Revitalizing College Ministry: the ‘Church-on-Campus’ Model

by John N. Brittain

John Brittain is university chaplain at the University of Evansville, Indiana.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 20-27, 1988, pp. 673-675. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


The church-on-campus model is not a reactionary call for return to pre-‘60s “glory days” or to an outdated worship style or study method.

Campus ministry is once again a respectable topic of discussion in the mainline churches. Perhaps this is because a wide spectrum of people especially those of typical college-age are turning increasingly to higher education both to meet their educational and developmental needs and to aid them in times of transition. Campus ministry's increasing respectability can be linked to a growing awareness of the graying of mainline denominations and the resultant search for some effective way of addressing the younger generation's spiritual needs.

The United Methodist Church held its first international college-student conference in 27 years this past Christmas break in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will hold a similar gathering this coming Christmas break in Louisville, Kentucky. No matter the root causes for this renewed attention, many of us regard it as welcome.

Traditionally, those leading college ministry have used one of the following models: the "presence model," the "networking/resourcing model" or the "church-on-campus model." Reflection on campus ministry during the past 25 years reveals that the presence model dominated from the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s and gave way to the networking/resourcing model in the late '70s.

However, today the changing population of students calls for a conscious shift to the church-on-campus model.

The presence model maintains that the church should be present on the campus to interpret and respond to developments within the academic community and the larger world. Following the dictum that "the world sets the church's agenda," the presence model is passive even though the campus ministers, ministry board members and other key individuals may be campus activists. It is passive not only because it responds largely to issues generated elsewhere, but because it depends on the university's students and staff to be already supplied with a fundamental understanding of the church's mission. For example, it is assumed that the participation of the ministry in a campuswide protest or in solidarity with an oppressed minority's members, by allowing them to use the ministry's facility for their meetings, will be tacitly understood as an appropriate response to Jesus' inaugural sermon (Luke 4:18 ff.). The campus minister's teaching of a course in the humanities represents an affirmation of Jesus' instruction to love God with our whole mind. In an era when many university students were reared in active youth groups and participated in the church's full life, one could validly assume that they could readily interpret and easily understand what the campus ministry was doing.

But times have changed. The number of students who arrive at today's university bringing a sense of the church's global social mission is small indeed. (See Wayne C. Olsen's "Campus Ministry as Remedial Religion," April 13 Century.) Because of his, the presence model has become largely geared toward a highly motivated but small group of people who are already committed to the church's mission of liberation and who use the campus ministry as a place to become involved in that mission. In one of those ironies resulting from the vicissitudes of time ' this model of campus ministry, once perceived as being both activist and populist. is actually passive and elitist in the '80s.

The networking/resourcing model grew in popularity as some of the problems with the presence model, particularly decreasing student participation, became obvious. Students were still concerned with issues of spirituality, morality and justice, but they sought a more programmatic approach than many campus ministries offered. Campus ministers began to broker services in order to match these students up with specific programs of local congregations or judicatories. In this model, the campus ministry would not so much do ministry as it would enable ministry to occur. The main function of the campus minister. now often referred to as the director of the campus ministry unit, was as counselor and referral agent to students. Soon networking and resourcing flowed in two directions. As communication links were established between campuses and local churches, the church and its members recognized that the college or university often possessed hitherto unrecognized resources for them. Resource directories were prepared for local churches, and continuing education events were inaugurated for clergy. The campus ministry was no longer waiting passively for the university to set its agenda but was now responsive and reactive to the strengths and needs of both campus and church, or so the rationale went.

These developments were not without problems. As judicatory funding came under close scrutiny in the late '70s and early '80s, campus ministry staff and programs were good targets for cuts: clearly, it takes less staff time to refer and network than it does to design and implement creative ministry. Thus, the need to network, refer and broker services was institutionalized. Ironically, just as networking became the ministry mode of choice, many regional campus ministry agencies were closing up shop or cutting their staffs, creating fewer services with which to connect. In the end students seeking a place for dialogue or service have often found themselves referred to a local congregation that really wanted someone to tend the nursery or sing in the choir. In many other cases resourcing has become little more than a placement service for students seeking employment as Christian education directors, youth workers or student pastors, and for local churches seeking to book a contemporary singing group for the annual youth Sunday.

