Secular Campus Ministry in New York: Special Event on Sabbath, May 6
By Major G. Coleman, May 4, 2017: The Adventist student group at the State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz campus is planning our first “Origins and Basic Assumptions” conference for this coming weekend, May 6, 2017. We hope everyone will come. This is our second annual spring conference. But more than that, we are happy that secular campus ministry is finally catching the eye of church leaders. Word has it that over 90 percent of Adventist youth attend secular campuses and that most of those who leave home to attend a secular college or university never come back to church. Our church needs to make every effort to stay connected with these young adults.
I have no statistical data to back up these claims from church administrators. But this I do know, as a committed Adventist professor and department chair on a large secular university campus, I watch at least 10 to 15 Adventist young adults each year die in front of my eyes. No, they do not die physically. But most of them are DOA spiritually when they get to campus and the few that have any pulse at all are usually clinically dead by the end of the freshmen year. By their sophomore year, their chances of survival are nil.
The spiritual battle on campus is desperate. The war is a war of ideas. The committed Christians who can actually handle themselves on a secular campus and not only come out alive but teach and train others, are few and far between. Worse than that, few resources are provided to Christian students who find themselves alone, isolated, surrounded and behind enemy lines without the scientific, historical, logical and theological weapons they need to do battle with prepared and trained professors, who consider it their job to make hash of unsupported religious notions masquerading as critical thinking. I grew tired of watching the blood and the lifeless eyes of the young while I waited for the church to respond. Christian ministries exist who purport to train students on secular campuses. Generally these ministries are either not readily available or they lack the multi-cultural focus necessary on today’s secular campuses.
This is what we did on my campus. First, we organized AMEN SUNY as a student-led group. Next, we created POWERSTATION.ORG to provide the resources and training students need in a multi-cultural, secular context.
When my wife and I arrived on this campus a decade ago, the first thing we noticed were the Adventist students and staff working on campus. But there was no Adventist presence. There was no Adventist church within 20 miles, but proximity was not the problem. We called a meeting of the students and staff. Only students responded. We helped the students organize themselves into the first on-campus ministry for Adventist young adults. We called it AMEN SUNY, Adventist Ministry Engaging New Paltz Campus, State University of New York. And it was there that our troubles began. We had good years and we had bad years. You can see our trials and tribulations at amensuny.com. During our best years, we had 20 or more in attendance. During our down times, it was just my wife, who is a student, and I.
Slowly, and with lots of advice and counsel from my long-time friend, Monte Sahlin, I began to piece together what some of the problems really were. First, the general campus environment is overwhelmingly secular. Yes, there are a few Christian groups on campus. But the Christian groups never provide university wide events of interest to the campus community. Second, ordained chaplains tend to make the problems worse, not better. Some of the larger Christian groups are identified with the Catholic and Episcopalian faiths and actually have ordained chaplains assigned to the campus. Not that it does much good. When I see the priests make their rare visits to campus, they always have on their collars, whether male or female. I also noticed they insisted on being addressed formally as Reverend so-and-so. People stare at them when they walk by. Never once in 10 years have I seen an organized campus ministry with an assigned ordained chaplain provide a program for the campus community.
The most active Christian groups on campus, including AMEN SUNY, are either run by students or have strong commitments and support from local churches. The Chinese Christian group is one of the standouts. AMEN SUNY and the Chinese Christian group meet in adjacent rooms on Friday nights and AMEN SUNY often joins the Chinese group to eat together, because they tend to have better food than ours in lean times. We have all gotten to be very close.
Still, the secular Adventist young men tend to drift toward sports, frats and student leadership and the secular Adventist young women lean toward the fashion shows, sororities and campus leadership positions. Almost all of the Adventist students who I meet on campus are Black Americans with Caribbean backgrounds. During the presidency of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, we were blessed with a large influx of Brazilian Adventist students under the “Science Without Boarders” program. That was one of our best years; these Brazilian students arrived on campus ready to work, as long as they had faculty willing to help and direct.
Two sets of problems hamper Adventist Christian mission on my secular campus: (1) The dominance of secular and church culture over Christ among Adventist students. (2) Church leaders who are unprepared to meet the diversity and science needs of a secular campus.
Four problems infect the Adventist young adults I see on my campus: (1) No interest in church mission at all. (2) A love for their Adventist heritage and Pathfinder Club experiences but no personal connection to Christ. (3) Confusion of Church with Christ and running from both. (4) Those that are zealous to bring church culture to campus.
