Since Martin Luther and the printing press thrust the Bible into the hands of every Christian, it has become increasingly difficult to recognize a Bible scholar. Scholarship is not the only important way of understanding the Bible; hearing the Word preached in the worship of the assembly is the most important and preaching is only rarely scholarship. But there are times when the issues raised by the Bible are too important or too complicated to not pay attention to scholarly opinion.
The American Church is pretty anxious about the failure to reach young adults with the Gospel. As I enter my fourth year as University Chaplain at the University of Indianapolis, I have just a few reflections on my rather successful, but unremarkable ministry.
Our United Methodist-related university is very supportive of our work in campus ministry, but our student body is not any more Christian than the state universities in Indiana. I like it that way. I do ministry among regular college students. And God is doing something among those students.
I hope that my reflections, which are quite personal, will be helpful to some pastors out there who are trying to serve these everyday college students well.
I try very hard to not be cool. This isn’t particularly difficult for me. I was born “not cool” and I will probably retire even less cool than I am now. And I think my students would rather not see me with bleached hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and screaming guitar. I think they want me to speak slowly, listen carefully, and resist the temptation to shout platitudes and oversimplify the complexities of life and theology.
The most valuable ministry that I have done is listening to young adults talk about their dreams. I often go the extra step to put an opportunity before them that I know will form them into deeper discipleship (summer camping ministry staff, short-term missions, a seminary catalog, etc.). I eat a lot of meals with them–slowly. I ask them what they believe about complex theological concepts, and then I challenge them without trying to correct them. Not very flashy. I know you are disappointed.
I have almost completed my Ph.D in Theology from a major seminary (All But Dissertation). But I haven’t won these students by brilliant teaching. I suppose I may be a slightly above average preacher. Because our campus ministry creates lots of opportunities for students to preach for the first time, I don’t even preach that often anyway. I don’t dazzle them with powerful lectures or even book studies on great books. Most of the bible studies that I do are really just reading a single book of the bible really slowly. We read Ephesians through a semester and Hebrews for an academic year. We are reading Romans now and will take a year for that one. We ask hard questions of the text and then together struggle with what the text might be saying and how it might be calling us to live. But I do refuse to let the simple answers offered by those on the right and the left to go unchallenged. I refuse to get anxious about those who disagree with me. I trust that if God is real then I don’t need to change anyone’s mind…the Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than I.
I don’t preach something innovative. But my students seem to find the story I tell to be compelling. I simply talk about the power of the resurrection in everyday lives. I talk about the suffering of Jesus that was reversed by the power of the resurrection which promises a time in which all suffering will come to an end by the return of the King. I challenge them to join the story by fighting injustices across the globe and in our own city. I challenge them to witness to the truth of the Gospel without the anxiety of having to convert the whole world. The Holy Spirit will do what is necessary much better than them.
I challenge the places in their lives where I see inconsistencies (either with themselves or with the Gospel) and I give them confidence that our relationship is not dependent on accepting my challenges.
I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hurt a few students with things I’ve said these last few years. I always try to own the parts that are my fault and ask forgiveness. Others have simply not liked me. I’ve tried not to let those folks make me insecure about my work as a pastor.
I haven’t done a whole lot that is impressive. But I have seen that my students love me and trust me. They invite me to be part of their illnesses, their successes, and the decisions that determine their futures. I thank God for this opportunity. They don’t trust me because of my guitar skills or my hair style. But they do trust me to lead them toward the deepest kinds of discipleship. I imagine that 20 years from now they will not look back and see me as someone who changed their life.
I’m not suggesting that we minister from mediocrity. I hope that isn’t what I am doing. I’m suggesting that really excellent ministry is done every day by compiling a series of otherwise unremarkable but terribly consistent acts of ministry and discipleship.
Here is the Good News: if I can do this rather unremarkable ministry then so can you. Nothing I have done these last three years is something that any pastor couldn’t do among young adults. They are dying (spiritually, if not literally) for someone to authentically follow Jesus with transparency in close enough proximity to their lives for some of it to rub off. You can do that too. Just put the Gospel on display by serving students well
Maybe some of the young adults that have found my unremarkable ministry compelling can share some of why they have done so. Maybe they can teach us how to minister to them well. Add some comments that will help other pastors reach young adults.
