Recently, a dear brother in Christ asked me a question about university and college campus evangelistic ministry.
“We are doing more and more evangelism at Pierce College and CSUN here in California. Have you written anything about who to partner with from other churches [or campus ministries] in this context?
In this article, I will provide what I hope will be some helpful tips for campus ministry, based on my experiences on college and university campuses, over the years.
Private vs Public Institutions
First, allow me to offer a brief side note regarding the differences between private and public institutions of higher learning.
While rules vary from campus-to-campus and from state-to-state, by and large, if you are not part of a recognized campus organization you will have to obtain permission to engage in ministry on private college and university campuses. Public institutions are often less restrictive when it comes to access by non-student groups. That being said, many public institutions have time, place, and manner guidelines for free speech expression, with some limiting such activities to what are called “free speech zones.”
While it can be difficult to gain access to private college and university campuses, this does not mean you can’t minister to students on these campuses. By way of example, I have two private schools in my area–St. Ambrose University and Augustana College. I do not have access to either campus. In fact, a few years ago I was banned from the St. Ambrose campus, even though I had conducted no ministry on the campus-proper. However, I still engage in gospel ministry at both locations. I simply stand on public sidewalks, in areas where there is student/staff pedestrian traffic. I can preach, engage people in conversation, and distribute gospel tracts without stepping foot on school property.
I have been blessed to engage in evangelistic ministry on a number of college and university campuses in California, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, Illinois, and Iowa. I know other godly street evangelists who have spent much more time on many more campuses than I have. Still others focus almost exclusively on campus ministry.
I wish I could say that my experiences with Christian campus ministries, individual campus evangelists (both school recognized and not), and off-site churches that minister on campuses have been overwhelmingly positive. I wish I could say that, but I can’t.
However, I am presently blessed by wonderfully positive interaction with Christian students at the University of Iowa who participate in an on-campus ministry called “The Salt Company.” Each student I have met from this campus ministry has been very positive and encouraging toward my ministry on their campus. I have even been blessed to establish relationships with a few of the young men who are part of the group. The members of Salt with whom I’ve interacted each seem to have a genuine love for Jesus, as well as an understanding of and belief in the true gospel.
Campus Ministry “Kingdom” Mindset
Sadly, much of what is presented today as Christian college/university campus ministry is an unhealthy by-product of unbiblical youth ministries, in evangelical churches. This is not to say that every youth ministry is therefore unbiblical. However, since there is no model in Scripture for today’s evangelical church’s children and youth ministries, even the best of these ministries are extra-biblical at best.
Most of the college/university ministries to which I have been exposed and/or with which I have interacted have little or no gospel focus. Unbiblical forms of “friendship evangelism” are promoted, with an emphasis on “just loving on people“–whatever that actually means.
Additionally, there is an unbiblical “kingdom” mindest among leaders of college/univesity ministries. It is unbiblical because, with some, there is a greater desire to build the ministry’s kingdom on campus than the kingdom of God. Christians not associated with the college or university who seek to minister on school campuses are often seen as outsiders who upset the carefully-packed and decorated apple carts of school-endorsed on-campus ministries. Members of my church family and I recently experienced this firsthand outside of a local, private college.
I want to carefully set the scene.
On October 24, 2018, I decided to engage in evangelistic ministry outside Augustana College–a local, liberal arts school associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). It was my first attempt to minister at the school. You can read my account of what took place, here.
And here is a video.
The Following Week
The following week I returned to Augustana College with two of my elders and two members of my church family. The scene was nowhere near as chaotic and each of us enjoyed fruitful conversations with students. Toward the end of our time at the school, my elders and I were approached by Dell Jensen, a professor at the school and a faculty advisor to one of the on-campus ministries. Professor Jensen politely and respectfully shared his misgivings regarding the manner in which I engaged in ministry the week before. He described what I did as “hurtful.” He believed what I did hurt individual Christians as well as Christian ministries on campus.
Here is the video of our entire conversation with Professor Jensen. The video was shot on Pastor Mike Reid’s camera. Pastor Mike took the lead and well-represented me and our church, in the conversation.
To Professor Jensen’s credit, he continued the conversation with Pastor Mike via email. They met for coffee. They discussed campus ministry and Pastor Mike’s desire for us to meet with the leaders of the various ministries. The goal: come together to get to know each other. We want to seek mutual understanding regarding various evangelistic methodologies. We also wanted to see if there is some way to prayerfully or practically support one another’s evangelistic efforts.
Pastor Mike, having received an email from the President of Augustana College, Steven C. Bahls, also engaged Mr. Bahls in conversation. Pastor Mike expressed to Mr. Bahls his desire to meet with him. To date: there is no indication that the leadership of the school or the various Augustana College campus ministries desire to meet with us.