I meet the first group in my classes; those who are Adventist, but lack any interest in mission. I teach religion, among other things, and always tell students I am an Adventist. Usually after class, or sometimes at the end of the semester, these shy Adventist young adults come up and confess they are Adventists also. This should encourage church leaders. The church has a very long reach and touches the lives of many young adults who do not set foot inside a church building, yet identify as Adventist. I am always shocked that I had a fellow Adventist sitting at my feet, unidentified, for 14 weeks. My prayer is that the words of my mouth were acceptable in God’s sight.
The second group of Adventist students I encounter are those who come once or twice to our AMEN SUNY meetings and talk about growing up Adventist in glowing terms. Sometimes they even show off their Pathfinder steps. They fade very quickly. Once they find out that our group is serious about campus mission, they do not come back.
The third group come to my office for counseling about class matters and confess they are actually Adventist. What amazes me is that they continually voice their problems with the church and their problems with God as one and the same. The church is racist, the church is greedy, the church is disconnected, the church does not love me, the church, the church, the church. When I ask “but what about Jesus, what about what He has done for you?” They look at me confused, not understanding what I am talking about.” These students never had a personal experience with Christ, in spite of sitting in church for years. Very sad and alarming.
Lastly, the zealots. The zealots are the hardest cases. Generally zealots are not so zealous that they start campus groups on their own. But with leadership and direction they are able hands on deck, until their traditional church thinking is challenged. If I or another student asks them probing questions, they begin to feel uncomfortable. If asked about the history of church sponsored and supported atrocities, racial division in the church, confused atonement theory or the difference between Bible fact versus church mythology, rather than admit they need more study, they fall into church-speak, that is, nonsensical responses and phrases learned in church to avoid a logical answer. Zealots are the most difficult to train to meet the secular world and campus because they cling to mantras but have no message.
One group I did not include, whom I am working with this semester, are the secular converts. They are the real joy of secular campus ministry. More about them next time.
Church leaders should be aids, guides, confidants and mentors to all secular campus participants, whether students, faculty or staff. Unfortunately in my experience, this is rarely the case. I have encountered four major church leadership problems.
First, Church professionals often bring hate speech to campus. The hatred of gays, anti-Muslim comments and outright attacks on secular people means I must be very careful about which church leaders I invite to my campus.
Second, Church leaders come to campus thinking they are in charge. In the past I have even had a church leader ask students if they wanted the local church pastor to be their advisor, when they have an official campus faculty advisor. Church leaders talk a great deal but do not listen very well. I took a church leader to lunch and they never stopped telling me about how to do secular campus ministry even though they had never worked on a secular campus a day in their life. I sat and listened, but I never invited this pastor to campus. Some pastors rarely ask questions, they only give answers. This is very poor practice in the secular world in general or on a secular university campus in particular.
Third, many churches are not ready at all to deal with issues of racial diversity on a secular campuses. This is a problem for White and Black churches. The Black churches are not prepared to deal with the demands of White students, who are more secular than are Blacks, who want a science and logic based reason for the claim that Christ created the world. On the other hand, the White churches are rarely prepared to deal with the justified charges of church supported oppression of Black people and the use of the Bible to support racism.
Fourth, when I preach in churches I am honest with them. I tell them until they are prepared to deal with science and logic in approaches to the Bible, they should probably avoid secular campus ministry. Few of my students have ever read the Bible, they have never heard of Ellen G. White. I cannot use the Bible to prove the Bible is true. I must demonstrate that the Bible meets any test of science or logic that the world can dish out. Only after I have done that, are secular students prepared to listen to the internal logic of the Bible and the Atonement of Christ, which is the only real science that ever was or ever will be.
May 6, 2017, will be the first creation seminar on the SUNY New Paltz campus. The conference will be a campus wide event. The school of Science and Engineering is on the alert. Our Adventist student group on campus is prepared for action and trained to answer all questions from Carbon-14 to the nature of the human soul. Pray for AMEN SUNY and POWERSTATION.org as we lift high the science of Christ, the creator God. Visit us at AMENSUNY.com or POWERSTATION.org and see the all day program we are preparing.
Dr. Major G. Coleman is a professor and department chairman on the faculty of the State University of New York New Paltz. In the past he has also served as a faculty member at Pennsylvania State University.