By Luke Cawley
It doesn’t have to be a disaster when your InterVarsity chapter is not officially allowed on campus. We were not permitted to run a single event on campus during my first three years in student ministry, yet we saw many new people become followers of Jesus. If you find yourself in a situation where your chapter is “banned” by the university, here are five top tips that may help you:
1. This Is Normal.
Throughout church history, Christians have had a rocky relationship with the governing authorities. It started with Jesus being crucified by a tag team of Roman administrators and religious leaders. It continued with Emperor Nero burning Christians alive in his garden to provide candlelight for his parties. It dragged on through numerous other ugly episodes.
It was almost three hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion, in fact, that any national government granted Jesus’ followers anything more than begrudging permission to practice and spread their faith. This happened in AD301, when King Tiridates III of Armenia converted to Christianity. Twelve years later the Roman emperor also experienced Christian conversion. The West became, for some centuries thereafter, a place where Christians were favoured by those in power. But it wasn’t that way in the beginning and it has never been so in most non-Western contexts.
Christianity once thrived under situations of persecution and continues to do so in places like China and Indonesia. If you are having trouble with access to campus, then, don’t think that marginalization is either unusual or likely to prevent you from making an impact on the university.
2. You’re Never Completely “Banned.”
The basic component of InterVarsity is students themselves, and your university cannot expel them simply for being members of your chapter. Though being banned from campus affects things like room bookings and access to student organization fairs, it doesn’t prevent your students from being active in university life and having a high profile around campus.
It also has no impact on the freedom of your students to start and lead GIGs in dorms and with their friends. The lack of access to university facilities is actually an opportunity for you to up your game in terms of training the whole chapter for more interpersonal (and less events-based) approaches to sharing their faith.
As a leadership team, reflect on some of these questions:
- How could we, this semester, launch more GIGs than ever before?
- How can we creatively use social media to make ourselves known to everyone on campus?
- How can we encourage and support every chapter member to become a fully-involved member of at least one other non-Christian university club or society?
- What can we do visually that might make us known on campus?
This could be something basic like printing t-shirts that say “My organization is too dangerous for this campus. Ask me about it.” Or you might come up with something more creative.
- Are there events we could co-sponsor with other (registered) student societies on campus?
Could you run an event on “faith and film” with the film club? Put together a public discussion on the existence of God with the debating society? Partner on justice issues with a group like Amnesty International? Organize a photography festival in conjunction with the art and religion faculties on campus? Most of these groups would love to create fresh events and initiatives in partnership with your chapter.
- Are we able to hire rooms for use on campus?
Restricted access to university facilities often simply means that you will not be granted a lecture hall for free. Find out if you could pay for on-campus space as a non-university entity.
- Is there a “free speech zone” on campus?
Lots of universities have a designated spot where you can communicate about absolutely anything; if your Proxe Stations are not welcome elsewhere, for example, you will likely still be able to do them here.
Knowing precisely what you are “banned” from doing will enable you to creatively circumvent the restrictions and continue to have a visible and impactful presence on campus.
3. The Student World is Bigger Than Campus.
During my undergraduate studies, my main hangouts were cafés located near our campus. I spent relatively little time in the “official” university eateries. See if you can find a non-church “student-y” venue near campus and rent it for your weekly events or, at the very least, for one-offs.
Greg Jao, IVCF Area Director for the northeast, suggested that students could even run their own fair for freshmen. They could find a parking lot next to campus and provide ice cream, entertainment, and other things that would catch the attention of passing students. The aim of clubs and societies at freshmen fairs is to make contact with new students, and this aim can be as successfully achieved in your own venue as at the “official” student org fair.
4. Exploit the Controversy.
What is the issue that got your chapter excluded from campus? Was it something to do with sexuality? Run events on that very topic or start GIGs that discuss the subject. Many people expect Christian approaches to sexuality to focus on rules and regulations. But our sexual desires also raise interesting questions about the need for intimacy, what it means to be human, and the purpose and place of romantic relationships. Take some unexpected angles on the topic and invite friends to engage.
One chapter ran a six-week course on sexuality and relationships the year after being ejected from campus. Some of the student union officials came to see for themselves the controversial material that had led to the expulsion of the chapter. They were surprised by what they encountered and one of them even stuck around for the whole course. Eventually, she became a follower of Jesus.
If it’s not sexuality, then maybe the topic was diversity or tolerance. Whatever caused the controversy, think twice about avoiding the inflammatory topic altogether. There may be some wisdom in leaving it alone for a while (we don’t want to appear obsessed with it), but pray and see if there are fresh and creative ways you could ride the wave of free publicity generated by your expulsion from campus.
5. Connect with Non-Students.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship includes more than just students. InterVarsity staff, university faculty, financial supporters, and local churches all play their part in making the ministry on campus possible. Make a list of local people and communities already networked with your chapter. See if any of them are able to help you with your situation. A local pastor, for example, may be able to tell you about members of his church who own businesses near campus and may be able to let you use their building for outreach events. Financial supporters may be willing to increase their giving to help you fund the increased cost of room rentals and advertising. Even people who aren’t Christians may be outraged by your ejection from campus and willing to help you find a practical solution.
Given the choice, we would always prefer unbridled access to campus. But denial of official status within the university doesn’t spell the death of effective outreach. There are creative solutions to most difficulties entailed by exclusion from campus. There may even be some new opportunities that arise because of it. Be encouraged: The Church historically thrived from the margins and your chapter can grow and prosper there too.