Home > Brian's Blogs, Missional Church > Are Campus Ministries “Church”? Yes and No

Are Campus Ministries “Church”? Yes and No

Yesterday I posted Russell Moore’s thought provoking blog, “Jesus Didn’t Die for a Campus Ministry: The Spiritual Danger of Unchurched Spirituality.”  Today I want to offer my own conclusion that Moore is on to something, but he also makes the fatal flaw of American ecclesiology.

Dr. Moore acknowledges the many benefits of campus ministries. Campus ministries not only provide students with a community of peers but also fulfill several other valuable roles: “Campus ministries can help equip Christian students to defend the faith, to serve the poor, to be held accountable to one another.” Dr. Moore clearly states “a good campus ministry is a gift from our Christ.” This is great praise. In fact, Dr. Moore concludes his blog with an encouragement to participate in campus ministries! But then this: “But it is no church.”

The reasons Dr. Moore denies campus ministries the status of a church are numerous: a church is a one-flesh union with Jesus Christ, a church is a covenant assembly, a church provides the world with a preview of the kingdom of God, a church speaks with the authority of Jesus Christ, and the church contains the presence of God! Implied in Dr. Moore’s blog is that a campus ministry cannot do any of these things therefore, it is not a legitimate expression of church.

The Fatal Flaw in American Ecclesiology

Dr. Moore’s blog reveals a fatal flaw in how American’s understand church. In defining what he believes is a true church, Dr. Moore says this: “The church—not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with they lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful comb-over hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you—is flesh and bones of Jesus.”

I love the images Dr. Moore uses because it reminds me of so many places I have been. However, I cringe when I read the words “the real one you go to every week.” There it is. Dr. Moore’s church is a place. Church is a place “you go to every week.”

But this is not the biblical definition of the church.  Rather, the Bible reveals:

  • The church is not a place, although portions the people of God throughout the world often gather in one place together.
  • The church is not a time, although when the people of God gather they gather at a specific time.
  • The church is not an organization, although when the people of God gather they organize themselves in some fashion.
  • The church is not a building, although the church often meets in buildings (but this is not necessary!).
  • The church is not an activity, although the church often does certain activities (to my Reformed friends this means that preaching and the administration of the sacraments does not make the church!).

The church is a people.  At its core, the church is a people.  But the church is not just any people; the church is the people of God redeemed by Jesus Christ.  As long as you have people redeemed by Jesus Christ, you have church.  Other things are important, but nothing else is necessary.

Did Jesus Die for a Campus Ministry?

Let me return to the title of Dr. Moore’s blog. Dr. Moore is absolutely correct; Jesus didn’t die for a campus ministry. But, I would add, Jesus also didn’t die for the place “you go to every week” that you call “church.” Jesus didn’t die for these ministries, Jesus died for the church. And what is the church? The church is a people. The church is the people of God redeemed by Jesus Christ.

So Jesus didn’t die for a campus ministry, but he did die for the church that participates in a campus ministry (read: “he did die for the people who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ who participate in a campus ministry”). Jesus didn’t die for 1120 West Willow Highway, Grand Ledge, MI 48837 or the organizational structure contained therein, but he did die for the church that meets there every week (read: “he did die for the people who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ who meet every week on this property at 9:00 am”). Jesus didn’t die for any organization or ministry no matter what you call it. Jesus died for people.

So is a campus ministry a church? You may be surprised but I agree with Dr. Moore. No, it is not a church. The church is not a ministry. The church is not a meeting. The church is not a place. The church is a people. So let me rephrase the question: is the church present in your local campus ministry? If this campus ministry contains those who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ, the answer is an emphatic “yes!” Had there been a campus ministry in Colosse, there is no reason to believe that Paul would not have wanted his letter to the church read there. Why? Because the church, the people of God, are there!

Let’s apply this thinking to several other ministries:

  • Is your Bible class at college church?  The Bible class isn’t a church but the church does take Bible classes.
  • Is the pre-meal sermon at the Lansing City Rescue mission church?  The pre-meal sermon at the rescue mission isn’t a church, but the church gives a per-meal sermon at the rescue mission.
  • Is VBS church?  Vacation Bible School isn’t a church, but the church organizes and participates in Vacation Bible School.
  • When you meet with your accountability partners, is that church?  Yes, you and your two accountability partners are church!
  • Is your “church” softball team church?  The softball team isn’t a church but the church plays softball!

Understanding that the church is a people and not a place is a simple but profound truth.  It is a truth that must be revitalized in American Christianity if we are ever going to BE the church that God has called us to be.

  1. mikewittmer
    July 6, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Interesting thoughts, Brian. I think that you are right that the church is the people. But I’m curious whether you would administer the sacraments/ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and practice discipline/excommunication in a campus ministry or Bible class. If so, why? If not, why not?

