Thursday, December 10, 2015

Learning from evangelical campus ministry

By J. West

Everyone knows the importance of reaching the next generation of Christian believers. Often the focus is on educating and engaging children at home. But the Church also needs to engage students in college, when even the most devout young believers face threats and temptations (particularly if they were not fully formed at home).

On Saturday, the Diocese of Western Anglicans (ACNA) hosted a half-day workshop on campus ministry. An audience of 22 —  including Bishop Keith Andrews and clergy or laity from all four deaneries — heard a presentation by Rev. William Beasley, founder of the Greenhouse Movement near Northwestern University — along with two other rectors active in the Greenhouse Movement.

Greenhouse started in AMiA and is now part of ACNA, but it is not an ecclesial jurisdiction of its own. (I know the story of Greenhouse from an Anglican 1000 podcast by Beasley and Mike Neibauer, his first lay church planter).

Beasley and Greenhouse would be considered controversial (if not radical) in some quarters. Derived from his observation of African congregations where ordained clergy are in short supply, the Greenhouse model is to quickly plant lay-led congregations under the supervision of a regional priest. These lay leaders are more readily available and (others have noted) are younger and more rapidly deployed.

The model relaxes the need to have a big enough congregation to support a full-time priest (and a building). As Beasley (a cradle Episcopalian from Virginia) put it: “Where I grew up, you had to have $1 million to start a new congregation [to cover property and salaries]. We didn’t start any parishes because we didn’t have $1 million.  That was strong paradigm that affected how everybody thought about our mission.” While not all of us agreed with his solution, I believe everyone shared his diagnosis: no matter how the Church wants to improve the odds of church planting success, it can’t wait until the perfect time.

Still, many of the issues discussed at the workshop regarding campus ministry would be faced by Anglo-Catholic (or any other) campus ministers. These structural issues include:
  • The linkage of the sponsoring parish to campus ministry, whether as a mother-daughter or the Greenhouse-style network.
  • Working cooperatively with parachurch organizations (e.g. InterVarsity) and other Christian clubs and denominations. The two groups can publicize each other, and the parachurch may have programs to train or develop student leaders (e.g. to lead small groups).
  • Overcoming potential hurdles or hostility from secular universities, including (at an appropriate time) jumping through hoops to be officially recognized on campus.
Like other church plants, a campus ministry faces a tension between hoping to grow rapidly and beginning regular worship prematurely. At the same time, Bp. Andrews noted that a congregation is more than just worship: it needs to be equipped to make disciples out of its members and evangelize new members.

The workshop discussed other topics related to working with potential members:
  • Selecting ministry leaders. Beasley recommends finding someone already on campus rather than sending an outsider to campus; he has had particularly success calling recent alumni who have strong ties back to a specific campus.
  • Differing approaches for evangelizing and discipling depending on whether the (prospective) member is Anglican, other Christian and non-Christian.
  • The particular opportunities and challenges of international students, particularly those from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Beasley summarized the process they used to learn the Northwestern campus by using an unfamiliar term: “prayer walk.” Later Fr. David Montzingo (who is preparing laity to form numerous spinouts from his current parish) explained how he once used the same approach at nearby San Diego State to discern (and pray for) potential sites on campus.

It is not clear which parts of the overall Greenhouse strategy would work in the context of an Anglo-Catholic church ministry. From my own experience, a young church planter is unlikely to understand how today’s Anglican congregation relates to both to the historic undivided Church and the differences between Anglicanism and those traditions (notably Roman Catholic and Eastern) that also emphasize such continuity.

Some aspects seem a non-starter, particularly those that reduce the sacramental nature of the parish experience. It assumes that laity will be allowed to distribute reserved sacrament (controversial) or that the congregation will accept only occasional Holy Communion service (which has disadvantages and advantages).

To me, the riskiest element of this plan is that it reduces (if not eliminates) the ability of trained clergy to disciple and mentor both individual parishioners and congregation leaders. Rural parishes in the UK and US sometimes share a priest, as do some Catholic parishes in Europe. However, it seems as though both Schism I and II parishes have been successful this century in identifying and training (bi)vocational deacons who have the training and discipline necessary to lead a parish in the absence of a full-time rector.

At the same time, Anglo-Catholics (who have not planted a lot of campus ministries recently) can learn from the issues, opportunities and challenges faced by the evangelical and charismatic streams of Anglicanism. In that regard, there is an opportunity to learn by studying such approaches (just as one can gain insight from reading Joel Osteen), as long as the leader has the maturity and judgment to recognize which ideas are appropriate and which ones are not. In particular, if a campus ministry does not have its own ordained clergy, then the making key decisions about which ideas to follow and which to ignore would seem to be the crucial responsibility of the sponsoring parish and its pastor.