By T.R. Robertson
“Missionaries have long known you don’t need permission to preach the gospel,” says Lance Tamerius, “You just need a little more savvy.”
Tamerius is director of the Christian Campus House at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Like many other campus ministries, CCH is taking steps to change the way it pursues God’s mission in the face of rapid changes in the culture of secular campuses nationwide.
Diversity and Discrimination at Missouri
Several years ago the University of Missouri asked all student organizations to sign a nondiscrimination covenant.
“At that time,” Tamerius says, “we talked with our board and with one of our faculty representatives and concluded it was broad enough to agree to.”
In the years since, the institutional mind-set about diversity and discrimination has evolved in response to events. Missouri has been in the news nationally several times over the past five years, repeatedly drawing national attention for diversity issues. A prominent football player came out as homosexual. The suicide of a female athlete drew attention to gaps in the school’s attention to the needs of female athletes, raising Title IX issues. The Ferguson, Missouri-sparked #BlackLivesMatter movement spilled over into the #ConcernedStudent1950 demonstrations on the Mizzou campus this past November. The football team went on strike in sympathy with the protestors, leading to the resignations of the university president and chancellor.
All of these have accelerated and escalated the university’s sensitivity about inclusion and diversity issues.
“It’s become an environment where people think they have a right to not be disagreed with,” Tamerius says. “So-called ‘trigger words’ can quickly put an unsuspecting person on the verge of a fight.
“I had three calls last year wanting to do interviews with us about our view of sexuality,” he recalls. “It comes from the school newspaper. Our journalism school is well known, so that’s not out of character to get calls like that.
“The problem is you don’t get to say enough to make your argument. They hear what they want to hear, they write what they want to write. Then the conclusion is made without the explanation, and that’s only a problem if the explanation would have mattered to them to begin with, which most of the time it wouldn’t.”
A Nationwide Issue
“As a result of the upheaval last fall, the university now has a person who has been appointed to explore diversity issues and infringements,” Tamerius says. “Before, they [university officials] were commissioned to respond to accusations and investigate and make recommendations. Now they’re proactively looking for them. His job is to go into all the student organizations and explore the possibility of whether they are in compliance.”
Since the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court verdict in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, dozens of public and private colleges and universities have pressured campus ministries to either compromise their beliefs or lose their status as an official student organization. Vanderbilt, Tufts, Rutgers, the California State system, and several others have attempted to clamp down on what they see as discriminatory practices by Christian student organizations.
“It usually comes down to our conviction of what God says about sexuality and our understanding of what he defines as marriage and how he would define appropriate sexual behavior,” Tamerius says. “Because of that, I think this will eventually affect all campus ministries.
“It’s not that we would ever discriminate on who we minister to,” he explains. “It’s an issue of two things.
“One, would we allow people who are not living a godly lifestyle to be in leadership? We don’t do it for other ungodly behaviors; we wouldn’t allow it for any one particular behavior.
“The other has to do with our student housing situation. Do we have the right to determine who lives here and who doesn’t?
“I don’t ever ask students, who are you having sex with,” Tamerius says. “I just tell them all not to, because they’re not married. But common sense kind of gets thrown out with that one issue.”
Christians on university campuses are not the only ones who have to perform a careful dance with government regulation. Any ministry that interacts with the government, including prison ministry, foster care, adoption, nursing homes, military chaplaincy, and Bible colleges (if they accept students with government loans and grants), are facing increasing pressures to conform to changing requirements regarding diversity and inclusion.
“A lot of people would say that if your right to be there comes from the state, the state can take it away,” Tamerius says. “The higher understanding is that the right comes from the Constitution.”
Adapting to Change
The constitutional issues are being debated in legislatures and courts. Whatever the result of those legal deliberations, campus ministries have to deal with the everyday effect of these trends, in an atmosphere of suspicion.
“The day after the football team went on strike, we had all the students together and we didn’t really know what to do but pray,” says Tamerius. “So we invited everyone who participates in our programs to come and pray. We talked about defining moments, where God’s people have an opportunity, even in oppressive circumstances, to still represent God.”
They prayed together as a group and then divided up into small groups and went to places on campus where people were hurting. They went to the chancellor’s house, the football field, the Black Culture Center, Mizzou’s iconic columns in the middle of campus, and the protester’s tent encampment. At each location they formed a circle and prayed.
“I got a call from the student newspaper the next morning saying, ‘We heard a rumor that you guys led a counter protest last night,’” Tamerius says.
“I thought for a moment and then I said, ‘Well it’s true, we did march last night, but we marched out to places we knew needed prayer and places where God’s peace needed to be present. We had no agenda other than to talk to God about it.”
The CCH staff also works to teach the students how to respond to politically charged issues in a godly fashion.
“My role as a citizen is not the same as my role as a Christian, much less as a Christian leader,” Tamerius says. “I have a lot of opinions about what happened on campus, but my role as a Christian and as a leader is to promote healing and not to pick a side. When the opinion I hold narrows or restricts my effectiveness to minister to those people, my opinion disappears behind my responsibility as a Christian.
“The challenge is to get students to the point where they think more about representing Christ than confronting people politically.
“We’re trying to be clearer about truth,” Tamerius says, “but with a greater sensitivity about being compassionate in how we say it. We’re looking to be proactive to help people on campus without making judgments.”
Building for the Future
The other major adaptation has come by preparing for a more flexible on-campus presence.
CCH regularly pulls in more than 200 students for its midweek “Church on Campus,” currently held in various large auditoriums on the MU campus. Decertification of CCH as an official student group would bar it from using those facilities.
“If that point does come that we’re told we can no longer meet on campus,” Tamerius says, “then we’ll need a place to worship. You have to be proactive.”
CCH is in the midst of a fund-raising program aimed at financing a planned $3.2 million construction project. The plan is to construct a new building on the rear portion of its current property, located directly across College Avenue from the campus. This new structure will include a multipurpose area on the first floor, capable of seating 334.
On the second and third floors will be housing for 50 to 60 additional residents. CCH currently has capacity for 101 residents in its four existing buildings.
Increased housing capacity will expand the ministry’s ability to make contact with students in an off-campus venue. Every resident is required to participate in the weekly worship service and in small Bible study groups and ministries.
The building project is opening up additional opportunities as well.
“Moving things around and moving people around opened the door for making the current north house basement into an international student center,” Tamerius says. “It will be a place where our international staff is all located together (CCH currently has five international ministers on staff). We’ll also have a hospitality area with room for international students to come and just sit, to rest. There will be Bible study rooms for them and an international resources center with Bibles and study materials in different languages.”
All of these changes are aimed at enabling CCH to continue pursing its ultimate mission, despite the pressures of an increasingly hostile environment.
“Hopefully,” says Tamerius, quoting his mentor and CCH founder Roy Weece, “this will continue be a place where people get to come to college and leave with a degree in Jesus.”
T. R Robertson is a supply chain analyst at the University of Missouri in Columbia.