Graduate student ministry: a defense

September 13, 2011

Imagine that you’re a diplomat sent to the middle east and charged with facilitating the sort of change there necessary to the forging of a lasting peace. Imagine that your position with the diplomatic corps was yours by election rathe than by appointment. Every four years you’d be required to show precisely the gains you had made in order to be returned to your position for another term to continue the good work. In other words, you would regularly have to explain to voters both why your work is valuable, why they should invest their vote in you, and why they should do both of these in the face of seemingly small and insignificant change in the region. As they English say, “it would be a hard slog.”

The scenario outlined above reflects something of the reality of life for InterVarsity staff called to live and work among graduate students and faculty. It’s a tough ministry.

The evangelical world has invested billions of dollars, millions of hours, and thousands of people on reaching out to youth and undergraduate students. It’s part of our DNA–relational ministry through organizations like YoungLife, InterVarsity, Cru, etc. There are conferences, speakers, specially-designed “student” Bibles, and even who magazines dedicated to reaching these two constituencies. Evangelical churches get excited about this. Donors are hyped by the thought of reaching these folk for Christ.

We have typically under-invested in graduate students and faculty, not to mention professionals of all stripes. Tim Keller pointed this very fact out in his address at the recent Lausanne Convention. There is a huge amount of work to be done in helping graduate and professional students, professionals, and faculty find ways integrating their Christian faith with the discipline they are study or the profession they practice. This is the impetus behind Redeemer New York’s Center for Faith and Work.

This is a critical mistake. People spent 95% of their waking hours at work. It is the mission-field we as believers have been called into. It is a context in which we are called to give glory to God through the creative, excellent use of our gifts. The Church must speak to this significant part of the life of our members. We largely don’t.

My observation is that most undergraduate campus ministries major on the “felt needs” or the students that attend their groups. There’s a lot of attention given to important “hot topics” (sex, drugs, poverty, evangelism, etc). There is precious little in the way of preparation for following the call of God out of the dorms and into a graduate program and one day into the boardroom. This is true of church and parachurch ministries alike. Both also fail very often to develop leaders to use their gifts in service of the church–it’s just not big on the horizon of most college ministers.

The ministry of graduate & faculty ministries seeks to give graduate students and faculty the foundation they need to be actively involved in redeeming the institutions they’re a part of by the holy and healthy exercise of the gifts God has given them in the vocation he has given thereby both bringing glory to God and leavening the dough of their context.

How do you measure this? How do you know whether things are getting better in the middle east? It’s a tough task. I can tell you that over the last twenty years there has been a steady stream of graduate students who, having been involved in graduate chapters, are now stepping onto campuses around the world as faculty. There are significant groups of evangelical Christians scholars in several fields that not long ago had few Christians in their guild–sociology and philosophy, to name a few.

God is using graduate & faculty ministries to correct an imbalance in the way the evangelical world envisions mission. He is using us to form students into faculty who are pioneers in their disciplines and who work for God’s glory as redeeming influences on campus. To be sure, the trajectory of the university and the culture is towards an increasingly post-Christian state where orthodox expressions of Christianity will be marginalized. Even in the midst of this, there are encouraging signs. They are subtle and sometimes difficult to observe from the outside, but things are changing.

Thanks be to God.