Is there actually substantial value in listening to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast?

After sharing the most recent (excellent) bonus episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: where Mike Cosper finally gets to interview Tim Keller… a fellow minister asked something along the lines of :

What did you learn that you didn’t know without having listened to the podcast? And what are your thoughts on the way Mike Cosper’s bias shaped its content?

It was a good opportunity for me to try to spell out the reasons why I am such a fan of the podcast… and I thought it was worth capturing on this blog, too.

1) Bias of the podcast producer

Yes this is very important. Any article, documentary, journalism, history, theology, sermon needs to be listened to/read with a critical ear/eye. More persuasive/immersive media like this well-produced podcast can be especially bamboozling and require extra care.

I appreciate how Cosper’s closeness to Acts 29, through his work with Sojourn Church, means he can speak sympathetically and positively about the good things. It wasn’t an outsider hit job. So in that sense I think his biases made it better. At the other extreme, the way he engaged with and gave support to some things, like Kristen Kobes Du Mez’ sociological analysis of Mars Hill and 9/11, I disagreed with.

Yes, it needs to be listened to critically. But in general, I think the podcast has a lot of credibility in its reporting.

 

2) What did you learn that you didn’t know without?

I’m not sure if I accept the premise of the question. Is that the way we should approach church history? Journalism? These things may record for us permutations of things we already know. But they tell us the particular things that actually happened … and why they happened the way they did when they did.

I think that makes church history and journalism (and the Rise and Fall podcast sits at the threshold of these two things) valuable in helping us understand ourselves and where we’ve come from and where we might go next.

I wouldn’t want to apply the standard of ‘what did you learn that you couldn’t have learned otherwise’ in many contexts, actually. There’s so much in your average church sermon I didn’t need that sermon for. And that doesn’t mean I should tune out.

I realise that behind this question is “Since there are things that are in poor taste, lurid, sensationalist about the Rise and Fall podcast… you need an extra good reason to bother”. Hopefully my subsequent comments will explain why I think there are many reasons to bother. I also don’t think the podcast is overly sensationalist… it just so happens that this is a story (like some of the stories surrounding the Reformation or the Evangelical Revival) that ACTUALLY WAS really extraordinarily lurid and sensationalistic!

 

3) What actual value in this particular podcast?

I have personally read and thought about most of the areas the podcast covers (the rise of the Jesus Movement and the megachurch, gender, abuse in the church, church governance, technology and culture and ministry, parachurches, celebrity etc) so there was a lot there that was treading familiar ground for me.

However it was a masterful summary of many of the key issues in Western evangelical ministry over the last few decades, and their roots over the last 50 years. In that sense the podcast brought together a lot of recent history and reflection across several disciplines, stuff that is hidden in podcasts, blogs, journal articles, theses and books… and put it all in one place. So while I have a lot of criticisms of Kobes Du Mez’s work, for example, it is very important and valuable to be aware of her work and engage with it.

That is all extraordinarily helpful I think. You could build a THL3/4 subject around the material covered in the podcast. These will be some of the big issues covered when IVP issues book 6 in its ‘History of Evangelicalism’ series. Cosper has done a good job of using the podcast as a launching pad to provide an introduction to many of these important issues.

 

4) What actual value part II

And not just issues, but key people and events (T4G, Passion Conference, TGC, Acts 29, City 2 City etc). Mark Driscoll himself is also a major person in Western evangelical history. We need to be aware of how he fitted into all these other things. The podcast does some work in helping join the dots.

 

5) What actual value III

Perhaps this is something that makes more sense to younger pastors, those who were shaped and moulded by these people and movements in their formative years… either as kids in youth groups/campus ministry, or those in the early years of their full-time ministry?

  • People who listened to hours and hours of Driscoll (and Piper and Chandler and the rest) and were actually really blessed by it… but also looking back think of the things that weren’t good.
  • People who had big ministry ambitions, who sometimes picked fights with leaders above them and around them, who took substantial risks in church planting or attempts at church growth—inspired by Driscoll and others—and who often found it really really really hard…and sometimes did things they regret now.
  • People who saw others, closer to them, publicly crash and burn in various ways just like Driscoll, Josh Harris, Darren Patrick did.
  • People who afforded immense respect, trust and loyalty to the elder statesmen like Keller, Piper, Carson (and our local equivalents)… and now are trying to make sense of some of the decisions they did or didn’t make, what they did or didn’t say.
  • People who are just in general reflecting at the strengths and weaknesses of the big evangelical machine, even in its Aussie manifestation (Geneva Push, AFES, MTS, Diocesan 10% vision or whatever else)… and beginning to wonder if everything they were envisioned with around, say, how complementarianism works itself out in practice, or how the Christian life should be lived, or how successful ministry will be if you just do xyz method (1:1, 2W2L, exegetical preaching, systematic theology, recruiting apprentices)…  beginning to sift through that for what is good and what can/should/might be critiqued.

