What kind of a safe place should we create in college ministry?
It was only 7:45 am, but to the bleary-eyed college students breathing in their coffee’s nutty, compassionate energy it was the harshest hour of the day. We were in the student center of Frostburg State University planning the next month of our on-campus ministry. The leadership team of 10 dedicated students was tossing around ideas for events we should have.
“I heard that some organization is having an inter-faith movie night this Friday.”
“What? Why would we send people there?”
“It would at least be a safe place.”
“Safe place? It wouldn’t be safe. There would be all kinds of stuff saying that every religion gets to God.”
“But at least there wouldn’t be drinking and stuff.”
Everyone eventually agreed that inter-faith events forgo our centrality that no one comes to the father except through Jesus Christ, but the suggestion revealed the subterranean themes dominating para-church organizations. Should they exist to carve out a ‘safe place’ for Christians? Is this here for you to find a spouse? Make good friends? Have something to do besides drinking on a college campus? Maybe even exercise some philanthropy to soothe the aching college conscious?
Though none of these are inherently evil, they quickly subvert the gospel and poison the well. Ministry to college students should not be safe; it should not be a separate place for the conservative, churched young adult to be shielded from the world. Radical idea? It should be safe in the sense that no one should feel physically threatened. It should dangerously say that Jesus came to seek and to save the hickish, snobby, spoiled, broken, hidden, polished, silly, brilliant, and everything in between. We should become all things, to all men so that by some means we might save some, not just the churched. Growing up in the homeschool community I am especially familiar with the ‘us versus them’ polemic, the idea that we should nurture and shelter ourselves from the world and pursue holiness in an ivory tower, safe from danger threatening a utopian myth. The problem is, we are the world. And what’s more, we are called to love our enemies, not from a distance, but up close in a real and intimate way.
The fact of the matter is, there are no safe places, most of all in our hearts. To lie that we are without sin in our Bible studies and that repentance is for only the prodigal sons and not for the older brother as well is simply not true. We have an idea because of our background or tidy lives that we need tidy, healthy people around us to protect us from the contagion of atheism, addiction, depravity, and wonted lust. But all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and ‘safe places’ for the sake of isolation from the world does no more to further the gospel than a fraternity party. If we surround ourselves with people that look and talk in an appropriate way to the exclusion the grimier parts of society, we are replacing the beauty of the gospel with the lie that our appearances and society secures our salvation. We are like tombs filled the soggy soup of human flesh, hidden by sparkling marble.
We should pursue safe places that love and welcome the churched and the unchurched at our gatherings. We should pursue safe places that point to each and every one of our depraved hearts in the light of the goodness of God. We should provide safe places that help us to repent and believe in the atoning work of Christ. We should build safe places that cultivate friendships with ‘unsafe’ people, because the gospel is for everyone. Pursuing holiness does not mean that we should disengage from the culture. We should engage with friendships with the Pharisee and the blatant sinner to show that God yearns to be our God and for us to be His people.
In fact, a confessional community built on repentance and belief and not on ‘safe places’ is salvation for the church-going regular to see that repentance from the darker parts of our hearts, not a façade is the answer. Engaging the ‘unsafe’ in a confessional community helps the ‘safe’ to see their own depravity and the real and present danger in their own heart. To not do so is to build a dangerous foundation destined to destroy all the blind, clean-cut people resting on it.
How do we do this?
Engaging the lost to many seems like a slippery slope to tolerating sin. Yet, it is not. Jesus loved and spent time with sinner, and was not drawn into a sinful lifestyle. Most importantly, it was not separation from the world the preserved his holiness. He sought out times of prayer with the Father, but was constantly spending time with the scourges of society.
The key to engaging is to start with love and humility. God loves the world so much, and it’s easy to look down on those whose rebellion against God looks so different from ours, but we also were dead in our transgressions. They may be a different flavor of sinner, but they are just as loved and longed-for by God.
1. Start with listening
Don’t assume that you understand why the person acts the way they do. Often, people have better motivations than those in the church, but the mechanics of how they work them out have gone astray. Listen to their stories and pray that God gives you compassion to meet the person where they are at. It may take a long time for them to share who they are with you, but that’s okay. Be patient and steadfast.
2. Don’t widen the gap, but open the conversation
Many times it’s easy to throw stones and to that only a monster could hold these ideas so antithetical to the gospel. While it is important to not compromise on the truth, trying to understand where someone comes from and understanding what they believe is the first step to true conversation. Posting articles on Facebook that depict their views as completely idiotic, cutting off their arguments with pithy sayings, and making unfair jokes of their beliefs creates a posture of aggression instead of one of engagement. They may not know the truth, but demonizing them throws up road blocks for them to ever hear the truth.
3. Be bold and pray
It’s important to listen, to understand, and to have compassion as the foundation of the friendship. However, this is not the end goal, just to have an understanding between you and them. Be open and honest of what you believe. Jesus is the truth and can heal their hurts and save their souls. Share the message that we are created for relationship with God, that we are broken and in rebellion against this God, and that Jesus came as the perfect High Priest as a sacrifice to pay the price for our rebellion and draw us close to God. We need to repent and believe in him. Pray for God to awaken their souls to this truth and to give you humility and boldness, because even the cleverest, most compassionate friend cannot bring someone spiritually dead to life. It is the work of the Holy Spirit and by his will.
To conclude, at the heart of ministry, wherever it is, is for everyone to realize our sin and need for a savior, and that starts begins in our very own hearts. We shouldn’t think of ourselves more than we ought and hide ourselves away, but instead with compassion and boldness extend the free grace of Jesus to everyone.