and mission that feeds their souls and equips them for service and leadership in the Church and beyond.

The conservative evangelicals are just now discovering Micah 6:8 and are acting as though it's some sort of new verse that only they have uncovered. Trouble is, like everything else they attempt, they are throwing resources, money, staffing, volunteers, etc. into it with the kind of zeal (misguided or no) that the "frozen chosen" of the PC (USA) often lack.

The PC(USA) church I served in Chicago had a wonderful relationship with Intervarsity Student Ministries at Northwestern University. They even had the remarkable Allen Wakabayashi
on their staff. Wakabayashi has been involved in Intervarsity for many years and is the author of Kingdom Come--a book that you should read.

A more missionally minded, slightly more conservative, evangelical church in Central Illinois hired him away.

It's like we don't get it. We need to learn to lead, follow or get out of the way when it comes to campus ministry. Right now it feels as though we are just sitting on the track while everyone else is racing by.


  1. Okay... I forgive you for the blog title. When I first read it, I thought Oh no. My job is hard enough without people thinking presbyterian campus ministry is lame!

    The blog title was hard to read, as a progressive campus minister. My work with students is WAY easier than the work within the denomination, trying to convince them that my work with students is worth the money.

    It's definitely an uphill battle. To me, it's a no-brainer. If you want a vital denomination, then put the time, energy, creativity, and resources into young adults. I don't understand why this is such an easy message for evangelicals to understand and such a hard one for the PCUSA. Campus ministries always seem to be on the budgetary chopping block. It's sad, really


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