There has been a significant spiritual/emotional therapeutic experience among younger Gen X and Gen Y Christians listening to this podcast. Profound ‘processing’ of things that has been painful and valuable. Might be hard to relate to for those outside that particular demographic?

Take my word for it. I and many others have been moved to tears during the process of listening to this podcast in a painful, but I hope ultimately renewing way.

Campus Ministry in Australia in 2022 and beyond PART 2: some conceptual models

See Part 1: Accelerated Change for the context for this post.

We should all have an interest in the future of ministry to school leavers/young adults

Not only campus leaders but church leaders, denominational leaders and other parachurch leaders should all care about what is happening in the work of ministering to school leavers/young adults.
This is a pivotal time of life for both maturing Christians and sharing the gospel with non-Christians; it is a crucial demographic in recruiting leaders for church and mission.
If campus ministries are no longer doing as much as we need them to do in their current form in some contexts, we should all care about what we will do to make sure school leavers/young adults are being effectively ministered to, evangelised and challenged for a lifetime of ministry and mission.
So these blog posts are not only for me and my fellow campus missionaries and student leaders, but also for all Christian leaders to engage with. What is the best way that we can all ensure that the work is being down well?

The current Australian campus ministry model is kind of new and kind of old

Campus ministry in hasn’t always been the way it is now in Australia. And it isn’t the only way that campus ministry is being conducted around the world.

The current Australia campus ministry model in AFES is actually kind of new: It was notably pioneered by Phillip Jensen, who started Campus Bible Study, as the Anglican chaplain of UNSW—technically not an AFES group, but now AFES-aligned, if not a formal affiliate. This model was advocated for, strongly, when Andrew Reid was AFES General Secretary in the 1980s and has become increasingly the norm across the country.

The model could be (somewhat unfairly) described as ‘church on campus’ and is marked by the following features:

  • Theologically-trained and usually full-time staff assigned to individual campuses. This is different than itinerant, often part-time and not necessarily theologically trained staff working with multiple campuses.
  • Regular public Bible preaching and teaching, usually weekly.
  • Regular in-depth training in the form of various kinds of workshops and courses.
  • Students and others recruited MTS apprentices (or equivalent) both as junior staff on campus and with a view to being recruited for full-time Christian ministry.
  • Annual Conferences, often called Mid-Year Conferences, with very in-depth theological teaching in a range of formats.
  • Occasional seasons of heightened evangelistic events.
  • Often strong emphasis on one-to-one discipleship ministry by staff.
  • Often emphasis on various kinds of stranger evangelism: walk-up evangelism, advertising tables, fliering.

This current model is also relatively old now. Phillip Jensen began as Anglican chaplain at UNSW in 1975. That’s nearly fifty years ago.  Andrew Reid became General Secretary of AFES in 1984—nearly forty years ago. UTAS adopted this model in 1995, that’s nearly thirty years ago. It’s at least possible that this model has become something of a tradition, and may not necessarily be the best model for the future. For many AFES staff, that means the current model is all they have ever known.

Emotional and intellectual distance to evaluate what’s needed

It’s actually quite hard to think clearly about what is desirable for the future of campus ministry… because many of those involved have strong emotional attachment to various programs and activities, drawing from our own experience as university students and current staff’s sense of satisfaction (or job security) in engaging in various ministries today.
It’s also difficult with something as big as campus ministry, especially in the model described above, to pinpoint which things are central and which things are secondary. Because so many of the activities and programs have value for all sorts of reasons, it can be hard to seriously consider abandoning any of it, because we can justify all of it.
However, some hard, critical and creative thinking, facilitated by some degree of provisional emotional and intellectual distance is needed for us to explore what could be best and most-needed for the future. What is the best use of time, energy and money? Where could we potentially save significant time, energy and money? What things are we aiming for that are no longer possible in quite the same way that used to be so effective? Are there different needs or emphases we need to focus on?
With this in mind, here is a spread of 5 possible models to think about what campus in Australia could or might be. To at least open our minds and hearts to think beyond what we have been used to our entire lifetime.

