Reaching the Campus Tribes: review part 2

Hines is right. He is right on both points—Christian ministry to college students needs attention, and ministry to college students is missions. He writes “…the sad truth is that we have reached these people for Christ far less than we can or should…mission work among these millions of people is given very low priority by most Christians (p. 6).”


This was true over 20 years ago, when I left home for college. The church of my childhood had a miserable youth group of about 30 apathetic kids congealed into a couple cliques who would not give me a ride home from activities, so I avoided meaningful involvement. Today I cannot name anyone from my high school youth group, although I can recall some faces. I do remember the youth pastor (“Dan!”). The church did not seem to have a college group, or at least I was unaware of anything beyond Sunday morning. I moved a thousand miles to college, so I was only home on Christmas and summer breaks. This may be part of why churches don’t know what to do with college students; if they all leave for college, are they even still part of the church? Reminiscing aside, my experience may not be typical. This brings up my main critique of Reaching the campus tribes[1]. The research would have greater impact if it presented more data.


Hines’ pilgrimage appears epic, with visits to about 180 campuses, 300 ministers, and hundreds of services and activities. As a research project, it is conducted like anthropological or sociological field research. It provided Hines with enormous amounts of material to draw from. Unfortunately, he doesn’t present many numbers, which leaves us with a lot of questions. What is the undergraduate enrollment of the schools visited? How many students are involved in campus ministries or local churches? What proportion of students who self-identify as “Christian” are incorporated in a church or ministry? How many ministries and churches are operating on the campuses? How many campus ministers? Which campus ministries? How many campuses have Campus Crusade, Intervarsity, etc.? How many staff? Paid? Volunteers? How many people are reached? What is the ratio of long-time Christians to recent converts?


The point is that I would have liked for Hines to show us the patterns of data that support the points he’s making, for variety of reasons.


How do we know whether Hines’ conclusions are overly biased by his subjective impressions? How do we reconcile Hines’ conclusions with other reports which claim that things are going well? Consider the Ivy Jungle Network’s “State of Campus Ministry” report from 2008. It says “…generally speaking, the state of campus ministry over the last decade has been strong.” For what it’s worth, I tend to disagree with that statement given the fact that Christendom is collapsing in America. For example, church attendance in 2050 will be half of what it is today, lots of people abandon their childhood faith by their mid 20’s, and only 20% of twentysomethings maintain spiritual activity at a level consistent with their high school involvement. All these statistics are from sources like the Barna Group and the Pew Forum. If Hines published the data, he would also have powerful statistics that demonstrate his thesis. One recent example of how to conduct this style of research is “Breakout Churches” (Thom Rainer, 2005).


Nevertheless, Hines is right. Perhaps it would be fair to say that on his whirlwind national tour, he only had time to look for any signs of life, and perhaps he could not possibly have provided the kind of data that I believe are sorely needed. Maybe that must wait for the follow-up book (i.e., please write more!).


Back to the main point: Hines is correct. Ministry to college students needs attention. In addition to being overlooked, Hines argues that the college years are precisely when missions to American should switch into high gear. This is matter of both the incredibly valuable opportunity that college represents and the horrific dangers of failing to reach college students. Specifically, college students are about 9 times more likely to make a decision for Christ in any given year than older adults. College is a sort of last chance for reaching people, before they reach the “zombie years” of older adulthood, during which very few people ever receive Christ. Unfortunately, the college years are also when people are abandoning faith in record numbers, so you sort of have to catch people on their way out the door.


Why is the university such an effective machine for stripping people of their faith? It’s astonishing how efficient higher education has become at accelerating the erosion of faith in America. I think that the answer is in the enormous influence that the university continues to wield in our culture. As an institution, the university dominates the world (Charles Malik) and the university is the center of culture (Gene Edward Veith). It can be convincingly demonstrated that the university has become post-Christian, and yet nearly every bright young person of sufficient means in our society receives a higher education. All important people are university educated: every leader of government, all professionals (e.g., doctor, lawyer), all members of the media, and all leaders of the church. The university is already post-Christian, and the rest of society is getting there.


So Hines is right. But this brings up another question: Is anyone listening?




[1] I could have been more critical. For example, very little scripture is incorporated into his arguments. However, I don’t want to distract readers from the main thrust of Hine’s argument.

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