Thursday, October 9, 2008

Ministry Surrounding the Presidential Debate

Belmont University made unprecedented national news this week when it hosted a presidential debate on October 7. With a student population of less than 5,000, most of us have never heard of Belmont, so I did a little research to discover if the Body of Christ did anything special on campus around the time of the debate.

I was surprised by what I discovered.

For starters, Belmont University is a Christian school “with a rich Baptist heritage.” Of course, there are plenty of post-secondary learning institutions that are Christian in name only, where campus life is no more faith-oriented than at a secular university.

But the more I read about Belmont, the more I was impressed. From its web site:

“Belmont University is a Christian community. The University faculty, administration and staff uphold Jesus as the Christ and as the measure of all things. Students encounter Christian values relevant to personal growth and spiritual maturity and are expected to commit themselves to high moral standards...

“Belmont University’s Board of Trustees is unanimously committed to broadening and deepening the Christian mission of the University… Our hope is that every student will see and believe that the love of Jesus Christ compels us to lead lives of disciplined intelligence, compassion, courage and faith.”

Belmont has a fully staffed Office of University Ministries, which “exists to help students grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ and to find practical ways to put their faith into action.” That includes offering traditional spiritual growth opportunities on campus, like discipleship, fellowship and worship, including 400+ students in weekly worship, prayer and Bible study. It also offers mission trips and Christian study abroad opportunities over each break.

I could go on, but you get the point. It sounds to me like a lot of people at Belmont take their faith seriously.

So back to the debates.

On a secular campus, I would expect student outreach ministries to, say, mobilize in order to expose members and guests of the university community to the claims of Jesus as part of the “debate buzz.” Perhaps something along the lines of proclaiming that regardless of who wins the debate tonight, you’ll still need Jesus in the morning.

But it looks like the Office of Spiritual Development felt like a discipleship approach would be more relevant at this Christian university than an evangelistic approach. In other words, they apparently asked themselves something like, “How can we use this big event as a faith-deepening experience for members of our community?”

For starters, the University held a vesper service on the Sunday afternoon prior to the debate with the University president, and with Rev. David Beckmann as the "guest homilist." (I didn’t think Baptists used that word…) In any case, Beckmann was ordained as a “missionary economist” by the Lutheran Church, and is President of Bread for the World, a citizens' anti-hunger movement which educates and influences public policies on hunger and poverty.

The Office of Spiritual Development also scheduled a high-powered series of speakers related to the debate. Honestly, I wish I could attend some of them. Or all of them.

Of course, my evangelical sensibilities tell me that I would not agree with everything in these lectures. But it was Bob Pike from Campus Crusade for Christ who taught me many years ago to read and study theology that I didn’t agree with in order to discover both the merits and faults of my own theology.

And my arrival into middle age taught me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I used to think I did, and that I usually learn things by listening to people with whom I don’t agree. So I’m sorry I won’t make it to any of the lectures.

For those of you around Nashville, here is the list of speakers, three of which are still pending:

CITIZENSHIP AND FAITH,” on September 3, by Dr. Tony Campolo, the notable and always colorful professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.

“THE AMERICAN EMPIRE AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD,” September 17, by Dr. Stanley Hauer, who holds a joint appointment in Duke Law School and Duke Divinity School and was named "America’s Best Theologian" by Time magazine in 2001.

“THE MEDIA AND RELIGION,” on September 24, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the religion correspondent for National Public Radio, where she reports on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science, and culture.

“JESUS FOR PRESIDENT,” on October 1, by Shane Claiborne, the founder of The Simple Way. His new book, Jesus for President, was lauded by Publisher's Weekly in a starred review as a "must-read election-year book for Christian Americans. What should Christians do when allegiances to the state clash with personal faith?”

“FAITH-INFORMED POLITICAL SCIENCE,” on October 22, by two members of the University’s political science department who will explore issues of faith, politics and their role in a Christian university.

“HOW WOULD JESUS VOTE?” on October 29, by Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“THE NEW PRESIDENT AND THE POLITICS OF FAITH,” on November 5, by Melissa Rogers, founder and director of Wake Forest University's Center for Religion and Public Affairs and former executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C.

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