  2. Brian McLaughlin
    July 7, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Let’s take the sacraments. I have no problem sharing in the Lord’s Supper in these settings. However, it would depend upon the people present. For example, many campus ministries are “attractional” and may have a large number of non-Christians present at a meeting. Since I believe the Lord’s Supper is a meal for the church (the people of God), that is probably not the best setting. Same for a Bible class, I have no problem with the setting but the question is who is present.

    I’ve taken students to large conferences and led them in the Lord’s Supper as a small group. I knew all the students loved Christ and this was a “church” meal. Historically some pastors at GLBC have given communion to individuals/couples in hospitals. Again, it isn’t the setting that matters.

  3. mikewittmer
    July 7, 2009 at 5:51 pm


    You picked the easy one (not that I blame you). Would you also baptize in a class or campus ministry setting? I know that many Israel tours baptize members of their group in the Jordan. It’s spiritually meaningful to many, but would you do it? Sorry if this sounds like an inquisition. I’m thinking that intuitively we know something is odd about baptizing a member of our Bible class, and I think that may indicate that a parachurch group is different from the institutional church (I now brace myself to be whacked).

  4. Brian McLaughlin
    July 7, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    Yes, I took the easy way!! Baptism is more difficult, but I think it is possibly more difficult because of context and not theology. For example, in America it is common (at least in traditions with which I am familiar) to make baptism a familial and local community event. It is often a celebration and very visible. Therefore, for us it would feel weird because we would say “your family should be here, this should be done in the context of your local community.” I have no problem with that and I often encourage the same. However, is this necessarily the way…

    I think of foreign nations where Christianity is illegal or it would cause great divisions within families. Would we expect the same type of baptismal ceremony? Would missionaries feel odd about baptizing a new convert in a non-institutional setting? If you were teaching in China or India would you feel bad about baptizing a new convert apart from family and any institution? My gut is no, but you probably have more experience than me in this. So I agree that it may feel odd…but why?

    I know that one of the major comebacks against this – and I greatly appreciate this – is: but baptism is a communal event and it must take place in the context of our local community where that local community is present. Again, I agree with this, but this even perhaps has a smaller view of community. The Christian community is much larger than the community that meets in my building. Christians everywhere are our brothers and sisters. So even if a baptism takes place outside of a local institutional setting, there is still Christian community, it is still a communal event. Again, perhaps a little odd for our context (and maybe not the “best practice” for our context), but I see no theological problem.

    Whack me back, I’m still learning here…

  5. mikewittmer
    July 15, 2009 at 4:24 pm


    I’m sorry for taking so long to get back to you on this. I did baptize a new believer in China in a hotel bathtub, surrounded by a small group of Christian friends. But I did ask my sending church in the U.S. to authorize me to baptize, so that the baptism would be connected to a local church.
    I’m thinking that baptism unites us to the body of Christ, and so it should be connected to a local body of believers (which is the concrete manifestation of said body). This body then supplies the context for the nourishing of this new believer, and will exercise church discipline should that become necessary. I would even say that it’s irresponsible to baptize someone in a group where no possibility for discipline exists. I readily concede that my Chinese friend was not baptized into a perfect situation, but it was the best we could do given the circumstances.

  6. July 15, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Good post, Brian.

    If I may, I think that one ought to recognize that the various campus ministries take differing approaches to this issue. Some plainly state that they do not intend to function as a local church, and often team up with a local church in the area as an outreach or ministry to an age-specific group. Yet others in effect function as a church by engaging in activities such as the appointing of leaders who meet the qualifications of 1 Tim 3 & Titus 1, baptizing new believers and observing the Lord’s Supper in addition to their evangelism and doctrinal training.

    It would seem to me that your insight that the church is a called people, not a building or a meeting, is spot on. That campus ministries help believers obey the Lord’s commands, whether through their own ministry or in conjunction with another local body, is not a condition that ought to be condemned, but celebrated.

  7. Brian McLaughlin
    July 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    I have no problem with your baptizing this believer. And I agree 100% that he needs to be connected to a community (though I think it is more accurate to say that it is faith that unites us to the body of Christ, not baptism – although baptism for Paul is a natural/essential by-product of faith). So your situation, which I agree isn’t our preferred way of doing things, can effectively describe this whole campus ministry situation. Can they baptize? Why not? It would be similar to what you did in China. Does that baptizee need a community to grow? Absolutely. That community may be the campus ministry and/or it may be an institutional church. The important thing is the community, not the form (which I think is what Chuck is getting at).

    I think that is the crux of the matter in this whole issue: is it community that is important, or a specific form of community? I think most American evangelicals emphasize a form (institutional church), but I’m not sure this is historically or universally true. If we are honest with ourselves, a lot of Christians attend the institutional form of church but have no true biblical community or discipline.

    I think we share the same ideals/desires for the people of God. The question is “how are these ideals achieved?” On this question there are a great variety of expressions throughout history and in the world today. But unfortunately, we often only consider “church” the American institutional variety. That is my main concern.

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