Don’t Do What I Used to Do
Our experience thus far at Augustana College is not unique. In fact, I, as well as other campus evangelists, have experienced far worse interaction with campus ministries than what my church and I have experienced at Augustana College. Again, at least Professor Jensen was willing to sit down and talk. Many ministry leaders on many campuses are not willing to enter into dialogue with evangelists, ministries, and/or churches that are not considered part of the college or university “family.” Sadly, some campus ministries and/or their members will go so far as to interfere with the ministry of those they consider “outsiders.” They may tell (warn) unsaved students that what the “outsider” is doing is wrong or in some way unloving.
Years ago, when I was new to campus ministry, if I met opposition from Christian students or Christian campus ministries, I immediately took an adversarial stance. When I open-air preached, I took opportunity to besmirch the ministries opposing my efforts as gospel-less clubs that didn’t really care about the souls of students.
Granted, that would be a true assessment of some campus ministries. But to make such blanket statements about entire ministries is no different than what some campus ministries do to visiting evangelists. To make such blanket statements is to denegrate genuine followers of Jesus Christ who may be part of or even in leadership with a campus ministry.
Don’t Bring a Reproach Upon Christ or His Church
There’s another negative result of publicly taking on campus ministries that do not welcome visiting evangelists. To the unsaved eye, it appears as nothing more than Christians fighting with each other. This brings a reproach upon Christ and His Church. It also gives unbelievers a reason, albeit an illegitimate one, to justify their unbelief. “I don’t believe in God because Christians can’t get along.”
When “Christians” Interfere
Unfortunately, there are times, especially during open-air preaching, when a representative of a campus ministry, or a professing Christian student or faculty member, may try to interrupt the preaching and argue with the preacher. The preacher, in such situations, may have to call-out the person if they are misrepresenting the preaching, the gospel, or the Lord Himself. This happened during my first visit to Augustana College.
While I was open-air preaching to a raucous crowd, comprised primarily of the school’s LGBT group and those who supported them, a faculty member interrupted me and said, “Can I just say something? As a Christian, as an evangelical Christian, I know that God loves people that are LGBT. Absolutely! Absolutely!”
Such seemingly adversarial interactions with other Christrians should be engaged as gently and patiently as possible, yet firmly, while not compromising the message. In the case with the professing Christian faculty member heckler at Augustana College, he sought to coddle, placate, and encourage the sin of those engaged in sexual immorality. And as I told the students who were gathered, the man wasn’t loving them. He wasn’t loving them because he wasn’t telling them the truth.
One option is to ask the Christian heckler if he or she would be willing to talk to you when you’re done preaching–telling him or her that you want to preach the gospel to those who are gathered. Or, if you are with a group of evangelists, ask the heckler if he or she would be willing to talk to someone else in your group so you can continue preaching. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Each situation is different and will have to be handled accordingly.
Look for People of Peace
Instead of engaging head-on campus ministries that oppose your presence and evangelistic efforts, look for people of peace. Look for Christians on campus who understand and are supportive of biblical evangelism. You won’t have to look far. If you spend any consistent time on college or university campuses, such people of peace will contact you. It’s happened to me on almost every campus where I’ve ministered.
It is through the word-of-mouth support of Christian students that on-campus ministries may come around to accept your presence on campus. Christian students will tell other students, particularly those who are involved in on-campus ministry, that your presence on campus is a good thing. Before long, more Christian students will introduce themselves and encourage you in your gospel work.
This has been my experience on the University of Iowa campus. I’ve engaged in regular, weekly ministry on the campus for about two years. Unlike virtually every other campus on which I’ve ministered, I’ve yet to have a negative interaction with a professing Christian Hawkeye. It took a considerable amount of time to establish myself as a presence on campus. However, even during my first few visits to the campus, I had students approach me and thank me for being there.
The time and effort at the University of Iowa has started to pay spiritual dividends. I have established relationships with a few Christian young men on campus. I meet semi-regularly with one of them for fellowship and discipleship.
What My Ministry at UI Looks Like
It might be helpful, especially for those who may be thinking about engaging in evangelistic ministry on a college/university campus, to provide a snapshot of what my ministry looks like, at the University of Iowa.
It’s important to note that everything I know about evangelistic ministry I’ve learned from others. I’m indebted to other Christian evangelists with whom I’ve partnered over the years. They’ve taught me much.
The University of Iowa has a geographic footprint that stretches several blocks throughout downtown Iowa City. As a result, there are many places throughout downtown, both on and off campus, where contact can be made with literally thousands of students. The university has a present enrollment of about 33,000 students.
I Didn’t Ask Permission
I did not speak to anyone at the school–faculty, staff, or law enforcement–before starting my evangelism efforts. The University of Iowa is a public school, with a main campus and other buildings throughout the community. To date, I have had no issues with anyone in position of authority. No one has tried to decrease or stop my evangelistic efforts.
