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Some missiology for campus 4: Pedagogy

In campus ministry we use a variety of educational mediums. Our group Bible studies involve discussion and discovery, and our training sessions involve lots of one-to-one meetings and workshopping.

Why then, when it comes to our ‘mission’ events, do we continue to emphasise teaching from the front? Do we believe that some mediums aren’t relevant?

We say that evangelism involves ‘communicating’, yet the mainstay of our ‘mission’ events is still the sermon — in other words, our communicating is mainly about us speaking. Even debates are a kind of pulpit in disguise: behind the give and take that hopefully occurs, the point is still to get our point across.

So let’s try something out: the sermon is not sacrosanct. The idea that ‘vivid exposition’ or ‘authoritative monologue’ is the unique medium for our message is probably more a reflection of our evangelical heritage than a biblical injunction or missiological rationale. For those who would stress the superiority of the sermon, let’s just note that it’s not the kind of pedagogical approach our Lord was known for.

But what about our existing regular public events? Aren’t they part and parcel of a good evangelistic environment? I would contend that our public events are not very ‘public’ in that they are about our own internal messaging. We might advertise them publicly and encourage students to invite friends, but I suspect that attendance requires a high level of existing interest on the part of outsiders. These are not truly open events.

I take it that our contribution to the life of the university and the faithfulness of our witness must in some way be proportionate to our capacity to move outside Christian spaces. And that will involve working with educational environments geared to something other than preaching.

Conversation is a vital medium of teaching and learning, as evidenced by the educational environments we’re making use of today. Coaching trainer Tony Stoltzfus talks about the shift from positional authority towards personal influence, for example (‘If you can’t lead by influence, you can’t lead’). But maybe what I’m getting at can be seen most clearly in podcasts. Conversations with Richard Fidler has a classic interview format. Truth’s Table has a casual forum format. Imagine if we hosted events in formats like these, not just for training Christians, but open to the whole campus, and designed to be genuinely interesting to others. Edit: two Australian experiments with conversation format for TV are You Can’t Ask That and Hear Me Out.

One of the possibilities raised by all this is that we might need more porous boundaries in the Christian fellowship (a bit like what City Bible Forum has been pitching at perhaps?). This in turn might necessitate a stronger sense of difference between internal events and open events, and simultaneously a stricter or more visible membership process. It will definitely mean reducing the number of internal events in order to increase the number of open events, moving our role from the centre of the platform to that of host, emcee and/or patron. I’ll pick up on that point again soon.

Image credit: Joshua Earle

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Hello Arthur and Tamie, Greetings from the Ellyatt’s on a beautiful spring day in Adelaide. I hope you are all enjoying your day. It has been good to start getting back to reading your numerous posts on meet Jesus at Uni. I have finally given u on hoping to drive again because after 12 months my sight has not returned to safe vision (meaning that I still have occasional double vision spells) even though the sight in each eye is within the normal range but not synchronising. Reading your articles is very encouraging as I can now read them right through and feel some success. Of course reading the service on the screen at church is quite frustrating sometimes but I am accepting that age does things to my body which prevents me from being as active as I have been in the past. I have had trouble printing your newsletter sent each month. I have acquired a different computer and am wondering if that is the problem. I now have an Apple Mac with a Xerox printer I can get the Initial Header but not the message and wonder if you could try a different format even if you just send the letter without pictures. The prayer group will be meeting again on 14th October and I would dearly love to print off your letter instead of making written notes. I shall have to close now as an unexpected visitor has just come. May the Lord bless you all richly. Judy Ellyatt.

