this-is-missions monday: yes, context matters

I’m taking the next several Mondays expanding on some of the points from my book, Reaching the Campus Tribes. (You can read the first installment in this series here.)

One of the key points is that collegiate contexts are widely diverse. That one fact is probably the most important (but is certainly not the only) characteristic for understanding how collegiate ministry parallels foreign missions.

Here’s a paragraph from the book:

Like any tribe, each campus has a particular context that affects the ways it will be reached best. For example, large metropolitan areas, mid‐sized cities, and true “college towns” are all separate contexts that require different college ministry approaches. A community college is a context of its own, as is a medical school or other training institution. In a large city with many campuses, the presence of a “focus campus” – like the University of Washington in Seattle, or Ohio State University in Columbus – changes the context; large cities without one “focus campus” – Dallas, Boston, Washington, D.C., etc. – require different strategies (and can be far more difficult for college ministry). Schools with a Quarter System calendar require different ministry methods than colleges using semesters. Christian colleges require a very special sort of ministry. Campuses in the Northeast are different from those in the Deep South, which are different from those in the Midwest. With nearly endless contextual possibilities, each tribe presents unique circumstances that affect how we  engage it for the cause of Christ. (p. 42)

Beyond those regional and structural differences, schools also vary widely in their culture. As I note there (p. 43), you’ll even find much variation between “Harvard and MIT and Tufts and Cambridge College and Boston College, even though they’re all accessible from the same subway system.” (For more discussion of all this, check out chapter 4!)

The problem is, very few college ministers have actually examined more than a handful of campuses themselves. Many of us have only worked at one or two schools, and it’s likely those are in the same region.

So that’s probably why so few college minsters are interested in hearing things like:

  • You should consider starting your new ministry very slowly, learning the context carefully before you ever decide the basics of what your ministry will look like.
  • Don’t assume what you’ve learned about college ministry will necessarily transfer well to others’ situations. You may not even realize all you don’t know!
  • We shouldn’t automatically assume our brand of college ministry will serve a particular school well (whether we’re a church, a campus-based college ministry, or a college minister looking for a job). There is no “manifest destiny” for any organization to reach any particular campus(es).

Believing that contexts differ doesn’t mean I believe that every school’s the same or that there aren’t any transferable principles. This is more a question of approach than it is about actions. If we enter a new mission field humbly, learning its unique context before we start our work, then we can be pleasantly surprised when some elements turn out to be familiar. Certainly, our actions may often look the same as they would have elsewhere, but we will have started in the right place for maximum effectiveness and impact.

On the other hand, if we approach a campus with our methods ready-to-go and only later try to “tweak” as we learn the campus, we’ve started well behind… and we may even damage a campus in the process. (Again, look to the history of foreign missions for this phenomenon.)

Humility is a cornerstone of good foreign missions, and it should be a cornerstone of our work, too. The contexts really are different – take it from the guy who’s seen several hundred.


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