1. Obsolescence

Parachurches don’t have to last forever. It is at least theoretically possible that there will come a day where there is minimal reason for campus ministries on at least some campuses in Australia. Or it may be that the current campus ministries cannot practically make the changes they would need to make to really justify their existence. Sometimes existing parachurches need to retire to make space for new missions and ministries to potentially emerge.
I’m not personally convinced there is a good case for the obsolescence of campus ministry in Australia. But I do believe that if this possibility cannot even be seriously talked about, that might be an unhealthy sign, a refusal to really think seriously about what is best.

2. Continue with the existing model

Whenever considering strategic options, ‘Do Nothing’ should be one of the options. It could be that the existing model continues to be the best option for now, or at least that we do not think it is wise to make any big changes just yet. Wait and see may still be the wisest course of action.
Within this option, there remains room for lots of minor course-corrections: adjustment of programs and emphasis; reduction of staff team size; merging or collaboration with other campus groups etc.

3.  Focus on Public Events and Conferences

Many parachurches in previous generations worked almost entirely on intensives rather than regular weekly meetings. Conventions, conferences, large mission/revival rallies—often paired with a regular newsletter/magazine or other literature, sustained the movement.
Perhaps the full machinery of the existing Australian campus group, overseen by paid staff, is no longer as needed in some contexts and will no longer as able to attract significant number of students to at some universities. It might require increasing effort for decreasing results. Perhaps a more concentrated focus on a few really valuable events will be the way forward?
This approach may also be less attached to an individual university, more regional-based, more focussed on school leavers/young adults as a demographic, rather than enrolled students at a particular tertiary institution. It may also be coupled with a more direct promotional focus on local churches, rather than promoting directly to students through their time on campus.
This model could still run a network of small groups, mentoring, training and other activities underneath it, but that may not be its central focus. And it the expectation of the ministry may not be that the ideal is for all people who benefit from the public events and conferences also lock in to this larger structure.
It seems like such a pity to lose the depth and regularity of weekly sermons on campus. But it’s worth remembering that this is not an essential feature of campus ministry. It is a peculiar feature of the current Australian model, which is kinda new, and kinda old.

4. Small Group Network

The historic IVCF and pre-1986 AFES model was a network of small groups and special events hosted by student leaders and supported by itinerant staff.
I don’t personally see how this model will be one that will lead to more significant growth and effectiveness for campus groups in Australia.. theoretically it could be, but I’m not convinced that this approach would be able to generate the momentum and critical mass to really grow.
Coupled with Model #3, this network approach could run underneath the public events and conferences. But thinking about Model #4 as a distinct model to the existing campus ministry approach to small groups frees us up from assuming the small group network needs to have the same degree of intensive oversight, training and resourcing that currently marks many campus groups.
It could also be that this is just the wisest, good-stewardship approach: there is value to some kind of campus ministry, but not a clear need for something as intensively staffed. It may be that in some places contextual factors mean certain cities or campuses can’t sustain the existing campus ministry model, but rather than opting for obsolescence, a return to a less staff-intensive model might reflect the limited capacity of student ministry in those locations. Surely there’s comes a point where a student group is not of sufficient size to justify a full-time staff member. Perhaps there’s a point where the student group does not need a specially-allocated staff member at all.

5. Consultation/Service Ministry

A final model that campus groups might adopt in a particular city or region is to become a consultation/service ministry, which provides resources and expert staff to work with churches in their efforts to evangelise and traing school leavers/young adults/uni students.
Such a ministry might work with individual churches or whole denominations, providing a way for them to turbo charge their ministry to this demographic. It would be a kind of Department of Evangelism for a specific demographic.
Often churches employ youth leaders part time, but the focus of their work is on school-aged youth—there may not be focussed attention or groups for young adults. Many denominations employ youth specialists to support churches in this area, but often there is less intentional work for young adults. This area of ministry remains a niche that needs investment in, and if campus ministries are not longer effective to the degree that they used to be, something else needs to be discovered to work effectively to this demographic.

What are your thoughts?

I’d love to hear what you are seeing in your context, what you are thinking, what you are trying and what you think of my analysis of the context and options! Best way to interact is to find this post on my Facebook Page or Twitter and comment there!

