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‘HAVING’ to go to church

How campus ministry changed my perspective

They warned us again and again about turning in those library books or we wouldn’t graduate. So, when Janice Cates pulled me out of the line at our commencement rehearsal, I assumed it was about that.
Not so. Mrs. Cates, our registrar at Lipscomb University, had found out that I was headed to the University of Georgia to begin work on a master’s degree in journalism. Her son-in-law, Todd Stancil, was the new campus minister at the University of Georgia — and he was going to need all the help he could get.
No problem, I said. With four years of Christian education under my belt, I was bound to be able to help him out. But it was Todd — and the Georgia Christian Student Center — that helped me out more than anything else. In three years God shook me, broke me, and rebuilt me through campus ministry.
Returning to my home state after four years at Lipscomb had an uneasy familiarity to it. No more churches of Christ on every corner — it was back to the days of telling people I was a member of a church of Christ and then explaining that I wasn’t a Mormon or “one of those guys who won’t go see a doctor.” After leaving 1,300-member Brentwood Hills, Nashville, Tenn., I didn’t know what to expect from the 350-member Campus View church, Athens, Ga.
But there were encouraging signs. I had stumbled onto an e-mail listserv for Georgia’s journalism school and — through that list — Ruhanna Neal contacted me. She worked in the j-school and was a member at Campus View. “We’ve been waiting for you,” she said. What’s more, she told me that the man who would be supervising me in my assistantship had just been baptized. On a campus of more than 30,000 students, I had already met two church members in my department.
My first Sunday visit to Campus View was an experience. Never in my life have I been more warmly received by a group of believers. They barely let me sit down in the auditorium. Everyone kept shaking my hand. At least five different groups asked me to sit with them. I had to turn some of them down.
The strong support of the church for campus ministry was evident beyond that first week. Todd Stancil quickly became an adviser, mentor and close friend to the core group of our ministry, which grew from about 10 to 40 that first year.
Todd and the campus ministry intern, Barrett Coffman, were our Paul and Barnabas. Todd, who ran away from God until his own campus ministry experience, had the fiery intensity of a visionary leader. I remember him grasping the air when he preached and getting misty eyed when he would refer to us as “my first group.”
Barrett was the cool, compassionate, easy-going encourager. Once, while distributing fliers inviting students to church, one of the recipients wadded it up and bounced it off the back of Barrett’s head (a bold move, since Barrett stood at no less than 6’4”). But Barrett rejoiced in his persecution. He wanted to find the guy who threw it and get him to sign the crumpled invitation.
I quickly learned that — for both of these men — campus ministry was a mission. UGA was a battleground where souls were lost every day. The bars downtown were hungry for new victims, and the campus community was quick to accept almost any kind of lifestyle as legitimate. Occasionally I would joke that the students were belligerently intolerant of anyone who didn’t meet their standards of tolerance.
Every once in a while I’d see “preachers” from who-knows-where pull up a podium on the campus commons and flow forth with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric about sin, promiscuity and damnation. I was amazed by the students — the bar-hoppers, the “anything goes” crowd — who sat quietly and listened. I think that this was the view of Christianity they wanted — impersonal, angry, and irrelevant.
But even among the cynics there were seekers, and Todd was determined that the ones who wandered through our doors would get a taste of Christian compassion. Our Monday night devotionals had elements of strategy.
More than once, Todd pushed me out of my comfort zone — literally. “Y’see that guy in the back? It’s his first time here. Go talk to him.” And there was an actual, physical push. We had people who visited the devos once or twice and were never seen again, but if they never returned, they couldn’t use “No one ever talked to me” as an excuse.
It may seem a bit extreme, but I’m not talking about hard-core “Do you want to be in our group? When are you coming back? Where do you live?” conversations. It’s amazing how someone’s impression of a church event can hinge on one or two personal conversations with members of the group.
It also amazed me how much I benefited from those out-of-comfort-zone conversations. Even today I reference Todd’s physical “push” and mentally push myself to meet new people, find out their interests, and just listen to them. I doubt that I can count the friendships that have emerged from such experiences.
Every good campus ministry needs an adopted mother and father, and we had the best — Connie and Terry Norwood. They were our support structure, and the deep love they had for the Georgia students in our church continues today. I think that the true effectiveness of a church can be measured by answering this question: “In how many members’ homes do you feel comfortable getting ice for yourself?” Obviously, the Norwoods’ home was on that list for me (although I always seemed to get more ice cubes on the floor than in my cup).
There isn’t room here to discuss the full impact three years at Georgia had on my life. I found warmth and love in campus ministry that I’ve tried to carry into the churches I’ve been associated with ever since. If ministries on any level — high school, singles, young couples, seniors — would adopt campus ministry’s sense of mission, we would fill the pews beyond capacity.
I saw Todd and Barrett at the National Campus Ministries Seminar in Manhattan, Kan., earlier this year. Todd’s now the campus minister for the University of Alabama, and Barrett heads the Georgia ministry.
Todd reminded me of something I said during my time at UGA — something I’d since forgotten:
“Before I came to Georgia, I went to church because I ‘had’ to go to church. Now I go to church because I ‘HAVE’ to go to church.”
OK, I realize that makes no sense in cold type. The general idea is that campus ministry changed the way I looked at church. Before, it was something I did weekly out of a sense of duty (and, occasionally, guilt).
At UGA, gathering with the church became something I desperately needed and longed for — the inevitable overflow of the worship practiced during the week.
For me, Sunday became the first day of the week — not just the end of the weekend. That’s what I owe to campus ministry.

Filed under: Insight

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