Jesus and His Gifts: UNWRAPPED Conference Reflections

UnwrappedImageThere aren’t a whole lot of reasons this Southern Californian can think of to head off to St. Louis, MO for a few days in early January. But there is at least one good reason: UNWRAPPED. And apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a good reason. There were over 80 colleges and universities represented, roughly 400 attendees (students, campus pastors, laity and pastors), gathered together because they share a common interest in the welfare and spread of campus ministry across the synod.

We’ve all heard the statistics. We know students fall away from the faith in staggering numbers during their college years. We know college campuses are a mission field. We know there’s great opportunity and great need for robust confessional Lutheranism on our campuses. We know we need to defend the faith with clear, evidential apologetics. Or do we? If you didn’t know it before Unwrapped, you do now.

It’s no secret that a number of campus ministries have come under threat the last several years. And I pray that this conference would further strengthen the resolve of districts and congregations throughout the synod in pledging their financial and prayerful support to the continuance and expansion of campus ministry in order to prevent further disasters.

With all the doom and gloom statistics you hear about, this conference couldn’t have been timelier. There is also a great deal of rejoicing to be had. The LCMS Office of National Mission did an outstanding job in planning this conference. A few of the people involved in planning that I talked to said they never expected this to go off as well as it did.  President Harrison and Bart Day both reiterated their unwavering support for campus ministry; Harrison even got a standing ovation from college kids of all people.  The conference planning committee showed what a synod can do when we work together and dare to be Lutheran. The speakers – especially Craig Parton – were fantastic, great topics and well informed presenters. And the LCMS campus ministry staff, as well as all who participated in the conference (far too many names to thank) ensured that in a few days’ time, campus ministry in the synod would not become another fatal statistic.

This synod wide conference, the first of its kind in far too long, also lived up to its name: Unwrapped. But what exactly was unwrapped? The question isn’t what, but whom? Who was unwrapped? Christ Crucified and his gifts. From the sectional to the plenary presentations, inside the chapel and around the coffee pots, this singular message was unwrapped with joy, like a kid on Christmas morning: “Jesus died for sinners…and you qualify.”

Now, when it comes to defending the Christian faith, I’m an evidentialist. Show me the evidence, the reason for the hope that is within you. Tell me what you believe and why…and it better be more than subjective feelings. So, here’s some hard, tangible evidence in support of a great conference.

The plenary speaker, Craig Parton was outstanding. Having studied apologetics under the same teacher, Rod Rosenbladt it was refreshing to sit and listen to a thoroughly reasonable defense of the faith from a Lutheran who knows his Scripture, his catechism and isn’t afraid of confessing the historic Lutheran faith. You can get a lot of the same content in his presentations from his books, The Defense Never Rests and Religion On Trial. But if you ever have the chance to listen to him speak publicly, travel whatever distance you have to, even in January, to go and listen. It’s well worth the time.

The sectional presentations also allowed for a variety of topics. It was a joy and an honor to speak on the intersection of two of my favorite topics: literature and apologetics. The only downside, of course, was that there were too many good choices and not enough time for the topics. I guess that means we’ll have to have another conference. And that’s a good problem to have. In many ways, it was like being back at seminary again, soaking up as much knowledge and information as I could in a short amount of time. Lastly, a side note, perhaps this conference will encourage both seminaries to include a genuine approach to Lutheran apologetics into their curriculum, something that is desperately needed.

And while the substance was marvelously rich, intellectually demanding and insightful, there is also something to be said for the aesthetics of an event. At times it felt like a Lutheran family reunion and a glimpse of worshiping with angels and archangels. And the daily prayer offices showcased the best of Lutheran liturgy and hymnody for a segment of the population that is all too often pigeon-holed into the contemporary Christian music scene. Well, that myth was busted. I heard over 400 people – most of whom were students – chanting psalms, singing hymns and liturgy and doing it with gusto, both in and outside the walls of Francis Xavier College Church. So much for youthful stereotypes. They devoured the historic orthodox Lutheran faith in word and song and it was a sight to see and hear. And of all places, we sat in a Roman Catholic parish as the Gospel, along with our voices, was unwrapped adding substance to the beautiful architectural form we sat beneath (and it was an outstanding display of architectural apologetics). It certainly got the attention and admiration of Sister Ruth.

So, despite what you may have read in mission development magazines and journal articles, our youth and college students love the historic liturgy and hymns of the church. It challenges them, communicates the depths of Scripture’s truth to them both objectively and subjectively in a way that the CCM fads never can and they ate it up. After all, that’s what college kids are good at, knowing and devouring good food when they see it, or in this case, hear it. Our college campuses and students are hungry for the solid food of the Scriptures, the Book of Concord and the song of the Church. Some don’t even know how starving they really are. Our churches should be dining halls where the best Lutheran stuff is always on the menu and Jesus is the host, waiter and meal.

That’s why every Christian should care about campus ministry, no matter what your congregation’s demographics.  Quite simply, the future of our church body is walking around college campuses all over this country. Your future congregation president is facing tough questions about the historicity of the Gospels from his college professor. Your daughter’s or granddaughter’s future school teacher is getting fed a steady diet of secular, humanist drivel every day she goes to class. The examples could go on.

Because sooner or later, these college students will graduate. Some of these young Lutheran men will go to seminary and some of these young women will become deaconesses. And many more will not; but they’ll go to work in law enforcement, or as engineers, business men and women, doctors, scientists, professors, coaches and the like. And one day, if they haven’t already, they’ll become members at our churches, elders, vice presidents, trustees, and treasurers. This is why campus ministry matters. As good as it was to have Jesus and his saving gifts unwrapped for us in St. Louis, it’s even better to unwrap those same gifts on college campuses across the country, in the pews of our town and gown churches and on the sidewalks and public areas of our communities.

I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that the fate of Lutheranism in America is largely dependent upon the state of Lutheranism in and around our college campuses across the country. As campus ministry goes, so goes the synod.

And in St. Louis at the Unwrapped Conference, the synod – it’s leadership, its laity and pastors – showed that there is an overwhelming amount of support, concern, and love for campus ministry. And this is good evidence that the LCMS isn’t simply talking about witness, mercy and life together – those aren’t just nouns and slogans, they’re verbs. And they’re ready to be unwrapped throughout our church body for our college students and for all who care about them. The LCMS-U_CMYKconference concluded with Office of National Mission unveiling it’s LCMS campus ministry initiative – LCMS U. And that means we’re headed in the right direction. Back to campus and our congregation having unwrapped the gifts Christ has given us.

After all, the Reformation began on a college campus. Martin Luther was a campus pastor. And today, the reformation continues on college campuses. Even if your congregation is far removed from a college campus, chances are there are college students in your pews or in the lives of our members. Today we continue to work together to ensure that the Reformation lives on, for this generation and the next.

Next time this conference comes around, chances are, I’ll make my way there even if it’s cold outside. And I hope you do too. Case closed…or, perhaps I should simply say, unwrapped.


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