Campus Ministry in Australia in 2022 and beyond PART 1: accelerated change

The COVID19 pandemic caused massive disruption for universities and university student ministry in Australia of which we are still feeling the effects. We are still in a tertiary education context with much, much smaller numbers of international students Many school-leaver university students have had their early adulthood shaped by lockdowns, isolations and COVIDsafe measures that include caps on room capacity and availability of online options. Universities continue to have COVIDsafe measures in place, many of which are still quite restrictive, all of which make online learning an ongoing feature.

COVID19 accelerated pre-existing trajectories

In some of this, COVID19 accelerated trajectories which were already observable prior to the pandemic: online learning, students spending less time on campus, working more hours in addition to their studies, decline in voluntary student activities and groups etc. Some of these things are coupled with larger social and cultural changes, including:

  • Housing affordability and availability meaning not only are the family of local students living in homes further and further away from university students, but in some contexts, even affordable student accommodation isn’t easy to come by close to campuses.
  • Complicated family life meaning less simple lives and living arrangements for students.
  • Other social factors that have changed the social life of Australians: rise of double-income families, increasing professionalisation and corporatisation of formerly voluntary and public activities and services (including universities and university spaces), decline in churchgoing and other group participation, all sorts of social and economic changes that came from the internet and social media.
  • Shift in the make-up of our inner cities and regional cities in ways I haven’t looked into in detail, but including things such as tree and sea changes.
  • Rising of cost of living and standard of living in some areas pushing felt or real need to work part-time, dissatisfaction with on-campus ‘lifestyle’.
  • The shift from the 1970s to the 2020s from ‘mass tertiary education’ to ‘universal tertiary education’. In Australia there was an enormous shift from ‘elite tertiary education’ to ‘mass tertiary education’ in the 1970s, making university affordable through government support schemes. Theorists now describe our society as one of ‘universal tertiary education’— an increasing shift towards tertiary education being considered not only available to the masses but desirable for almost everybody. This broadens and diversifies the university population, what universities offer and how universities see themselves significantly.
  • Government funding changes to tertiary education and university administration changes of various kinds, that affect the experience of both university staff and student experience.
  • An increase in  evangelical churches well-equipped to minister to and evangelise university students, which prompt students to question the unique benefits of also engaging with a campus ministry. In previous decades, campus ministries were offering events accessible to non-Christians for students whose churches were still very traditional; were offering in-depth expository teaching and theological instruction to churches that were either light and topical or heavy and doctrinal; were providing opportunities for high-level training and ministry activity for young adults, where they were largely sitting in pews or running Sunday School at their churches. Campus ministries are no longer anywhere near as obviously unique as they used to be in these things.

As a result of these things, even prior to the pandemic, there was an increasing number of school leavers/young adults who wouldn’t primarily or substantially identify as ‘university students’, wouldn’t be living the stereotypical ‘student lifestyle’ and wouldn’t see the university campus as a meaningful ‘third place’ for belonging and activity.

COVID19 accelerated changes in behaviour among school leavers/young adults so that the norm of ‘university lifestyle’ has radically changed. This can be observed on the ground in campus ministries, where many groups are still drastically smaller than they were prior to the pandemic.

But universities have also made significant changes.

Universities making permanent move to online-only lectures

In addition to these social changes, many universities are using the disruption of the pandemic (or are compelled as to cut costs due to the impact of the pandemic and other factors) to make permanent changes to their approach to teaching. Many are adopting the current popular teaching methodology of the ‘flipped classroom’—where pre-reading/watching/listening is more information intensive and in-person teaching is more practical and discussion-based. As a result many universities are announcing permanent move to online-only lectures.

Clearly there are potential economic benefits to this shift (saving on large lecture hall real estate and weekly senior lecturer hours, ability to attract online students beyond the immediate area of their campuses) but universities also point various reasons for this shift:

