by Rev. Philip Young
It happens quite frequently when people find out that I do college ministry. They comment with words similar to this: “That’s awesome! What a tremendous opportunity!” I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. But then comes the question, “How large is your group?” I tell them: “Three so far.” (We’ve been up to five and down to two.) The response? An uncomfortable “Oh.”
For some reason, many people think that college ministry should be easy. They have in their minds our Lord’s words to Peter and Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), and they believe that the college campus is the ideal setting to fish for men. It actually is, but that doesn’t mean that the fish jump into the boat any more than they do in any other setting in the world.
I’ve watched fellow pastors analyze LCMS campus ministry opportunities by looking at the size of the school. For example, the thinking is that since there are over 5,000 students at a particular school, surely we should be able to get our share of converts and have at least 50 (1 percent) in a college group. It doesn’t always work that way. In fact, not even all the LCMS students come to Lutheran student groups or attend church.
Regarding Christ’s words about fishing for men, a wise pastor once taught me that fish don’t want to be caught. Peter and Andrew were fishermen, and they knew this truth. That’s why they cast a net. The fish that they sought on a daily basis were happy to swim away, but the net brought them in.
Now what is it about colleges, especially public and private secular institutions, that would make students want to be caught by the Holy Spirit and renounce their Old Adam? I could make the case that colleges are the hardest places to fish with their deep, dark depths of evolutionary theory, atheism, sexual perversion, false religions and communism. But too much of that talk could make you think that fishing for Christ is dependent on the fishermen.
So often the “so-called” campus ministry experts say that you have to entice and lure students with free food and dynamic music and sports programs and exotic spring break destinations. Fish are smart! I’ve had the worm stripped clean from my hook tons of times. I’m happy to give out free pizza (as long as there is slice of pepperoni left for me), but pizza will not be the means for bringing in the catch for Christ.
The net that God gives his Church is the Means of Grace—the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. Recall what Jesus told his disciples after the resurrection: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). Our Lutheran Confessions say, “To obtain such faith [justifying, saving faith] God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (Augsburg Confession V 1-3). Therefore, sound teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the Divine Service are to remain foremost in pastoral campus ministry efforts.
From one semester to the next, I don’t know what kind of catch God will bring in. From the Word, though, I do know the character of fish, whether in schools or out. There is nothing that the Holy Spirit will use to gather them other than His appointed means.
To all our campus ministry pastors, sponsor congregations, and students: Rejoice when even one is unwillingly caught in God’s net and hauled aboard!
Rev. Philip Young is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and he serves as the pastoral advisor to the Lutheran Student Fellowship group at Vanderbilt University.