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Campus outreach in ’emerging regions’: ‘less is more’

NEW ORLEANS (BP) — Collegiate ministry groups outside the South are as unique and diverse as regions in which they are located.

When the Emerging Regions State Collegiate Leaders working group met at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the 25 participants traveled from places like Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia as well as Canada.

The leaders represented a wide range of approaches from campus-based to church-based college ministries — each with a unique context and unique approach.

Robert Turner, state director of collegiate ministry with the Baptist Resource Network of Pennsylvania/South Jersey, facilitated the meeting as the leaders discussed new ideas for raising up discipled believers who make disciples themselves. Mark Whitt, collegiate and young adult ministry specialist for LifeWay Christian Resources, provided additional leadership for the meeting.

Despite the wide range of contextual differences, the leaders share a strong common bond: All serve outside of traditional Southern Baptist strongholds. In many cases, emerging regions college ministry programs are located in areas with limited evangelical Christian witness of any kind. They make their impact without buildings and large programming budgets.

Ken Harmon, state collegiate director for the Northwest Baptist Convention and metro collegiate director in Portland, Ore., said the Emerging Regions meeting, which takes place every three years, is always encouraging to him. While each ministry is different, Harmon believes other emerging regions leaders can relate to the challenges of his setting.

“There is better understanding [among this group] because we are not in the established conventions with lots of churches,” Harmon said. “Every convention has limited resources today, but we don’t have the church base like lots of other conventions in the South.”

Major changes facing Southern Baptist collegiate ministry gave this year’s Jan. 19-23 meeting increased significance. Changes regarding funding and summer missions were key topics of discussion, Turner said, though much time also was spent learning from each other in dialog about principles they have found helpful.

During one of the sessions, Turner shared the three mission principles he has used to foster collegiate ministry programs throughout Pennsylvania for 20-plus years.

Turner’s first principle, leveraging, entails identifying and utilizing existing resources to accomplish the task. He pointed to Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a biblical example of using what is available for a Kingdom purpose.

Turner called his second missions principle the “Walmart distribution principle.” Before Walmart opens stores in an area, the corporate retailer builds a distribution network to supply its future outlets. Turner used the same principle before launching collegiate ministry in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, working to secure metro leadership before launching programs on individual campuses. The successful ministry at Penn State, he noted, plays a key role in his overall strategy by providing a ministry hub in central Pennsylvania.

The third principle Turner shared was the “St. Augustine grass principle.” Unlike some plants with a centralized root system, St. Augustine grass relies on “runners” and root nodules to receive nourishment and spread. Turner uses a similar, decentralized approach to insure the long-term viability of campus ministries in his state.

A more centralized approached relies too heavily on everything going through the state director and limits the possibility of growth beyond what the state director can manage, Turner said. In Pennsylvania, he tries to provide “just enough structure to help, not so much as to burden.”

“As missional, visionary leaders, we need to be facilitators of a movement, not just recreating or expanding infrastructure,” Turner told the group.

In another dialog session, Chase Abner shared how The Salt Company, a Baptist collegiate group at Iowa State University, thrives with intentional simplicity and focus.

The Salt Company is “creating a Gospel culture” with a “less is more approach” entailing a focused evangelism and discipleship strategy, Abner said. Though located in an emerging Southern Baptist region, The Salt Company is one of the largest Baptist collegiate ministry groups in the country. After the presentation, the leaders gathered in small groups to discuss “take-aways” from Abner’s presentation.

A common theme in all of the discussions involved the urgency of their task, knowing that college provides a strategic opportunity to reach people with the Gospel.

Harmon said college campuses concentrate large groups of people in a common place a time when crucial life decisions are made. He compared campus evangelism and discipleship to fishing in a pond. It is much easier to catch a fish in a pond than it is to catch a fish in the ocean, he said.

“We are encountering students at a time when they are making major decisions,” he said. “To engage them with the Gospel at that time of life can change the trajectory of where they end up in life.”

Harmon went on to say that college students who encounter Christ have the potential to make a Kingdom impact through missions and evangelism. Not only do they have time to go where God leads, he said, they also are eager to go to the tough places.

“College students are people who are available to be mobilized,” Harmon said. “They are willing to go anywhere in the world. So I see college students as the potential change-makers of our culture and world today.”