Very often what the local church wants most of all is for the campus ministry to stay out of its way. Local churches encourage campus ministries to adopt policies of noncompetition -with local churches: no Sunday activities. no traditional Bible studies, no educational enterprises. Campus ministers are to point their students to the local church for those. The campus ministry ends up being noncompetitive by being totally other, so that a divorce occurs between the campus ministry and the local church. The stark differences in modality overshadow bridge-building and outreach .As in the presence model, the networking/resourcing model ends up serving a narrow population with rather distinct interests.

The fundamental problem with both the presence and the networking/resourcing models is quickly perceived by most incoming university freshmen. They discover that there is no general forum on campus in which a configuration of worship and study takes place, resembling the church as they have known it. If the campus is of any size. it will support a variety of parachurch groups. However, most students lump these special -interest groups together, calling them the "God squad." Everything but the church will be available on the campus to meet most of the student's needs. This is why most universities now have full-time directors of residence life, directors of student activities, directors of counseling, and an army of professional and peer counselors and advisers in residence. When the church opts for a ministry of referral in the midst of this "full-service" environment. it is out of step not only with incoming students' previous experience but with campus life. And students interpret the mainline church's absence as an example of its irrelevance for all but, depending on one's perspective, a select elite or a fringe element.

To reverse these trends in campus ministry, it is time deliberately to adopt the church-on-campus model of ministry, providing on campus the mainstays of our traditions, worship and study. Except on wholly commuter campuses, this means that campus ministries should offer Christian worship experiences. generally on Sunday morning. Campus ministries should offer regular opportunities to study the Scriptures and the work of great Christian thinkers through the ages. When the ministry I directed on a large state campus coordinated a series of colloquia on "Christian Themes in Literature" with the English department, I discovered that many of its faculty and graduate students had been exploring various facets of this area in isolation. If nothing else, the series showed them that they were not alone.

Every campus ministry -- through its services and programs-should show that the church has something important to say to today's students. Outreach, mission and service must evolve from and remain in some way connected with worship and study on campus, as they do in countless churches. Special interest subgroupings will inevitably form from the wider campus ministry. But we must show students that the mission trips and the service projects, the premarital preparation groups and the seminars on responsible sexuality all emanate and evolve from our commitment to God and our communal study of the Word.

The church-on-campus model is not a reactionary call for a return to pre-'60s "glory days" or to an outdated worship style or study method. On many newer or recently expanded state campuses there has never been a worshiping, studying mainline church presence. Any denominational-based gathering on these campuses would be innovation, not regression. Students have told me that prior to attending a campus service they had never been inside a church or chapel or that before being part of a Christian campus discussion group they had had no vocabulary with which to articulate their spiritual impulses. The church may be familiar to many students, but for others it is the cutting edge of newness, and it presents us with an effective means of evangelization. The church-on-campus model does not propose to return to some kind of required chapel attendance . Coercion to attend religious functions would be improper on public campuses and undesirable on most private ones.

The campus church does not threaten the community church, because it addresses a different constituency. For regardless of what is happening on campus, those highly motivated students who want to be in a local church with worshipers of all ages or to play. in a hand bell choir will seek out the local congregation. The campus ministry addresses the much larger group ' of students who do not venture off campus. Its hoped-for goal is that the student who assumes

leadership in it will remain committed to the church wherever he or she goes.

In order to reinvigorate the campus church, we first have to admit what we have not been doing. How many parents and church members simply assume that some kind of community gathers for worship in that ivory-covered Gothic structure in the middle of campus or in the plain but warm United Campus Ministry basement? "On our campus," one campus minister wrote, "we have evolved our sense of ministry from mere worship to an integration with all of life. " What he meant was that he had closed the chapel program and had begun teaching a full load. Many of us would call that regression rather than evolution. Many clergy entered campus ministry because they were wary or weary of the worshiping, studying community in the local church. The campus offered the freedom to do that which was impossible in the parish, and more than one of us has maintained the title "campus minister" while inching ever closer to full-time teaching.

In today's environment it is no longer sufficient for the churches merely to be present. We must now question whether our presence is understood. We need to take the general ministry of the church, the ministry of Word and sacrament, to campuses where it is absent and where a high percentage of the students will not seek it out but may be receptive to it in their midst. This way of doing college and university ministry will require rethinking not only by campus ministers and their boards,, but by local congregations and judicatories, all of which need to understand that the church on campus is an extension of --not an annoyance to or a competitor with -- the local church.