Campus Ministry in a Post-Modern Culture

“WHAT IS TRUTH?”

Pilate sought no answer, nor does post-modernism.

Pilate simply walked away from Christ, from the truth (John 18:38), as do the majority of college students. But at least Pilate assumed that truth, seemingly so elusive to him, existed. In that sense, our collegiate culture is worse off than Pilate and thus our challenge is greater than Christ’s.

With that bit of hyperbolic pessimism stated right up front, we can go about the task of meeting the challenge of post-modernism, so wide-spread in our society and so especially and particularly dominant on our campuses, most profoundly and specifically in its pernicious attacks on the reality of objective, transcendent truth.

But, first, what is post-modernism, besides a buzzword which most everyone uses but no one defines and few understand? Briefly and generally, though post-modernism can be understood simply as a chronological development, it is chiefly a response to and reaction against the rationalism and modernism of eighteenth century Enlightenment, and even nineteenth century romanticism and scientific materialism. These “-isms” never delivered on their promises of utopia, giving us instead two World Wars and a disillusioned world. Thus, post-modernism is yet another attempt, especially by intellectual academia, at addressing the quest for truth. Unfortunately, it addresses this quest in a relativistic, subjective manner that can only be described as unrealistic at best and destructive of transcendental morality and doctrine at worst.

Well, enough of buzzwords in order to explain a buzzword. Let’s put it this way: Pilate’s question was: “What is truth?” Joe College’s question is: “How can you even know or say there is any such thing as (universal, objective) truth?” Pilate made a half-hearted attempt at finding truth. Jane College believes that truth is already within her, defined solely by her thoughts, feelings, experiences, and felt needs. Pilate would perhaps attack Christ today by claiming he is not the truth. Mr. and Ms. College attack the Church, the Body of Christ, for even claiming to have the singular truth. Truth has become understood as a personal possession which can and does vary from individual to individual. Do you see the challenge?! Perhaps I was not being hyperbolic or pessimistic, after all.

How then is the Church to respond? Specifically, for the purpose of this essay, how does the Church respond through campus ministry? With honesty and integrity, that’s how; in other words, with the objective, concrete truth of clarity. For “we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2). Those of us involved with confessing Christ on campus must boldly declare who we are: we must be, believe, and proclaim who we are; we must show the form and shape of who we are; we must teach who we are. We must be confident and honest in our identity.

We must be, believe, and proclaim who we are: For “what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:8-10). The faith of the heart and the confession of the mouth is one act of belief. This confessional fidelity entails both a clear understanding of what, Who, it is we believe, and a consequent sharing of that faith with others. It means a commitment to Scripture, and to the creeds and doctrine of the Church as handed down to us by those who came before (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15). It must answer both Pilate and Joe College by pointing them outside of themselves “extra nos” to him who exclusively is the way, the truth, and the life, not one of many, even Jesus Christ, our Lord (John 14:6).

We must show the true form and shape of who we are. In her worship, which is her very life-breath by the means of grace, the Church gives form and shape to the faith she believes and confesses. The Church is not the world, nor does she speak like the world, sound like the world, act like the world, appear like the world, or even smell like the world. The world speaks a language of deception and common vulgarity; it sounds its pulsating reverberations for mass entertainment; it acts with individualistic power and with might that makes right; it appears scantily clad in filthy rags designed to meet the pleasure of the eye and the lust of the depraved mind; and it smells of the spilled blood of haughty violence upon the weak. But in her children’s gift-receiving and thanks-giving, the Church speaks and sings biblically and uncommonly liturgically; she sounds a heavenly harmony of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven; she acts corporately and humbly and reverently; she appears in unique garments and sanctified dress; and she smells like the incense of God-pleasing repentant prayer with lifted up hands. The Church is foolish, not being received or known by worldly wisdom, by the spiritually undiscerning, commercially driven man or student (1 Cor. 2:14). Instead, she presents herself a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable only to God, not to consumer or secular culture or market-driven society; she, and we who have been begotten and borne by her through the external Word of the Father (externum verbum), are not conformed to this world’s language, sounds, behavior, appearance, and aroma, its worship, but are transformed by the renewal of mind and mouth and heart, proving what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:1-2). In this way we are and will remain healthy, whole, and complete – a people, a Church, of integrity.