I began my ministry at UI, with crosswalking and distributing gospel tracts. I picked a location that was off campus, but in an area where many students frequently walk on their way to and from classes. This afforded me the opportunity to distribute thousands of gospel tracts and engage a number of students in conversation. For almost a year, this was the focus of my campus ministry, with some open-air preaching along the way.
This year I moved to a new location on campus. I found a busy walkway near the center of the campus, just north of Market Street. At this spot, I found more students, a good place to preach, and an area where students are more likely to stop and talk. It was at this location I started incorporating a dry erase board in my evangelism efforts. I use the dry erase board to pose a “question of the day.” This encourages students to stop and give their answers to the question. The result was a significant increase in one-to-one conversations. The location has also proven to be a good spot for short open-air sermons.
Distinguishing Myself from Those “Other” Preachers
College/University campuses are wonderful places to engage in evangelistic ministry. As such, campuses draw not only good evangelists, but bad evangelists, too. Sadly, students and campus ministries often lump good evangelists in with the bad ones. It’s important to distinguish yourself from bad evangelists who bring a reproach upon Christ.
The University of Iowa is a campus that is visited by notorious evangelists like a man named Jed Smock. Knowing this, I will often, especially if I’m new to a campus, I may say something like this to those who are listening:
“My name is Tony Miano. I’m a member of Grace Fellowship Church, in Davenport, Iowa. I’m here today because I love you. I care about your soul and where you will spend eternity. I’m not angry with you. I will raise my voice, but not because I’m angry. I’m not allowed to use an amplifier, here. I want to be heard, so I raise my voice.
“I know that other preachers have visited your campus. Some of them call you names, judge you by appearances, and offer you no hope. I’m not one of them.
“I will likely say things you don’t like. You may even get angry. But I will say them because I love you. Friends warn their friends when their friends are in danger. And sometimes warnings can hit hard. Sometimes they can hit close to home. Again, I will say things you may not like because I care about you–because I love you as my neighbor.”
And then I will begin to preach. I don’t give this longer introduction much anymore, since I’ve been on the UI campus for a while, now.
Students Notice the Difference
Recently, a Christian student with whom I am now friends texted me to let me know some “angry preachers” were on campus. The situation got so bad that campus police officers had to escort them off the campus. I returned to the school the following day. It wasn’t my regular day to be on campus. I distributed gospel tracts, talked to students, and preached. A couple of students approached me at different times. Both were unbelievers. They both expressed their appreciation that I wasn’t like the preachers who had been on campus the day before. It’s students like these–students with whom I’ve never spoke, but with whom I’ve established a rapport by my demeanor, who will likely stop and talk to me at some point.
Partnering with Other Christians
Genuine Christians aren’t the only people ministering on college/university campuses. A wide variety of religions and spiritual groups, professing Christian churches and groups preaching false gospels, and cults are all vying for their pieces of the campus pie. As a result, Christians must be very careful with whom they partner in ministry, on campus.
I never assume a person I meet for the first time is a Christian simply because he introduces himself as a Christian. The word “Christian” has many more meanings today than it did in the first century, in Antioch. All but one definition–the Bible’s definition–is false. If I meet someone while engaged in evangelism and he introduces himself (or herself) as a Christian, what I hear him saying is, “Communicate the gospel to me.” Nine times out of ten, the stranger I meet who introduces himself as a Christian has no idea what the gospel is. I thank God for these encounters–these gospel opportunities.
With the above in mind, I never partner with someone (or a group or church, for that matter), until I know what gospel the person believes. I want to hear the person’s testimony. I may role play a gospel conversation with him to see and hear if he can articulate the gospel. Or, I may have him read one of my gospel tracts and ask questions about it to see if we believe the same gospel.
I don’t partner with nomads–professing Christians who intentionally refuse to be a part of a local assembly (church). Sadly, there are a lot of evangelists like this–men and women who travel the country, visiting campuses and communities, with no attachment to a local church. They have no real spiritual accountability. If a professing Christian is unwilling to submit to the authority and accountability of elders and a church family, there’s no reason for me to trust that he will follow my lead while we minister together on campus.
By asking a few questions and taking some simple precautions, I relieve myself of the stress and drama of inadvertently partnering with someone or a group that will negatively impact my ministry and my church. My ministry is a ministry of my local church–Grace Fellowship Church.
College/University campus evangelistic ministry is a productive and rewarding way to spread the gospel. Campuses are places where the gospel can spread well-beyond the confines of a campus. Students travel from around the world to attend the larger schools in the country. A student saved as a result of a conversation with a Christian, reading a gospel tract, or hearing an open-air sermon can result in a family, community, or country turning to Christ. Or, just as important, it can result in the other person in his or her dorm room coming to faith in Christ.
Hopefully, this article will either help you get started or encourage you in your ongoing ministry. If so, please let me know in the comment section, below.