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Campus Ministries Offer Lots to Students
Each year hundreds of students get involved in Christian ministries on secular university and college campuses. Here’s a picture of what these groups can offer you.

I was nervous and excited when I left home for university. There was the usual turmoil of questions: Would I like my program? Would I manage everything well? I had no idea what to expect. But I did determine, before throwing my bags into our family car, that when I got to school I’d give the Christian group on campus a try.

It was the best decision I made.

Each summer chaplain Kelly Johnson (far right) takes a group of students to Mexico to build homes.

Each year hundreds and hundreds of Canadian students get involved in Christian ministries working on secular university and college campuses. Like me they have found groups like Inter-Varsity, Navigators, Campus for Christ and chaplaincy ministries unique places in which to flourish.

For new students coming up the pipeline, here’s a picture of what these groups can offer you.

A place to wonder

The college years are a time for exploration. “Students are thinking things through – what they believe, what their life is going to be like,” says Ben Jolliffe, campus director for Campus for Christ at the University of Western Ontario in London. “Once they leave university people’s lives seem to be set, but on campus they’re constantly reconsidering things. It’s refreshing.”

Any campus ministry worth its salt offers a forum for asking the hard questions. For example, last year a group of science students, members of Jolliffe’s campus ministry, invited a Christian professor to speak to the question “Can a scientist believe in God?” They opened the event to the general public and more than 150 curious students came.

For Kelly Johnson, a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) chaplain at the University of Calgary, sorting the intellectual pieces of the spirituality puzzle is a vital part of his ministry. Johnson organizes weekly discussion groups around hot topics, sometimes bringing in experts like the psychiatrist who tackled the issue of cure versus healing.

Day to day, students come to Johnson for drop-in counselling as they wrestle with everything from career choices, to relationship problems, to struggles with addiction. About 60 percent of the students he works with are Christian.

A place to belong

Compared to high school, college and university campuses are massive. At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where Jon Lim works as campus ministry director for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, there are more than 28,000 full-time undergrads and close to 5,000 grad students. Needless to say, newcomers are hungry for a place to belong.

Consequently, many campus ministries like Lim’s emphasize relationships. For his group, an Asian ministry, this means eating together. A lot. “In Chinese culture,” Lim says, “when you want to express hospitality, you ask your visitor ‘Have you eaten?’ ” So, after a large group worship meeting, students and staff head out to a restaurant, spending the next few hours hanging together. During the week, the ministry fosters relationships through small groups. Some students join Bible studies, others organize sports teams, still others watch Battlestar Galactica and – predictably – share a meal afterwards. Because of this emphasis on relationships, the group attracts all sorts of people: seekers, committed and nominal Christians alike.

In Daniel McDougall’s ministry at the University of Victoria this longing for a place to belong is particularly poignant. As part of Inter-Varsity’s international student ministries, he works for the most part with graduate students from around the world. On top of settling into campus life they must cope with such mundane challenges like figuring out grocery shopping and banking in a foreign place.

Recognizing their unique situation McDougall’s ministry, called the International Friendship Group, offers students the tools to integrate into Canadian society. McDougall and his team run free Saturday morning English as a second language classes and open it up to spouses of students as well. Wednesday nights, he and his wife host popular potluck suppers and Bible exploration classes in their home. For the majority of students, this is their first introduction to Christianity and the Scriptures.

On the day we spoke, McDougall was preparing to take a busload of students from 20 different countries to watch the salmon run north of the city. People are curious about Canadian culture, he says, and are glad to gather with others. The bonus? “I get to say, very gently, ‘This is the King of the universe in action.’”

A place to grow

If university is a time for sorting through life goals, it’s also a time for stretching leadership muscles and identifying gifts. All campus ministries have the equipping of the next generation of Christians as part of their mandate. Staff regularly meet with students over coffee, and student leaders receive special care through Bible studies or one-on-one discipleship.

The Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship group at the University of Alberta builds relationships through hospitatliy and eating together. Ben Jolliffe encourages students to ask hard questions.

Roger Berrigar, regional director for Navigators in Winnipeg, talks about this as the highlight of his ministry at the University of Manitoba. The goal is to help students walk with God in their own day-to-day world, Berrigar says. “We don’t want them to become locked up in a Christian subculture.”

A case in point: Berrigar began meeting individually with George, a member of the varsity hockey team and a Christian. Together they talked about ways to handle ethical situations that came up on the team and they prayed for team members. Some time later George asked Berrigar to start a Bible study at the rink. Six guys came out.

Fast forward a few years and 20 to 25 team members were coming out consistently to Bible study. Since then “We’ve seen five generations of Christian leadership on the hockey team,” says Berrigar. All this thanks to one student’s courageous desire to live out his faith in his world.

A place to serve

Learning to live as a Christian in one’s own milieu – whether this be the science department or the music faculty – offers opportunity enough for Christian service. On top of this, however, campus ministries frequently provide practical service opportunities at home and abroad.

Newcomers are hungry for a place to belong: Jon Lim.

“Students want to do well in their studies,” Johnson says, “but they also want to do good in the world. There is a huge interest in social concerns.” Locally, Johnson and his students have participated in World Vision’s 30-Hour-Famine and have served at the Mustard Seed soup kitchen and shelter for homeless people in Calgary. Each summer, anywhere from 12 to 24 students pack up and head to Mexico to build homes for people in poverty. While there, they stay at Aqua Viva, a drug rehab ministry. A challenging context, Johnson points out, but also enriching, especially during their times of worship.

A ministry to support

For today’s Canadian students, the benefits of campus ministries are legion. For those of us for whose student days are but a distant memory, this is still a ministry to keep on our radar and support. As Jolliffe says, the future leaders of the world emerge from our college and university campuses. “Universities are going to change our world and, as Christians, we need to engage where the fight for culture is happening.”

McDougall couldn’t agree more. “I’m not a bean counter,” he says “but just in terms of strategy, what better way to reach unreached cultures or even secular ones than to engage the influential people of the future and get the Gospel deeply embedded in them?”

Stephanie Douglas is a freelance writer in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2009. The complete issue, including more articles on colleges and universities, is now free online.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009





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