On an eminently practical note, research and personal experience has shown that this liturgical integrity is very much welcomed by the Gen Xers (b. 1963-1982) and Millennials (b. 1982-2001) who populate our universities and colleges. Forty percent of the former experienced the divorce of parents; both perceive the world to be an extremely violent place, a world of constant (technological) change and increased diversity. As such, in the midst of a constantly transitioning, chaotic world, liturgical form provides stability, safety, and security; the historic liturgy is a cornerstone for them, for all.

[T]he liturgy can be a great gift, haven, and joy to people who live in a society and a world where they can’t be quite sure what things are going to be like five years from now, or whether tomorrow everything will be changed. In a world where everything has gotten to be so transitory and “throw it away tomorrow”, is there anything that they can count on as lasting, that they can be sure will still be there tomorrow, next Sunday, next year, and when they die? The liturgy delivers the answer, “Yes!” Same old liturgy every Sunday. You can count on it like it’s been there for a thousand years and more. When people bump into that in a world where there isn’t anything else they can be sure of like that, there is something real! And so we decline the demands of a consumer society which has to have a new model every year or every week if you’re going to sell. For then you’re talking marketing, and you’re not talking the church of Christ and the holy liturgy.

Students ask for liturgy done well, thoughtfully, in the proper setting, and there is the opportunity for a truly positive response to a liturgical setting. Belonging to a group conditioned to be greatly suspicious and savvy, they can sniff out and will discard anything that smacks of artificiality, insincerity, forced contemporaneousness, and marketed irrelevance. And, in order “to be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal” (Simone Weil). The liturgy, “as it bears the Word of God”, keeps us relevant by speaking into our ears words that are eternal. Otherwise, as has been said elsewhere, if the Church marries the spirit of the age, she will soon be a widow: actually, the marriage of Church and post-modernism would end in a mutually deadly divorce. However, simply put, students desire the Church, in both architecture and form, to be the Church: to show the true form and shape of who she is.

We must teach who we are. We have the dominical mandate: “Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20). The baptismal incorporation of a sinner into the life of the Church and the Body of Christ includes a life-long catechesis, an ever-present teaching of the concrete truth of the faith. The Church has no other baptism with which to baptize than the one her Lord instituted, and that one includes continual catechetical clarity. Honest catechesis means that every Word of God shared with others will either exhort them to be baptized or remind them that they are baptized: either forward to the font or back to the font. And the movement is from the font to the world, to the uncatechized, the lost, the unlearned, the fools who say in their heart that there is no God (Psalm 14:1); and then back from the world to the font, and so on and on the journey continues.

Bene docet, qui bene distinguit: The one who teaches well is the one who distinguishes well. This classical maxim is especially useful in distinguishing God’s Word of the Law – his demands and requirements which, unmet by us sinners, always mean our death – and God’s Word of the Gospel – his gracious and life-giving proclamation of the forgiveness of our sin on account of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. And it is here, at the Christ-point, that distinctions truly must be clarified, especially on campus, where Allah, Buddha, the New Age, Wiccans, and many others all compete for the time and appetite of the student who saunters up to the smorgasbord of spirituality served on a regular basis. The person and work of the incarnated God-Man, Jesus Christ, ultimately must be the center, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all conversation, evangelism, mission, and catechesis, both with the babes and those of full age (Heb. 5:13-14). In confronting the false God of “tolerant” post-modernism – which actually means not only tolerance, but acceptance, celebration, and promotion of its dangerous and harmful utilitarian and existential ethics, while not tolerating but rejecting any transcendent principles of the Judeo-Christian tradition – in the face of this challenge, Christ’s unique and salvific exclusivity (John 14:6), as well as his gracious, universal, and utterly inclusive invitation (Rev. 14:6-7, 2 Peter 3:9), must be taught and emphasized: it’s a matter of life or death. As such, when the campus minister finds himself in the midst of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or others, as he so often will, distinctions must be made between dialogue and prayer, between study and union – or if you will, between an ecumenical lunch meeting and leading worship together, between a book discussion group and mutual sharing in the holy things of God in the liturgy.

