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Campus ministry at USC: ‘up close & personal’

MONTEREY PARK, Calif. (BP) — Neil Walker is practically a fixture at the University of Southern California — his “home base” for 28 years of student ministry.

“His longevity is just amazing,” said Daryl Watts, California Southern Baptist Convention student and family specialist.

Walker puts it a little differently, with a sage reflection: “Most of the time what we want is a plastic surgeon … but spiritual growth is more like physical therapy. We want a quick fix on the surface, but growth usually happens slowly with a lot of work.”

And he’s intent that it take place “up close and personal.”

“You don’t develop people from 30 feet away, you do it up close,” Walker said.

“If you’re going to see college students’ lives changed, you have to spend time with them. It’s very time-intensive, reshaping, building. They need motivation and help and such, but they really need someone to walk alongside them and encourage them.”

One of Walker’s favorite topics — more than changes in student ministry, more than issues of political correctness — is the long-term trajectory of students who grow in their faith.

He tells of a student who came to USC from Texas, with not much more than a sentimental attachment to God. She threw herself into her studies and found herself a long way from God, and in crisis. One of Walker’s students reached out repeatedly to her and eventually developed a friendship.

The student came back around to her faith, got involved with Christian Challenge (as many student ministries are called) and became so close to Walker and his wife Melinda that she was “like an older sister to our kids, like a daughter to us.”

The young woman joined Walker’s staff after graduating, led a mission team to China, went back to China as a missionary for two years, came back to the States and got married, and now serves full-time in China.

Another student, a New Yorker with a Catholic background, arrived at USC with the primary goal of having fun and playing in the band. As they talked over lunch one day, the young man decided to follow Christ.

“While we’re talking, his girlfriend from New Jersey walks by — actually, they’d just broken up — and she sits down and half an hour later makes a decision for Jesus,” Walker said.

The couple became active in student ministry, graduated, got married and now are serving as small group leaders at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

“Their kids get to experience an entirely different father than they would have,” Walker said.

The need in student ministry is immense. There are more than 100 four-year colleges in California; one out of every seven college students in the United States is in California; and USC boasts more than 10,000 international students — nearly a fourth of its student body.

Campus ministry, by many accounts, gets harder as the decades proceed. For better or worse, colleges are increasingly protective of their students. They limit access not just to dorms but public campus spaces as well; they closely scrutinize student organizations; and many of their administrations are, in Walker’s words, excluding USC, at least mildly antagonistic toward Christian groups.

And students enter college now with far less biblical literacy — no real understanding of the Bible, even among many who have grown up in church.

“It’s viewed by many students as a sentimental book,” Walker said. “It’s ‘nice,’ but not practical or alive, or really makes a difference. There’s a strong sense with students of relativism, a, ‘That’s nice for you, I’m glad that works for you.'”

Many students, he said, have been so focused on getting into college — “they’ve checked every box, done every activity” – that they are poor at relational connections.

“They’re more jaded,” Walker said. “They’ve grown up where they could access anything in the world on Google, but … they’ve been inoculated a bit.

“And as campus ministers, we have to step back and meet students where they are instead of where we wish they were. We have to hold on to truth and still help students respond to situations with love and grace and kindness.”

Students are still “very hungry,” he added. “They really want to learn and discover who God is and what life is about.”

College was where God began to shape Walker’s life.

“It seems like that’s the time of life when so many folks are making irreversible decisions — who to spend life with, what to give their life to. It’s so pivotal, such a turning point. To be able to reach them when they are at this point … and to see them walk with God and change — nothing’s better than that.”

Watts, who has worked with Walker for nearly a dozen years through the California Southern Baptist Convention, said the USC campus minister “knows how to build networks, how to raise money, and has a laser-like focus on developing students. He’s one of those guys who’s sold into student ministry.”

It’s working. Just ask USC students who have been directly touched by Walker’s ministry for nearly three decades. Or those across California who have been touched by his training efforts. Or the dozens of campus ministers serving across the country who’ve been mentored by this veteran of student work.

Amid the challenges of campus ministry, Walker noted, “There’s such a need…. If you’re gifted to do it, then go for it. Go for the hard, the unknown — sometimes it is really the best.”

    About the Author

  • Amanda Phifer