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‘Under attack’: Campus ministries see changes ahead

DETROIT (BP) — With Wayne State, Harvard and the University of Iowa among the latest universities to take action against Christian ministries on campus, some Baptist state convention leaders say Baptist campus ministry may be forced to shift its methods as religious liberty is constricted.

“Our religious liberty and our opportunity to share as openly as we have in the past” at colleges and universities “is under attack,” said Tim Patterson, executive director of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan, where Wayne State is located. Baptists “have to rethink how we do ministry on campus because the campus has changed.”

The Wayne State chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship filed a lawsuit against the Detroit-based university March 6, alleging Wayne State stripped the ministry of recognition as a campus student group in 2017 after university officials deemed “discriminatory” an InterVarsity requirement that student leaders affirm a Christian doctrinal statement.

Since then, the InterVarsity chapter has lost its access to free meeting space and has been forced to pay a total of $2,720 to reserve space on campus for Bible studies and other ministry events, according to a complaint filed in federal court by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal organization representing the Wayne State InterVarsity chapter.

InterVarsity is not affiliated with Michigan Baptists or the Southern Baptist Convention.

Patterson told Baptist Press the Michigan convention has stopped funding most traditional Baptist campus ministry in favor of collegiate church plants that will focus on reaching college students but not seek recognition as student organizations. Though the shift was based on evangelistic strategy, he said, it may also become necessary as a safeguard for religious liberty.

Religious liberty “is going to be restricted,” Patterson said, and “we have to find ways to continue sharing the Gospel no matter what the cultural norms might be.”

At Harvard, university administrators placed the Christian student group Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA) on “administrative probation” for a year after a student leader allegedly was pressured to resign her position following her decision to date another woman, the Harvard Crimson newspaper reported in late February.

A Harvard spokesman told the Crimson “HCFA conducted itself in a manner grossly inconsistent with the expectations clearly outlined” in university policies.

HCFA is not affiliated with the Baptist Convention of New England (BCNE), but there are two Southern Baptist chaplains at Harvard, BCNE executive director Terry Dorsett told BP.

“We are praying that the relationships [that have been] built … will allow us to continue to have a ministry presence on campus,” Dorsett said in written comments.

Still, Dorsett acknowledged, “it is very likely that other colleges and universities in New England will look to the actions at Harvard as a precedent for taking similar action on their own campuses. But we know the Gospel is powerful enough to overcome this cultural attack, just as it did in the first century.”

Dorsett added, “Our culture has moved from being religiously neutral to being religiously hostile. The situation at Harvard is the latest evidence that the radical left is no longer interested in having any form of historic Christianity on campus.”

At the University of Iowa, a Christian student group was kicked off campus for allegedly violating the university’s human rights policy, but a federal court temporarily restored the group’s registered student organization status in late January.

Litigation is pending in the case, which arose when a member of the student organization Business Leaders in Christ who said he was pursuing homosexual relationships requested to serve as BLinC’s vice president, according to case materials posted online by Becket. When BLinC’s president Hannah Thompson told the student she “needed to discuss his candidacy for leadership with the rest of the executive team,” the student filed a complaint with the university.

Baptist ministry to Iowa college and university students includes church plants near campuses funded by the Baptist Convention of Iowa (BCI) in partnership with the North American Mission Board, BCI executive director Tim Lubinus told BP.

The BCI also helps fund campus outreach events and “a few other ministries,” Lubinus said. “Campus ministries in Iowa that relate to the BCI are registered, staffed and supported by local BCI affiliated churches.”

“In most cases,” Lubinus said via email, “the ministries are recognized student organizations, but even if they lose their recognition, the ministries will remain strong since many of their events take place off campus and they do not receive university funding.”

Iowa Baptists are “praying that cool heads will continue to prevail and that the practice of upholding constitutional rights of religious freedom and association will be upheld as well as the long-held practice of all campus groups to define their own standards of conduct for organizational leadership,” Lubinus said.

“It seems odd that Christian ministries are coming under the microscope for simply upholding the same biblical values and mission that they have embraced for thousands of years,” Lubinus said.

Tennessee Baptist Mission Board executive director Randy Davis said traditional Baptist collegiate ministries across America “certainly” will face decisions like the one which confronted the Vanderbilt University BCM six years ago. In 2012, BP reported at the time, the Vanderbilt BCM declined its longstanding status as a university-recognized student organization after the university announced a nondiscrimination policy that could have forced the BCM to permit non-Christians in leadership.

In the future, BCMs with buildings on university campuses may “have to do without those buildings,” Davis told BP. Additionally, BCMs “will need to be more strategic with their marketing and mobilization dollars” if they lose the free advertising many currently receive in campus newspapers as registered student organizations.

“We need to continue to adjust our methods to this culture, but never the Gospel message,” Davis said. “In the first century, the church got off to a pretty good start in a pretty pagan culture. I don’t think we should whine about the culture being dark. We ought to step up and be the light the Lord wants us to be.”