Leadership Development

Campus Ministry as a Bridge, Not an Island

The other day I wandered into the woods of a local park.

The combination of a coffee drink in one hand (a prerequisite in the Northwest) and a sunny day in April (a rarity in the Northwest) brought me and my two boys to a muddy little creek tucked behind a set of tennis courts in the very same park I had played in as a little boy.

The creek – which created a border between the park and a local neighborhood – was muddy and cold, but that was no deterrent for two ambitious and adventurous little boys.

We followed the creek bed for a bit until arriving at a u-shaped bend, where the creek had left the park boundary and cut back into park territory, creating an island just far enough away that we could not jump over to it.

And, as though someone had been in that exact spot before, and had the same exact thought as we did, a bridge had been created. It was not a pretty bridge – a bunch of sticks thrown haphazardly across the creek – but it allowed passage between both sides.

As I think back on that makeshift bridge, and ponder some of the great bridges of our time – the Millau Viaduct Bridge (sheer beauty!), the London Bridge (annoying rhyme!), the Bixby Canyon Bridge (great song!),  – I can’t help but think that a lot of the work we do in campus ministry is about building bridges.

There are a few factors at work in my current context (George Fox University) that make the gaps between people feel rather extreme.

As I listen to my colleagues who have done this longer than I have, each fall often feels like new sandbars are being created by the sheer repetition of waves crashing onto shore, one after another after another after another. Just when we get a feel for the theological backgrounds of our newest students, and they begin to learn what campus ministry looks like in this context, and we begin to learn what ministry looked like in their experience prior to Fox, another wave crashes down on top of us, and we come up gasping for air, wondering if we will ever find a place to lay out a blanket and have a picnic instead of a water fight.

Each fall brings new faces. And with the new faces come new theological barriers that make it difficult to truly see one another.

It’s like the clip in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the knight is far off, and no matter how much we see him running, he gets no closer to his target. And then, all of sudden, there he is, shoving a sword into the midsection of an unsuspecting guard.

And the question is often, “how can we begin to anticipate these theological conversations (which often begin more as shouting matches) so that they feel less threatening, less invasive, less surprising?”

What we have come to realize, in our context, is that this must come through the difficult task of bridge building. These bridges can begin as makeshift paths, merely meant to get one party to the other, while perhaps getting a bit wet and dirty. We attempt to develop relationships with students whom we might differ theologically.

When a small group of students pleaded for a stronger emphasis on expository preaching in chapel, we shifted our programming to accommodate them. We’ve hired students as ministry interns who do not believe our Campus Pastor is permitted biblically to be a pastor.

In these and other ways, our hope is that bridges are being built using what I refer to as “rooted mobility.”

Rooted mobility is about recognizing one’s belief, one’s tradition, the theological soil in which one feels most at home – and then not digging those roots so deeply into the ground that you become unable to meet others where they are at.

Rooted mobility is about looking for ways to connect two different people, with differing beliefs, in order to celebrate a common identity as image bearers of Christ.

Rooted mobility is about developing the ability to hold loosely, to walk lightly and to love boldly.

The bridge my children and I stumbled upon at the park was ugly. But it worked – it was not going to work forever, but for the purpose of being able to connect two different lands, it did its job. While my hope is that beautiful and functional bridges can be built on our campuses – bridges built through the work of many people for a common purpose of knowing Christ Jesus and making Christ known to others– I am happy to begin with a bridge made of a tangle of sticks, stacked precariously, declaring both promise and danger.

The work of campus ministry is full of promise and danger – and it requires bridges to help us find a place where we can meet together, share a meal, and begin to break down the walls that keep us from truly seeing Christ in one another.

How are you building bridges on your campus?