It is, indeed, a matter of life and death. In the final analysis, post-modernism is simply another form of the age-old religion of man. In this variety, man determines “truth” from within himself, based on a combination of personal experiences, emotions, pleasures, interests, tastes, and desires. Of course, this “truth”, by definition, is elusive and abstract, and the only thing that is sure is that nothing is sure: doubt naturally results and despair follows soon thereafter. God’s law, with its twin realities of sin and condemnation, crushes post-modernism and its worshipper. But out of this rubble of death, God can, and does, give a new life, a life re-created and nourished by the gospel. The gospel of Christianity leaves us not in doubt: we, and every student, can know who the Savior is, what he has done and does, what he gives, and where and how he gives it. Armed with the Christian gospel, the campus minister can confidently and concretely and honestly tell Joe and Jane that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is your Lord, who has redeemed you, lost and condemned creatures, purchased and delivered you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, in order that you may be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

Now, you cannot by you own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, your Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with his gifts, and then sanctifies and keeps you in the true faith; even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps her with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church he forgives daily and richly all sins, and at the last day will raise up all the dead, and will give to all believers in Christ everlasting life.

This is most certainly true and the truth!

As this generation of students searches for meaning and identity, the Church gives that which they seek: In the identity communicated and manifested by the Church, people are invited to discover who and Whose they are in relation to the Father who adopts them in the waters of the font. Disoriented and disconnected by chaotic change and subtle subjectivism, today’s student will find a connection with the God of all history, the One who is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8).

Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. [E]ven if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.

And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke”, we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:1, 3-11, 13-18).

And so St. Paul proves my (and your?) initial hyperbolic pessimism wrong, dead wrong. Instead, it is replaced with the realistic optimism and joy of life in Christ. Even in Christ’s response to Pilate (John 19:11a), we are reminded that all things and all power are in his hands, the hands of the One who is gracious and all-merciful, the One “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). No, we are better off than Pilate, for we are still alive in the midst of opportunity: and our challenge is not greater than Christ’s, for it is met and overcome in and by Christ himself. Indeed, it is inevitably so, for it is his challenge, it is his mission, and he will do it (Luke 19:10, 1 Thess. 5:24). The truth will prevail.

Rev. Eric R. Andræ, S.T.M., is the campus pastor at First Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church and the rector of the Augsburg Academy, both in Pittsburgh, Penn. This is an amended version of an article which was originally posted online at www.modernreformation.org.

Sources consulted or cited:

Dittmer, Terry K. “Millennial Kids.” LCMS Campus Ministry Staff Conference: Evangelism on the Post Modern Campus. Crowne Plaza Hotel, St. Louis . 11 July 2002.

Luther, Martin. The Small Catechism.

Nagel, Norman, “Whose Liturgy Is It?”, Logia Eastertide/April 1993:7. This article is a transcription of a lecture he presented to Opus Dei (a liturgical study group on the Concordia Seminary campus) on January 16, 1989. Cf. Nagel, “Logia Forum: That Which Remains”, Logia Reformation 1998:66-67.

Pless, John T. “Liturgy and Evangelism In the Service of the Mysteria Dei.” Mysteria Dei: Essays in Honor of Kurt Marquart. Eds. Paul T. McCain and John R. Stephenson. Fort Wayne, Indiana : Concordia Theological Seminary Press, 1999.

—. “Lutheran Missiology and Campus Ministry.” For the Life of the World April 2000. [I am especially indebted to this piece for the following expressions: “confessional fidelity”, “liturgical clarity”, and “catechetical clarity”.

“Postmodernism.” LCMS Office of the President. n.d.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview. St. Louis : Concordia Publishing House, 1993.

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