The numbers I’ve seen indicate that a large majority of college-enrolled Adventists in North America attend public or private colleges and universities. Tell me about the ministry challenge that represents for the church.
From its early decades, the Adventist Church has been known for high-quality education, and we have one of the best education systems in the world. As a result, much of our focus has appropriately been given to Adventist higher education. I’m a product of Adventist education; I think every penny spent for Adventist education is worth it.
But some students attending non-Adventist institutions feel that they are abandoning their Adventist identity. Historically, we haven’t been able to provide much of a ministry presence to them, and that’s where the challenge lies. At a crucial time in their faith development, they don’t have the support of the church that has previously nurtured them. In addition, there’s still a stigma out there about serving those who choose other schools: If we provide ministry to students who are attending non-Adventist institutions, would that not undermine Adventist education? It has been an uphill climb to bring focus and attention to them.
We know that many students choose public or private colleges and universities because of the unique offerings those programs may have for them academically and professionally. Others do so because of cost. What’s the key message the church is trying to communicate to those who may not be on an Adventist campus?
Since the appointment of a full-time person overseeing the global operation of Public Campus Ministries—which we refer to as providing ministry presence to Adventist students on non-Adventist colleges and university campuses—there’s a sense of relief. In many places I’ve visited, there’s resounding thanksgiving for the church finally recognizing that Adventist students studying on public campuses are also our Adventist young people.
In fact, instead of looking at it in a negative way, I’ve been sharing with church members that this may be God’s way of allowing students to go to campuses where worldviews meet. If they’re able to successfully introduce their worldview or influence the perspectives of others, they can positively impact many other lives, thus changing the world. I tell them that it’s not a sin to be studying on a non-Adventist campus, but it will be sin if you lose your distinctive identity and become indistinguishable from your secular environment.
What’s the content of the ministry the church is trying to deliver to Adventist students on public campuses? What kinds of activities, events, and processes are you involved in?
The objective of PCM is to inspire, educate, equip, and empower Adventist students to be campus ambassadors. To do that we have to provide opportunities for students to meet other students and potential mentors, receive resources, and be part of a larger community of faith.
For example, just recently, for the first time, the North American Division hosted a division-wide gathering of Adventist students who are studying on public campuses. We held it in the Ontario Conference because that conference has invested in campus ministry for almost 30 years. For a first-ever event, we had quite a showing—more than 100 students—the largest such division-wide gathering here in the NAD thus far. It was a 10-day event called ACF Institute—Adventist Christian Fellowship Institute—led by Ron Pickell, a man whose ministry makes me very grateful.
They covered Adventist and Christian apologetics; they talked about issues of origin as well, focusing on both evolution and creation. They also had a time to be spiritually encouraged. Church leaders were there mentoring them, including NAD president Dan Jackson as one of the keynote speakers, and also Ontario Conference presidentMansfield Edwards. The key message was reminding them that they haven’t been forgotten, and that we’re going to provide places and resources for them to gather together. As a result, many of those students are still meeting regularly in cyberspace.
What model of ministry do you find most effective with young adult Adventists on public campuses?
When we look at Jesus, His ministry started from an inner circle—from one, to three, to 12, to 70, to 120, and so on. His influence started from inside out. Jesus no doubt had thousands of followers. But He spent much of His three and a half years of earthly ministry in mentoring and discipling individuals in small groups.
I’m one who believes that the disciples of Jesus, most of them, were teenagers. From His model of ministry, we realize the importance of mentors. I hear the same from struggling students. Just imagine that you’ve been going to the same church all your life, living under your parents’ roof. All of a sudden, because you did very well academically, you end up going to one of the Ivy League schools. You live in the dorm, but you don’t know which church to go to. You don’t have any Adventist friends. You don’t have parents near you to shape your choices. You’re looking for someone who would care enough to spend time with you.
I just want to let these students know we’re here for them. It’s not about wanting to fix problems, but letting them know that we’re available, that we’re providing opportunities for them to network with other students and get connected to the larger community of Adventists. There’s a ministry presence in their community for them. They don’t have to feel lost in a clash of different worldviews.
What makes you love this work?
I’m indebted to some of the mentors who never gave up on me. And I truly believe that if young Adventists on public campuses know that there’s someone who will never give up on them, who will always allow them to experience Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance, that will be transformative. My passion for PCM is allowing the students who are feeling alienated, lonely, and confused to know that there is security for them, and that security comes from Jesus.
I also remind them that God has a purpose for them wherever they are—a special mission for them on the campuses where they study and live.