I have heard it numerous times over the years from campus ministry colleagues: “I don’t want to run a youth group for college kids.” I have said it myself. No offense to youth ministry or ministers. It is (and they do) a crucial work. But that enough of us in college work would voice this concern and use this reference says something about us, about our ambivalence with the work we do. It goes to our sense of identity as campus ministers.
Truth is, if you look at the activities we run in campus ministry, they look a lot like youth ministry. Many youth groups have worship gatherings of some sort. So do we. Small groups (including Bible studies)? Yes. Activities aimed at discipleship or evangelism? Check. Regular efforts at service and justice to our neighbors and a Spring Break mission trip of some sort? Again, yes. And the pressure is on to keep things fun and interesting.
So, is the main difference between youth ministry and college ministry simply that we’re dealing with young people at a slightly different spot on the developmental spectrum? Again, with all due respect to youth ministry and ministers, I believe the answer is clearly “no,” but saying so means that we have to take ourselves more seriously, especially in one category. Campus ministers are catechists. I’m going back in church history and digging up an old term here, but the time in which we serve warrants it.
Of course, some churches still use the term “catechesis” for their membership preparation, though it seems to me that the term has fallen into almost total disuse. In the ancient church, catechesis was serious business, because becoming a Christian actually involved a radical change in one’s life. And the person responsible for preparing converts for this monumental step was the catechist, who had the theological-doctrinal know-how and the personal holiness to exemplify what being a real Christian involves.
The reference to the ancient church and to catechesis may seem misplaced, but I don’t believe it is. If you’re following the literature on emerging adulthood, it is clear that college students (even the ones actively involved in our ministries) are largely ignorant not only of basic theological claims of the Christian faith, but how these claims actually work in our lives. Sound doctrine not only teaches us what to think. It also teaches us what to care about. Theological work (in which I include Bible study) shapes the heart.
I think it was the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath who referred to systematic theology as “university level catechesis.” When I first read this phrase, it stuck with me. What if we thought of ourselves more as practical and pastoral theologians engaged in university level catechesis with our students and less as campus directors or small group leaders or even disciple-makers? Whether we like the term or not, what if our primary way of identifying ourselves was as catechists? (Pick a better appellation, if you’d like.)
Most campus ministers I know are deeply relational. We wound up in campus ministry because we love working with young people. Scholars, on the other hand, generally are drawn to scholarship because they love working with ideas. Scholars are the ones who do theological education, no?
I think it is high time we took this overworked distinction and trashed it. It helps to support another worn-out distinction, that between the head and the heart. When students’ thoughts are being shaped and formed by their college experiences, they are learning also what to feel, what to care about. It may be reverse of the stated goals of an education – they may wind up not caring about what we want them to care about. That is because they have come to value and care about something else.
I am pleading, therefore, for campus ministers to think of themselves as partner educators in the mission of higher education (and to be exceedingly careful about setting ourselves in opposition to what “unbelieving” faculty may be trying to teach our students). Whether we work at a state university or a Christian college or any other setting where college students are found, we need to see ourselves as integrally engaged in the educational mission. It means we have to pay more attention to the content and the methodology of our Bible studies and small group materials and the other discipleship activities that we encourage our students to undergo.
We need to see ourselves as catechists. It is a holy calling.