  • The pre-pandemic decline in lecture attendance is pointed to as evidence that lectures are no longer effective or efficient. This is a questionable argument, given that there are a range of measures that could be applied to encourage (or even enforce) lecture attendance, if it were actually valued. These measures could include: taking attendance at lectures and making a certain percentage of attendance mandatory, making access to online lectures a little bit more difficult, investing in organic community life on campus, reducing the number of lectures per semester or front-loading them in earlier part of the semester.
  • The accessibility benefits of online learning. This is certainly true. Accessibility options are not only valuable for those whose lives make on-campus attendance difficult (carers of various sorts, those with disability, those living remotely, those who need to work significant hours due to other financial commitments), but also perfectly satisfactory and even preferable for many mature-age students. However, in many cases accessibility does not clearly trump teaching and formation effectiveness. I believe that especially for school leavers, the value of educational and social formation is far more significant than simple accessibility and convenience.
  • The pedagogical benefits of the flipped-classroom approach. This approach still needs to be observed and tested over time—I’m sceptical about all that is being claimed about this approach, and suspect that the dust will settle on this latest methodology. In practice, arguably the best ‘traditional classrooms’ look pretty similar to ‘flipped classrooms’ and many universities claiming to adopt the ‘flipped classroom’ will deliver it much more poorly than the case studies used in the education research. Further, the social benefits of lectures gathering large numbers of students onto campus are significant.

Future of campus ministry

It may be that once things settle, as the pandemic subsides and as a new-normal of tertiary education is established, a modified version of the kinds of campuses ministries that existed prior to the pandemic will largely continue effectively. Certain aspects of young adulthood, student life  and university education might prove to be so resilient that despite dramatic changes and accelerated trajectories, the existing model still gets substantial traction.

It may even be that some of these trajectories reach a point where a significant reaction, whether in university strategy and educational model or young adult behaviour patterns emerges.

But it is also possible that some of these dramatic changes and longer-term trajectories will be with us for the at least the mid-term (next 5 years) if not longer. This may be the case of a significant minority (or majority) of universities, while others are largely unaffected, creating an increasingly obvious divide in university experience and therefore in campus ministry.

What could that mean for how we approach campus ministry? That’s what I’ll turn to in my next post.

 

PART 2: Some Conceptual Models for the Future of Campus Ministry

There’s a word for that: Standpoint epistemology

Didn’t know what the word for this was: ‘Standpoint epistemology’. Especially the questionable claim that oppressed voices are somehow more objective.

Standpoint theory

Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. …

Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.

 

The soft version of this is great: minority voices see things others don’t. The hard version is where we get the ad hominem rejection of privileged voices and the authority fallacy favouring oppressed voices.

Non-denominational missionary societies

Do any/many non-denominational missionary societies give constitutional power to their missionaries? I note, for example, that CMS Australia branches have Missionary Members, but some constitutions specify these are not-voting members, which is surprising!

It seems these societies developed, very much unlike denominations, often without giving any power to front line ministry workers. Part of what makes them agile also makes them (kind of) authoritarian, in that sense.

About critical histories of evangelicalism

Critical histories of evangelicalism, or modern culture (or whatever else) are super illuminating and helpful. But these histories, themselves, need to be read critically. Be alert to:
  1. Assertions of causation where correlations are found;
  2. imputation of motivations;
  3. explaining the reason for theological beliefs largely by sociological/psychological concerns (mainly used of views the author is critiquing);
  4. lack of balancing considerations of various kinds;
  5. anachronisms that draws too close a connection between values/people/institutions of the past and present… or create too wooden a division between things of the past and present;
  6. too much dependence on the large explanatory frameworks (around class/social imaginary/sin/race/gender/the Enlightenment etc);
  7. what is and isn’t established by the evidence (sometimes a lazy look at the footnotes alone can be revealing).

Hobart-based Mid Year Conference in 2021

This year we ran a significantly different, scaled-down, Hobart-based Mid Year Conference for the University Fellowship of Christians, the UTAS AFES Group.

This is the second year in a row that we have not held a standard MYC, which has otherwise run every year since 1996.

Though this is not merely a ‘consolation prize because of COVID19’ (although to be honest it is that, too!). It is also exciting to be able to adjust & flex & change for the sake of what suits the ministry today, rather than be stuck to the programs and structures of yesterday.
Though this is not merely a ‘consolation prize because of COVID19’ (although to be honest it is that, too!). It is also exciting to be able to adjust & flex & change for the sake of what suits the ministry today, rather than be stuck to the programs and structures of yesterday.

About Xian Reflections

Xian Reflections is written by Mikey Lynch.

Mikey graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts in 2002. In 2000 he became one of the founding leaders of Crossroads Presbyterian Church where he was the lead pastor for 7 years from 2003.

Mikey now works as the Campus Director of the University Fellowship of Christians, University of Tasmania, Hobart. Mikey is the chairman of The Vision 100 Network (Tasmania) and a founding director of Geneva Push (national) – both church planting networks. He is also a chaplain at Jane Franklin Hall and the chairman of New Front Door: the Church IT Guild.