    On Sat, Sep 30, 2017 at 7:27 AM, Meet Jesus at uni wrote:

    > Arthur Davis posted: “In campus ministry we use a variety of educational > mediums. Our group Bible studies involve discussion and discovery, and our > training sessions involve lots of one-to-one meetings and workshopping. Why > then, when it comes to our ‘mission’ events, do we” >

  2. Hi Arthur. In defence of the sermon, I’m going to say that biblically Matt 5-7, Mark 13, John 5:19-47 and 15-16 show that Jesus had plenty of place for the monologue. But you are right to say that much of Jesus’ recorded teaching is shorter parables (synoptics), responses, or in conversation/debate (e.g. most of the teaching of John is in conversational settings or defence against hostile question/accusation). It seems that often when Jesus spoke he addressed a spoken question or felt need, rather than coming with his pre-prepared material (this point was made in a sermon at our church recently, which I think is partly why that preacher tends to topical rather than consecutive exegetical style sermons.).
    Nevertheless, I think it’s telling that the synoptic evangelists use κηρύσσω for Jesus’ preaching (e.g. Mark 1:14, 38f; 3:14, 6:12, 13:10, 14:9), rather than διαλέγομαι, διαλογίζομαι, συλλαλέω, or συλλογίζομαι. That is, there is something declarative about his technique. This point is limited; given what we see of Jesus teaching in practice. I’m not familiar with first century synagogue practice, but was that monologue-y or discussion-y?
    Moving to the historical record, were you claiming that our instinct towards the sermon generally comes from our evangelical heritage, or just in evangelistic contexts? I’m guessing the latter, given how many preachers we could both list from of old.
    I have conversations about the place of the sermon with post-modern-aware Gen Ys at my church, and I think the authoritative place of Scripture is subtly undermined if we approach all our teaching as ‘having a conversation’. It’s not true that everyone brings an equally valid voice to the table: the Word of God is authoritative and I think a medium that conveys something of that has a place.

    On the other hand, reflecting on the evangelistic practice of AFES at the moment, I would agree that evangelism is most often in a friendship context. (I’m now responding to as well) But this is not just true for students, but for staff also. Reading the newsletters of AFESers, they are filled with accounts of the 1-1s they are doing with non-Christians, or the 1-1-1s (staff, Christian student, non-Christian student). This might not look like ‘programing’, but when the message is that groups hope/expect every student is involved in this sort of activity, it does take equal prominence. The stress on this activity means that students are challenged to ‘turn towards’ the other, rather than themselves. Then again, this is in a sense agreeing with you: whole-group activity is internal, 1-1s are more balanced between external and internal.
    Is it unusual though for larger gatherings to become more monologue-y, given the mere logistics of an event? Podcasts are a good example of a ‘conversational’ style, but even so you skip the ones you aren’t really that interested in, and podcasts are not necessarily ‘live to audience’ – audience participation is still minimal. So as a space for ‘listening’, they are still limited. And isn’t the big communication phenomenon these days a TED talk?

    Having said all that, I agree that it would be wise to recognise that public ‘talks’ are not natural drawcards, and thinking of ways to make them more ‘open’ is a great idea. I think my practical question is this: when you see a poster around campus, does it make a difference whether the event is described as a ‘talk’ or a ‘conversation’ or ‘forum’? I suspect the grabber will still be the topic, rather than the format. The one other factor is the presenter(s), and conversations and fora would at least give opportunity for speakers who students may feel ‘represent’ them better. I’m finding it hard to imagine what this would look like on my campus, where I don’t think students are very attached to ‘issues’ or even their course, nor are they to particular people… but I think that’s a reflection of my campus rather than the Australian university scene more broadly. Actually, I suspect lots of my above thoughts are reflective of my little non-engaged campus, where it’s hard to imagine anyone speaker bothering to come speak to us, or a student turning up to anything because they saw it advertised (whatever the group). I feel like people come because of personal invites, which throws us back to the friendship model.

    It would be interesting to see hear the reflections of a FOCUS worker, who would both have students more naturally receptive of a monologue (given pedagogy in non-Western countries), and a greater propensity for stopping for questions/explanations (given the ESL aspect).

