Campus Ministers as Catechists

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.

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About the author: Stephen Rankin
Stephen (Steve) Rankin is Chaplain and Minister to the University at Southern Methodist University. He has worked in higher education since 1995 (formerly at Southwestern College in Kansas) and before then served as a local church pastor. His book, Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life is due out later this year. He also blogs spasmodically at “Rankin File” (steverankin.wordpress.com) and at patheos.com/experts. Email Steve at rankins@smu.edu.
  • Anonymous

    Steve! This is a great post!

    It would seem that your call (regarding our collective call) to be catechists on our campuses stands in conflict with what we know about Emerging Adulthood — namely, that students are much less inclined to step into the adult responsibilities of life — which includes their faith.

    I know that I would personally love to play the role of catechists for my students, but seemingly out of necessity, I end up having to play the role of program facilitator — because of where our students are at. And maybe there are ways, within that role of program facilitator, to serve as a catechist…

    But many of the students I encounter seem to really struggle when asked to take serious their discipleship of Jesus.

    What do you think? Have you seen fruit as a Catechist at SMU?

    • Anonymous

      Regarding the fruit question: we’re beginning to. I’ve only been here less than two years, but recently I’ve started getting faith questions from students that are deeply theological. For example, a student emailed me the other day and asked me if I thought God “made deals.” This student admitted that lately the student had been making deals with God. A great faith question that is also deeply theological.

      We’re planning on starting a new program this fall that will be catechetical. I’ll report to you how it goes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/dan.w.boles Dan W. Boles

        revisiting this post a couple years later… and wondering Steve, how that catechetical program turned out? See you at FOCSI?

        • Steve Rankin

          Hi Dan,

          Forgive the delayed response. I was presenting at a conference in Seattle last week and am slowly climbing back into things back home.

          Two comments in reply to your query:

          1. I’m working with our campus ministers generally to encourage them to prove more space for catechetical work in their ministries. So many of them have a worship-small group-(leadership development)-mission trip model, and with content that assumes a degree of knowledge and commitment, that little time is available as things stand now for making a change toward more catechesis. It’s a fundamental shift in mindset on the part of leaders that is required and it’s hard to get there.

          2. Our “Faith and Learning Scholars” group is going through its third iteration as a pilot project. It is what I would call “pre-catechetical” at this point. We’re trying to arrange this experience so that students actually could meet a gen. ed. requirement by taking it, which entangles us some in the university system, but also makes it more desirable for students to make it a regular part of their schedule (rather than the add-on that so much discipleship activity winds up being).

          Thus, I still fee like we’re plowing up the fallow ground, Dan.

  • http://www.margaretfeinberg.com Margaret

    Steve,
    The phrase “partner educators” is key. Oh so true–it’s a partnership between the spiritual directors/chaplains/campus ministers and the school as a whole.

  • Anonymous

    Guy (I apologize for slow response): I think we (1) find that small group of students who are ready for the more challenging work and find a way to help them model this life for their peers. In other words, don’t let that small group become an isolated holy huddle. Give them opportunities to talk about their experience of grappling with theological ideas in front of their peers. (2) For others who seem uninterested or only episodically interested, I think we offer small bites of exploratory experiences. I think rather than disinterest, students are more afraid/intimidated by the prospect of trying to engage in theological thinking. (3) I also think we start really simple (McGrath’s “university level catechesis may sound too imposing) and work, as it were, from the inside out. For example, most students can recite, “Jesus died for my sins.” We could ask them to take that statement and begin to explore it with questions that the campus minister poses; exploratory questions that don’t need instruction at first, just discussion. Part of the challenge is to get students used to talking about these things without feeling (again) intimidated or nervous about getting “the wrong answer.” So much of their academic experience is driven by performance evaluations (grades) that they’re scared to make mistakes.

    I think we campus ministers have to be committed to engaging students at this level and persevere, even if it means one by one and two by two with students. It’s simply too important and critical a task not to try.

