Note: This article was originally written in February, 2012 shortly after the PSW Board of Directors placed the ULC at UCLA on its sale list. Sadly, the latest news from the ULC at UMN is heartwrenching; their last service will be held this coming Sunday, June 24th, 2012. Lord, have mercy on our campus ministries and the pastors and people involved.
There is a pernicious myth being fed to the people of the Church lately. It has been used by many church bureaucrats past and present (probably future too) to initiate, support and promote the latest trend in church-growth a-Sacramental “ministries”. And most recently it has also been used to justify the sale of properties where Word and Sacrament ministry is active, thriving and faithful in exchange for a service of debt or the alleged budgetary concerns. Most recently the ULC at University of Minnesota and the ULC at UCLA have fallen prey to this myth.
And this is the myth, namely, that “Today’s mission planting is not connected as much to brick and mortar as it is to people, opportunity and relationships.” Here’s a radical idea (although not so crazy these days). If the dawn of future ministry in the church really is going to be more about relationships than brick and mortar, then our district officials should be willing immediately (not tomorrow, not in a few months, now) to sell the district offices, disband staff and take the lead in this new model of ministry. Show us how it’s done. Model those relationship-building mission models without the a located presence.
But that’s just the problem. Mission work – the work of the Church – thrives on located-ness, being present in the lives, communities and neighborhoods of the people being served by in body and soul by the work of the Gospel and mercy. This is why, no doubt, the district leaders will tell you that their building and offices help support the work of ministry in our local congregations. How is that any less true where Church is really being Church, in the local parishes, whether they are on campus 2 miles away or in the middle of a corn field?
Location, Location, Location. It’s not just true for real estate. It’s true for the Church as well. Just look at the founding fathers of Lutheranism in America. What was the first thing they did? Built a school, then a church and sometimes even a brewery. How’s that for priorities?!
Location is no less important on college campuses. In fact, I would argue that brick and mortar are absolutely vital – even more important on campus – precisely because these college students are away from their home, their families and most of all their congregation and its altar, font and pulpit. And for those who have no church home, where will they be directed to? If they run into a wandering Lutheran preacher on campus (such as the Campus Crusade style) where will they go? Somewhere at some point in time the believers must gather together. The Church is not called to be a nomad, wanderer or a vagabond – pilgrim yes, but even they built homes in the new world just as we do in the old world. As we confess in the third article of the Creed, the Holy Spirit calls, gathersand enlightens the Church. The Church needs location. God’s people need to be gathered.
This is something even the pagans understand, even in their false confession. Here in Huntington Beach where I live, there is a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall right across the street from our Goldenwest College, a community college. The Mormons are not too far away either. Coincidence? No. In fact, on almost every major university you can find a Newman Center (Roman Catholic) a Chabad or Hillel House (Judaism) an Islamic center, Bah’ai just to name a few. This was true on Stanford’s campus where I served as vicar and it’s also true where my good friend Pastor Jasa serves at UCLA.
There’s also another problem with this brick and mortar vs. relational ministry way of thinking. If you follow this to its logical conclusion, there is a rather nasty gnostic twist to it. Think about it. “Brick and mortar is the way of the past. Relationships are the way of the future.” The further down that road you go, the closer you get to “spirituality” and the further away you get from the created things of God. After all, God likes matter, he invented it. Scripture makes no such bifurcation. Both are important: soul and body. Relationship and location. It is the way of gnosticism to separate soul from body, or in this case, brick and mortar from relationships. As if the body (or the brick and mortar) were not important, or in fact outdated and old-fashioned when it comes to the work of the Gospel. But if you don’t have flesh and blood, what kind of Gospel do you have? A Christ without a body is no Savior at all. The brick and mortar vs. relational-ministry is a false, nonsensical distinction. It’s a classic case of both / and, not either / or.
Our synod (LCMS) used to be wise as serpents when it came to buying properties on or near major college campuses in the United States. Sadly many of those were sold off long ago or shared with the ELCA and now have been lost. However, some remain. We may not be able to afford new buildings on or near campuses (although we certainly shouldn’t give up trying). But we certainly shouldn’t sell existing ones. At best it’s short-sighted, at worst its a subversive attack on the Gospel.
Again, Location, Location, Location. “But the Lord doesn’t dwell in temples made of human hands,” some will cry out. Yes, it’s true the heavens can not contain the glory of the Lord, but a feeding trough once did. While it’s true that God is everywhere, He’s not everywhere to bless you. He locates himself for you. He did it for the children of Israel in the OT – think burning bush, tabernacle, temple – and he did in the NT – think a womb, a manger and the cross. God locates himself in human flesh. The Creator becomes a creature. The architect comes to occupy brick and mortar.
God locates himself in very specific places for very specific purposes: to place his name upon his people and bless them (Exodus 20:24). David knew that it was not right for the Ark of the Lord to dwell in a tent while he rested in a home of cedar (2 Samuel 7). And Solomon built the temple by the Lord’s instructions so that the name of the Lord God would dwell among the people (1 Kings 5). Location, Location, Location. The temple then points to Christ, the temple now and forever.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go up to the house of the Lord.” Location is still important, vital for the people of God. True we have no biblical command to build temples and tabernacles, but we do have the two-fold word of command and promise. Baptize. Teach. Do this in remembrance of me. Why? For the forgiveness of your sins. For the salvation of many. For you and all your children and your children’s children. In the Church today, Christ locates himself as he did in the Church of the OT and NT. It’s no different on a college campus. Location and presence is everything. That’s where the relationships are built, flow out of and are brought back into, the presence of Christ in his Church for the world. He locates himself at the altar, font and pulpit for you.
Brick and mortar on college campuses need our support. There is still time to support the ULC at MN and UCLA and all those in danger. These campus ministry facilities are irreplaceable. If they are sold and destroyed, they will never be recovered or regained. These campus ministries are more than mere land for the coffers, they are outposts of the Gospel. They stand as a clear and present witness to the faithful Christians in need of a home away from home, and a haven for the believer and unbeliever alike. Pray for our campus ministries. Write your district officials encouraging them to preserve and expand campus ministry with all due support. And don’t buy into the myth.
Built on the Rock the Church shall stand
Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in every land;
Bells are still chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the souls distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.
Grant, then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know My own; My own know Me.
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”