    So: I want to say that monologue still has a place, even in evangelistic contexts. Yet I hear your call for more dialogue in our public spaces and will think about how that might look on my campus. James

    Is it a bloging sin to write a reply several times longer than the original article? Benedicat mihi Frater, quia peccavi

    1. Thanks for writing, James! My point is not that the sermon isn’t still a good thing, just that it’s not a special go-to format that we must always utilise on campus. I’m not saying all teaching must now be conversation, just that we have long emphasised the sermon and have often not given time to anything other than that. In the biblical examples you give, I figure that there is a “preaching moment”, i.e. it is an appropriate setting for a declarative monologue, with a question having been posed, a receptive audience, etc. I also don’t think we have a well-developed sense of internal vs external communication (sermons might make sense outside the Christian community when there is existing interest and receptiveness). Let’s not be preaching by default if the setting may call for something else — let our methods be missiologically appropriate. It’s for these reasons that we might expect the sermon to become more of a rarity in a campus context (perhaps even a pearls before swine kind of idea?).

      I do mean that our sermonising is influenced by our evangelical heritage, in which the call to respond, the revival tent & ‘anxious bench’ continue to subtly inform how we think about evangelism and conversion.

      Big-group conversation-driven events needn’t involve audience participation; I’d say it’s more about what’s being modelled up the front.

      There are various Christian TED-style events such as BMS Catalyst Live and Global Leadership Summit (GLS is videocast globally but hosted locally), and the campus equivalent I referred to previously is Passion Talks. I guess TED talks are more of a lecture than a sermon, and they depend on the speaker’s expertise in a certain area that is of public interest (public according to TED’s elitist model, at least!). In practice I guess our campus talks are often about inviting the campus into a Christian space, rather than bringing Christian thinking to a public space. Of course the campus as a whole can be a public space, but events within the campus require intentional and explicit steps to keep them from becoming confined to the group hosting them — and I mean steps to do with the formatting of the event itself, not just the advertising. I think you’re right about the framing of the topic, and I think we’ve got a lot of work to do on that, both in resisting the urge to shoehorning Jesus into everything, and in broadening the range of topics we’re willing to consider. But I do think the format is important in that we literally want to put Christians into conversation with others, rather than simply having Christians providing their take on this or that topic.

      I’m interested to learn more about your campus, and Australian campuses today, especially because I’m aware that my undergrad days loom large in my own perspective, and in my first couple of years of uni there was still a common lunch hour and “campus culture” hadn’t been eroded so much.

      Finally, I don’t think conversation is just an “in” with the campus, I think it has enormous potential for shaping Christian leaders (see the second post in this series). So I definitely reckon it’s worth exploring even for smaller groups on non-engaged campuses.

      1. Thanks for the further thoughts Arthur. I think this quote sums up your important point well ‘In practice I guess our campus talks are often about inviting the campus into a Christian space, rather than bringing Christian thinking to a public space’. That’s something we need to be keenly conscious of and certainly a situation I’d love to see change.

        I’ve never heard the phrase ‘anxious bench’ before, but it’s certainly evocative of certain elements of what drives our preaching…

        Like you say, the demise of campus lunch hour etc shapes things significantly. At Mawson Lakes, there is just very little in the way of ‘public conversation’. In my undergrad days (not at ML, as you know), I can remember people being on the lawns with microphones for all sorts of reasons, but that is exceedingly rare at ML these days. There’s little public meeting space, in a concrete geographic sense, for us to find and join with. I guess partly what you are saying is we should be encouraging the creation of such spaces, and then taking our part accordingly, and there’s plenty to like about that idea…

      2. Yes, I guess this is a completely new situation — the idea that specific groups might now have to take responsibility for the cultivation of interactive spaces, when in the past those spaces were maybe just part and parcel of the campus (which makes me wonder how it arose in the first place!?). I think it’s a real test of how committed to the campus we are: is the campus a platform we’re piggybacking on, or is it an institution we’re incarnationally wedded to come what may?

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