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Conference Spotlights Need for Moderate Baptists to Increase Collegiate Efforts
May 8, 2006
DECATUR, Ga. — During what church historian Walter Shurden called “a long needed and critical meeting for moderate Baptists,” approximately 90 persons gathered May 4-5 at the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., to raise awareness, share ideas and take at least one concrete step toward enhancing efforts to minister more intentionally and effectively to college students.
Shurden is executive director of Mercer University’s Center for Baptist Studies that initiated and co-sponsored the event along with the Georgia and national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizations. The conference featured presentations, panel discussions and open dialogue by student ministers, college professors and other Baptist leaders.
In an opening address, Mercer University President Kirby Godsey said Baptists are losing momentum in connecting with college students and urged the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and supportive churches to “inaugurate a branded ministry” to students without replicating Southern Baptist Convention student ministries.
“These college students will not demand our attention,” said Godsey. “They will simply ignore us.”
Shurden told of becoming a Christian while a student at Delta State University in Mississippi, and then transferring to Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College. He credits his campus minister, Frank Horton, and the Baptist Student Union with shaping his spiritual development more than any other source.
Several others spoke about the positive impact of campus ministry on their own lives. Some lamented the reduction of campus ministry in some Baptist conventions and the fundamentalist takeover of others.
Veteran campus minister Tim Willis, who left a state convention-funded campus ministry program and joined the staff of First Baptist Church of Clemson, S.C., explained how he and student leaders at Clemson University formed a campus-recognized organization, called Cooperative Student Fellowship, that is being duplicated in other settings.
“More and more churches are going to have to ante up,” said Willis.
Ruth Perkins Lee serves in a similar role at First Baptist Church of Auburn, Ala. Her position originated with a grant from CBF, but now the church funds her position that includes youth ministry.
CBF national coordinator Daniel Vestal said of 14 program possibilities, collegiate ministries ranked 13th when the organization’s council prioritized its focus and funding during a financial crisis about five years ago. Only family ministries ranked lower during the process in which CBF developed its strategic initiatives.
“Collegiate ministry came in next to last,” said Vestal. “…In all candor, we have budgeted accordingly.”
Proponents argued that collegiate ministry should not be seen as an isolated or optional area of ministry but one that impacts the broader movement including the areas given the highest priority by CBF leaders.
“How we minister to college students will impact every area of Baptist life from the enrolment of seminary students to developing church leaders to the recruitment of missionaries,” said former campus minister John Pierce in the closing address. “Campus ministry is not an area of ministry; it is a vital means for impacting the overall mission that we value and support.”
Vestal said a committee chaired by former University of Georgia campus minister Becky Matheny developed a strategy for campus ministry several years ago with an initial cost of $1.5 million. The report was put aside, he said, when CBF leaders ranked collegiate ministry so low.
“However, I think we should always rethink everything,” said Vestal.
In the closing address, Pierce, now executive editor of the independent news journal Baptists Today, said it was unreasonable to expect CBF to fund an extensive program of full-time campus ministers working in Baptist student centers. However, he urged CBF to initially create an effective communications effort to allow persons involved in campus ministry to share strategies and other information.
Bruce Gourley, assistant director of Mercer’s Center for Baptist Studies, who instigated the conference, said he was pleased by the constructive dialogue and high energy for ministering to students.
“I think we had the right people there, “ said Gourley, “and had the right conversation.”
A task force to continue the discussions related to campus ministry development was formed. Tim Willis, Ruth Perkins Lee, Leslie Limbaugh of St. Louis, Mo., Brian Foreman of Charlotte, N.C., and Terry Hamrick, leadership development coordinator for national CBF, were initially appointed.
Photos by Bruce Gourley
The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207 Phone (478) 301-5467