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Carrying Ministry on a Tightrope


June 29, 2022
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    What does it look like to live a life of faith? One illustration in particular has been etched in my mind for years. As a college student many moons ago, a mentor of mine shared a real life example from history of what the life of faith-in-action looks like. 

    He would often tell the story of Charles Blondin, a French tightrope walker and acrobat in the 19th century. He became known in America and Europe as one who would risk his life doing things no one else had done. His adventurous attempts were sure to bring an adrenaline rush not only for himself but for all who watched him.

    The illustration in particular focused on when Charles attempted to be the first person to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. Advertisements were sent out in local newspapers and tens of thousands showed up to watch on both shores. Onlookers were amazed witnessing him walk a quarter of a mile over a twenty-minute period as millions of gallons of water rushed beneath. For extra measure they witnessed him do so multiple times next while blindfolded, carrying a wheelbarrow, carrying a pole, and even by carrying someone on his back.

    The scriptures record many examples of those who have chosen to step off comfortable shores for a faith-filled adventure with God. Hebrews 11 famously describes a corridor of heroes throughout the Old Testament whom we today can find inspiration from their faith in action. Verse 13 says, “All these (heroes) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” In other words, these men and women of faith saw something worth moving towards until they died, all while realizing they themselves were out of place as strangers in a foreign land.

    Like Charles Blondin and these Old Testament heroes, Jesus too came to a strange place to show us how to navigate the previously impossible way forward to our heavenly home. The difference is He came into our place, and now he asks us to climb on His back to take us to the other side. Our work is to now follow Him forward in faith (John 6:28-29) balancing our responsibilities to lead every step of the way. 

    In many ways leading a campus ministry is like walking a high wire tightrope. There is a balance necessary to move a group of students, staff, and/or volunteers you are leading from their current reality into a future they have not experienced, all while climbing on Jesus’ back. But He is faithful to carry everyone to the other side! The sheer movement of every step with Him requires obedience, prayer, concentration, confidence in God, and determination to move forward. The opportunity for peril also presents the opportunity for adventure at every step! 

    In part one of this article, I want to mention just a couple poles every campus ministry must balance as we carry ministry with Jesus on a tightrope:

    The Environment Pole (The Formal vs. Informal Balance)

    Should you invite the next student you meet to a personal Bible study or a cup of coffee, a church service off-campus or a worship night on-campus, a game of pickup sports with friends or a ministry conference? Often the answer is YES to all of the above! 

    Our Western university setting specializes in formal learning environments. Students go to classes at set times, in a set classroom, with a set curriculum to hear from an expert. Yet, as anyone who has experienced college classes will tell you, you learn just as much about life and a subject matter outside of the classroom as you do inside of it. This does not minimize the formal times but complements it. These informal times of study and discussion help reinforce a subject matter and make it more personal, memorable, and transformative. The same is true in ministry. 

    When I look at the ministry of Jesus and his discipleship of others, I see him having formal times in his life with his disciples (i.e., celebrating weddings, funerals, the Sabbath, meals, and Passover), but also tons of informal time. Much of what the disciples recorded in the gospels were personal discussions, ideas, scriptures, and stories Jesus shared along the way both to and from these formal environments. Our campus ministries can expect the same effect—students will most remember moments spent with them along the way!

    Application Questions: As you look at your current ministry efforts to students, do you lean too heavily on ministry happening in formally programmed events with your ministry banner hanging out front or do you lean more heavily towards informal relational moments? How can you be more intentional about moving your students into some of the opposite environments?

    The Growth Pole (The Deeper vs. Wider Balance)

    Should you spend more time with your senior student leader or that new freshman student you just met? Should you spend time planning an outreach event for students or planning a team building event for your volunteer team? How and when you answer those questions is always important. But we cannot let their importance crowd out what is most important. 

    The temptation in campus ministry is to lose focus on the most important things in exchange for the tyranny of the urgent or semi-important. Losing the most important things allows us to settle for having an organization on campus and not an organism. An organization can grow but not multiply, an organism can multiply and grow. The two main ingredients for any campus ministry to become an organism empowered by the Holy Spirit are evangelism (proclaiming the gospel) and discipleship (helping others follow Jesus). 

    If your ministry does evangelism, but not discipleship, you will have new people who come around and eventually graduate but they never walk in Christlikeness in community. If you do discipleship and not do evangelism, you will never penetrate the darkness on your campus and your holy huddle will graduate unprepared to take the good news to those who need it most. It is not either/or, we need both. 

    I’ve found, in ministry, it is more common to let the balance tip towards discipleship at the exclusion of evangelism. As Steve Murrell said in his classic book WikiChurch, “as long as there is one unsaved person on my campus or in my city, my church is not big enough.” The way to grow is not just to go deeper with our current disciples, but to help mobilize them to reach others who do not know Jesus personally.

    Jesus seemed to be comfortable spending time with the lost. He spent enough time with them that people mistook his relationship with God as being improper because he was hanging with sinners (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34, 15:1-2). In fact, he described his ministry as coming to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus also spent three years with twelve young men and many women who saw how he interacted with the sick, demon possessed, rich, poor, irreligious, and the religious. By the end of this three-year ministry there were about 120 who were gathered in the upper room after his death (Acts 1:13-15). These would replicate His ministry after He was crucified and take it to the ends of the earth by the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:8).

    Application Questions: Would people on your campus say your campus ministry is focused on reaching “lost” people or “found” people? What would it take to be known as the group who engaged those not walking with Jesus? 

    As you help your students lead on campus, do you spend more time planning ministry events for the needs of those who already come or those who don’t come? How do you decide when to shift the balance towards the other group? 

    Stay tuned for part two where we will look at a few more poles to balance when leading a campus ministry.