  • http://twitter.com/danwboles Dan W. Boles

    Great post Steve. I often want to pull from some of the confessions/catechisms and liturgical resources of the Reformed, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Catholic communities in some of our work at Kennesaw State. But as Guy has already touched on, many of the students “are much less inclined to step into the adult responsibilities of life — which includes their faith.” I would add to that by saying it especially includes anything that is rigorously academic, or requiring deep theological engagement. Tim Elmore refers to this a great deal in his recent work, “Generation iY” as a result of being, as he refers to it, a generation that is over-served. They are so used to programs and quick answers, sound bites, and short bursts of media that they are genuinely at a loss when it comes to anything more intense than that (or at least, anything more than outsourcing it to someone else). I’d love to hear your thoughts, and those of others, on how we might be more open to (and effective in) working this into the relationships that we’re investing in and the programs we’re running.

    A surprising area of success in this area for our ministry at KSU has been a monthly event we do that targets our upper-class students, especially those 21+. The event is called “Theology on Tap” and we critically engage doctrinal issues in a less than formal seminar-like format (usually a speaker and a great amount of discussion and group interaction) at a local pub that is within walking distance to campus. Interestingly enough, I got some amazing feedback just yesterday about the event that impressed me heavily. A former female student (graduate) expressed a great deal of appreciation for the event because it was in fact focused on the upperclassmen/older students, and not the freshmen. This student, having observed several campus ministries both at KSU and 2-3 other institutions, noted that often the upperclassmen/older students are not given opportunities to nurture their faith and development because they’re thrown into leadership with little/no time dedicated to their development, and all the “teaching” is geared towards “catching” the short attention span of freshmen. Finally, she noted, it gave her a sense of ownership in her own nurture and development because she could participate as actively or passively as she wanted, contributing and/or absorbing the conversation and presentation with a very diverse group of students who all came from different theological backgrounds and understandings.

    I share this because I’m reminded of two things; first that we do in fact tend to focus on the freshmen, and I wonder how often it is to the detriment of our existing/older students’ faith. Second because I am reminded of a James Fowler’s wonderful contribution “Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian” (1984, revised 1999). A book that I picked up several years ago, and I think I will re-read it this summer. Perhaps, in light of this post, this book is worthy of all of us picking it up (or as the case may be; revisiting it) as it is primarily focused on “stages of faith” and “emotional development.” I think that is likely the best starting point for us if we’re serious about shifting from 13th grade youth directors to catechists.

    P.S. – Re: Confessions/Creeds – as a Presbyterian – I’m particularly fond of Westminster, Nicene, and especially the Scots Confession, but as someone that has been shaped by a great many churches and traditions, I have a deep appreciation for others as well. I wonder if a blog-a-thon is in order? Guy? Something along the lines of “This We Believe… engaging the confessions and catechisms of the ancient church.” with a little bit of “How to effectively engage the campus without putting them to sleep.”

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Dan, for these observations. I think your comment about focusing so much on freshmen and overlooking grad students (or older undergrads) is a very important one. All the emerging adulthood material supports this point.

      I would also recommend James Loder’s book, The Logic of the Spirit (Jossey-Bass, 1998). It’s a pretty dense book, but I like how he engages some of the same theories that Fowler uses in a way that I find more integrated than Fowler (even Fowler in Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian). Loder may be (he’s actually deceased) more Kierkegaardian than you or I may like, but I really appreciate the way he roots his theory in a theological/Christological vision.

      So, my takeaway is that we need to develop effective ways of relating to older students, including grad students, but also to re-examine how we program for undergrads. Some of the material I have read (Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out) suggests that students these days start to open up to spiritual and vocational questions a little more once they have figured out how to “do college.” This means that we might be more effective if we looked at the sophomore year.

      I’m a Wesleyan (of the United Methodist ilk), but I’m with you on the creeds. The UM Church is not a creedal church, but we would do well to pay more attention here. Actually, it turns out that UMs are all over the map with informal creeds (like “Doctrine divides, but love unites,” to refer to one that really drives me crazy for its absurd dichotomy). It makes the “United” in our name a little ironic.