This past week, a colleague gave me an analogy for campus ministry as ministry at a bus stop. It’s a pretty good analogy — everyone is coming an going, no one will be there for long. As I thought about it, I thought a more apt description might be ministry in Grand Central. Some people are rushing towards their destination, others are wandering. Some know where they are trying to go, some think they do but change their minds, and others are just lost. People are hungry, tired and burnt out. For many, this is their first time away from home and the station is overwhelming and bewildering — they are seeking direction. Some have friends with whom they travel, others are traveling on their own. Given the amount of time most of them will be in the station, they will be seeking out fellow travelers to hang out with, eat with and form community, many looking for those who are traveling to a similar destination or who have similar travel styles. All of them will leave at some point, some sooner than others.
This is our situation. And it is up to us to figure out how to provide for these people while they are in the station — to talk to them, figure out what they need, and to try to meet these needs the best we can, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
When I talk to students around the University of Washington, one thing comes up again and again — students are seeking connection and community. Even the kids are me who are in fraternities, which, in theory, should be providing that. As a called an ordained minister of word and sacrament, it is often thought that it is my job to provide those things in this place, but, all too often, the way word and sacrament is practiced are too narrow. There are so many students here who desire to be fed, but preaching and eucharist don’t meet the students where they are, at least not at first. There are students who have baggage around “church,” students to whom our rites are foreign and strange, and students who are drawn to check out a community grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ but aren’t ready to worship yet. if all we offer is a traditional worship service, how do we meet the needs of everyone else at the station? How do we minister to those who are wandering, lost, looking for company, yet for one reason or another aren’t ready for or interested in what we often call traditional, liturgical worship? If I am called as a minister to the entire community of the University of Washington through the Lutheran Church, is it not my call to minister to the needs of the community, even (is not especially) to those who do not feel called to worship God in the ways we have traditionally worshiped? What if, instead of practicing word and sacrament with my tiny community, we learn to embody word and sacrament, to embody grace, and to create spaces where that grace can be experienced by others not yet ready to practice word and sacrament themselves?
Many of my colleagues, particularly those of us on the left coast, are facing these issues. A colleague of mine had students coming for dinner but leaving before worship. Other colleagues have seen growth in gathering around meal with liturgical elements (often called dinner church), while others have been using gardens, conversation, and a dozen other things to help students gather in Christian community — even if not all of the students are ready to call it that or are even aware that Christ is moving within and through the community as it gathers.
I regularly encounter students who are hungry for community, for love, for grace, for hope — for the gospel, really — but are suspicious of religion and its trappings. They fear being sold to, they don’t want to come to dinner and worship (our current pattern) because they don’t want the bait and switch. They don’t want to be invited to share a meal and then be told they are getting Jesused, whether they like it or not.
What would it look like for communities to gather in ways that are rooted in the gospel without constantly talking about the gospel? If we found ways to be Christian community without hitting people over the head with it, then invited those who were enjoying the community to learn about Christ’s presence within the community? To provide a gathering space that is Christian under the hood and then to leave space and opportunity for the students who realized they were hungry for more to come to more?
One of the things I love about campus ministry is that those of us in this call are living out the struggles the church will be facing in the next 10-20 years (if they aren’t already). We are on the front lines of ministry in a changing world that often looks askance at people of faith and at the institution of the church. We are all, whether we know it or not, in the business of transit center ministry. Those of us who live in big cities and/or work with millennials know that our people are moving, moving, moving. They likely will not be in our congregation or our neighborhood for long — so how to we provide for them meaningful, deep, community rooted in the grace and love of Jesus Christ while they are around, and how do we do that in a way that is accessible to those at many points in their faith?
For some, entering into a church deeply rooted in tradition and liturgy will be a welcome trip home, even if they have never done so before. Some people just connect with the rites and rituals and are drawn in by the history, humanity and holiness of the creeds, the smells and bells, and the wonder and mystery of the eucharist. Others have deep wounds which these elements rip open. For many, these rites are unapproachable without a good deal of preparation and understanding — isn’t it kind of weird to demand people worship a God they are just getting to know?
We need many different types of churches and worship styles, but we also need places for people to gather that are rooted in Christian community but don’t shout it out loud, and ways for people to enter into the possibility of worshipping Christ and to explore what that means and what it looks like before they are ready for the full meal deal. We need to create opportunities for people to encounter the beauty of community rooted in Christ that *aren’t* worship, that aren’t liturgical, but allow exploration of those things along with exploration of the scriptures and experience of Word and Sacrament that are more akin to wading in than diving. If we are in the transit station, we are managing a host of different opportunities to experience the living God so that the people at the directions kiosk can direct people to the part of the station that is appropriate to the person. Some will want to stay at the precipice and not enter more deeply into the community or a relationship with Christ. And that is okay. Maybe at the next stop on their journey they will want more. Maybe they won’t. But they will have been fed and supported in the meanwhile, they will experience one form of God’s loving grace — community rooted in Christ’s love.
This may be a little all over the place, so — TL;DR — if we want to bring more people into Christian community, if we want more people to experience the beauty and mystery of liturgical worship and word and sacrament, it is up to us to provide entry points beyond worship services and one on ones, to experiment with what Christian community looks like, then to offer to walk with people on their journey through their stop at the transit station, however long it lasts.