The Greatest Missions
November 10, 2021
By Rev. Steve Cheyney
Mission trips, working at an urban ministry center, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, assisting children with their schoolwork, preparing meals at the Ronald McDonald House, teaching soccer or basketball, and advocating for social justice come to mind when I think of mission work. These are, of course, only a few instances of what mission work entails. I've had a lot of these kinds of encounters, which is perhaps why I'm the conference's Mission Engagement Team chair. I've been doing mission work for a long time. Of course, the words “doing” and “work" are peculiar. Most of the time, it shouldn’t be doing nor should it be work. Instead, we are called to cultivate relationships and empower others. Despite the buzz around the words cultivate and empowerment, as I reflect on my years of experience with mission, I can’t think of any greater mission experience that cultivates and empowers others than campus ministry.
Campus Ministry is the Greatest Mission
What I do, and what I know, is campus ministry. I've spent much of my life working with college students, and campus ministry is the most vital mission I've ever encountered. Campus ministry is, in reality, the most important of all missions. Sure, I'm partial, but indulge me. What makes campus ministry so great is its liminal nature. Liminal is a popular theological idea that reminds us that we are simultaneously in two locations. We are in our own world as well as God’s world. We are in our own time as well as God’s time. Campus ministry occupies both sides of the border. Students are part of the academy and the church, youth and adulthood, reliant and self-reliant. Campus ministry is itself contingent on the “mother” church and yet also “the church” to the students we serve. Campus ministry is vital now, yet also preparing and planning for the future as we plant the seeds and mature students’ faith that currently and one day will yield something consequential for God and the world. Thousands of college students are impacted every day by campus ministries, but the church typically overlooks them. In this regard, I'm reminded of Jesus' words about the least of these being the greatest.
The Greatest Missions are Endangered
Sadly though, campus ministry, like all great missions, is in jeopardy. We're actually in some serious peril. Because we are so reliant on the local church, our long-term viability is in doubt. As I travel about guest preaching in various denominations, I see that churches are becoming increasingly empty. Only a few larger churches appear to be prospering, while most churches seem to be clinging on for dear life. This is quite concerning since the church's future (campus ministry) depends on robust and thriving local churches for us to be financially viable. Across the board, donations are down. Our funds are being slashed by denominations. The Western NC Conference has also reduced funds for campus ministry. We must hold our denomination accountable, restore lost funds, fight for more funding, and seek to decrease threats to campus ministry's survival.
The Greatest Missions are at a Threshold
Meanwhile, I'm aware that at my university (UNC Charlotte), we're reaching out to an increasing number of students. Our university is expanding. UNC Charlotte has a student body of 30,000, and our campus ministry activity is becoming more vibrant and comprehensive. There is, in reality, a severe longing for spiritual connection. Every day, I see students that are terribly suffering. They are more isolated today than they have ever been. On campus, stress levels are alarmingly high. At an increasing rate, students are expressing emotions of despondency and suicidal ideation. Our campus ministry (Niner United) aims to assist these students in recognizing God's presence and developing self-worth based on Jesus’ love and acceptance. However, we can only do so much in the face of declining denominational and local church financing. We've reached a tipping point. Never before have college students been in such desperate need of campus ministry as they are now. Amid the despair, they need to hear words of hope. They need to connect with others in their loneliness. They need an active and visible presence of the church in their life.
The Greatest Missions Empower Others
At Niner United we must train our students to be innovative leaders, compassionate ambassadors of Christ's love, and inspired followers of Jesus' radical grace. I'm sure there are strong churches who do a great job of witnessing to this, but every campus ministry in our conference is dedicated to social justice, is genuinely multi-racial, and LGBTQ welcoming. Campus ministries don't merely teach this; they put Jesus' grace into action where it counts. We had better, since according to data, more than 80% of college students don’t have faith backgrounds. Even more concerning is that the vast majority of students who have had church experience report these experiences were negative. In fact, over 90% of students who grew up in the church are unlikely to return after graduation. 90% is not only a statistically significant percentage, it is flat out depressing. However, campus ministry is literally the only mission that empowers the church to combat these disturbing trends.
The Greatest Missions are Present When it Matters
The traditional college-age student attends a university during what researchers call the impressionable years. College is when people make the most critical life decisions, such as vocation, lifestyle, politics, relationships, and faith. When young adults' minds, attitudes, and decisions are formed, campus ministry is present. As these 18-22-year-olds grow apart from their coddling parents, they must decide almost everything. It is astounding to imagine that campus ministry is the one mission most present in young adults' lives when it matters the most.
Of course, I'm partial. Campus ministry is the church's greatest mission, in my opinion, because it is the mission that I am most familiar with. But, truth be told, these ideals apply to any worthwhile mission. A mission can only be great if it serves the most vulnerable, marginalized, destitute, forgotten, isolated, and destitute - the one’s Jesus preferentially served. Because they operate in liminal spaces, great missions are frequently in jeopardy. Because they are obsessed with serving others rather than themselves, great missions are frequently overlooked as they work and live in the trenches and at the thresholds. People are virtually always empowered by great missions because they have no other choice. And when it matters the most, great missions are present with the love and grace of Jesus Christ.