OK, so these aren’t really closing reflections…in many ways they are only the beginning…but here it goes.
2 years to finish my Bachelors in theology
2 years to earn my Masters of Theological Studies
2 years of coursework for my PhD.
I am nearing the end of six years of classes to learn how to talk about God. It’s not that I didn’t talk about God before that. I did. Sort of.
I use to say a lot…I say even more now, but I am much more cautious about what I say. Part of the reason I am more cautious is because the words that I say are often more nuanced and deliberate than they were before. Maybe I am more cautious because I am more aware that I really don’t have this entire theology and bible thing figured out. Before I started this journey, I and all of my friends thought we knew pretty much what everyone should say about God. Now I am much less certain. And then, sometimes I am more cautious because I am aware of how my words may offend others. Sometimes I still choose to offend because I think someone needs to be offended, but I know when I am doing it now.
I think the biggest question at this point in my education and my faith journey is…Has six years of higher education in theology made me a better Christian?
I think that was really the thing that my Assemblies of God friends were afraid of when I left for this journey. They weren’t sure that I wouldn’t come back hating the bible or Christianity, or at least not believing them.
The reason that churches are often afraid of their people going away to school should be obvious by now. A great number of them really do return with big doubts about the existence of God and the truth of the Jesus stories. Even those who still believe are often no good for ministry anymore. They like to include all of the big words for their congregations, especially if those words are in Greek. Of course, the people in their congregations are really impressed with this for the first two weeks. After that they realize that the newly educated minister knows much more about Greek grammar than they do about practicing the presence of God.
So I don’t want to push the question aside that is so often pressed upon educated people of my tradition: Did higher education take away my Jesus?
Maybe the question seems odd. I suppose after all of my ramblings above, it doesn’t seem that odd. I think the question is legitimate.
My first response is …no. I know that learning all that I have about the historical situation in which Jesus ministered has changed my view of what Jesus was teaching. So in some ways, the Jesus that I once believed in has been altered. I use to think Jesus was trying to teach us all how to get to heaven. Now I think Jesus was trying to teach us how to be ready for when God brings heaven to earth (read Revelation 21-22). That is a pretty significant change. Some may see that change and say that my education has taken away my Jesus and replaced him something else. I prefer to think of it more like the man who was blind and Jesus spit in the dirt to make him see. When I was saved, I could see people walking around as though they were trees. Now I see people where the trees once stood. I certainly am seeing different things, but I don’t think that is so bad.
But then, after thinking about it a little, I would have to respond with a really emphatic …NO. I’ll put it this way.
Though it now takes me 25 pages to write the same idea that use to take me seven sentences, I still believe the same things about Jesus that I did seven years ago. I believe Jesus was God incarnate. He was made to suffer on a cross by the Roman and Jewish leaders who feared him. After three days he was resurrected to a glorified body and visited his disciples. And then he ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to empower the infant church to do great miraculous works in Jesus’ name.
That doesn’t seem so bad, does it?
So, why am I writing this?
I guess I am thinking about two people tonight. First, I am thinking about my friends in my faith tradition. So many of them want to be faithful to God and want to be all that God called them to be. I only wish that they would take up a diligent study of theology and trust that God would sustain there faith. I am witness to the fact that this study will only make you stronger as a person of faith.
Second, I am thinking about my friends who want something of the person of Jesus and his teaching of love, but generally think the bible and the confession that Jesus was God is a little strange at best and at worst, dangerous. Many of these friends were told by a science professor in college or history teacher in high school, that religious belief is for the weak. They have been told so many times that belief in God is irrational. I can assure these friends that belief in God is neither irrational, nor dangerous. Believing without thinking can be dangerous. I was that at one time. But a thinking person can evaluate the evidence and believe that Jesus was God, the Holy Spirit still miraculously heals today, and God created the heavens and the earth. And, none of that belief will cause them to kill Muslims or hate homosexuals. If you want to see hatred, read the patron saints of (the New) atheism, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. You will see that religion isn’t dangerous…sin is dangerous.
OK, so hopefully I will have some more time for posting now that I am finishing up my coursework. May this be only the beginning.