Ministry to Mennonite University Students in British Columbia, 1950-2006
Mennonite students on university campuses live in two worlds—the world of faith and the world of secularism. Reconciling these competing worldviews is a major challenge not easily met. Secularism has shaped the Western imagination in the last several centuries. Its roots go back to earlier periods, but it came to fruition during the Enlightenment as a result of the ideas of the French philosopher Descartes. From the perspective of secularism, the autonomous self is at the center of the universe, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which God is the source of all truth. Secularism has adopted the scientific method as the way to truth and knowledge while the Judeo-Christian tradition addresses the need for a personal relationship to God as the way to ultimate truth. The reconciliation of these often opposed worldviews 1 is difficult for many Christian university students.
Students valued free discussion and honest intellectual inquiry, while the church leadership felt uneasy with this approach. This marked contrast in attitudes toward faith and learning is a general theme which runs through much of the historical record.
The university is a center of learning in which the values of secularism are dominant. This, however, does not imply that learning is at loggerheads with faith. On the contrary, specific disciplines such as science or mathematics may be complementary to faith. 2 Two questions arise from such a positive understanding of the relationship between faith and learning. How can learning as undertaken by students at the university be integrated with the Christian faith, and secondly, how can Mennonite churches help their students live out their faith commitments while studying at the university?
As a partial response to these questions, Ian Barbour 3 offers a taxonomy of the different ways it is possible to relate faith to learning. His threefold classification employs the headings of conflict, independence, and integration. Conflict involves the uncompromising choice demanded by those who believe that either faith or learning, religion or science must be in control. It is the stance most Mennonite university students assume when entering the university. It is also the stance taken by many Mennonite churches and their leaders. Since this is a black and white position, university students easily flip from one extreme to the other in a somewhat schizophrenic manner when confronted with alternatives.
The second stance, independence, signifies a much less drastic option. From this perspective, adherents of alternative worldviews may use different language to describe similar concepts, or they may address different dimensions of experience, or they may exist in isolation from each other. One chooses the language that fits the social context in which one finds oneself. This contextualizing approach is often encouraged in a pluralistic society.
In contrast to these approaches, integration takes seriously the possibility of a fruitful exchange between faith and learning. Proponents of the integration perspective believe that faith and learning have things to say to each other. The integration vision of Christian scholarship has been important in the renaissance of evangelical scholarship since the mid-1970s. 4 The overriding consideration in this vision is the development of a Christian worldview in which the whole of reality is seen in the light of God’s creative and redemptive work, in contrast to a fragmented view that prevails in the secular academy.
What has been the Mennonite Brethren (MB) experience in British Columbia in attempting to relate faith to learning? How have churches and conferences ministered to university students? What has been the conference’s predominant stance toward university education? How has this stance influenced ministry to university students? In an attempt to answer these questions, I have drawn from several sources of information. Perhaps the most reliable are the minutes of the provincial conferences of the MB churches of British Columbia as well as the MB Board of Reference and Counsel. Minutes from the British Columbia Conference of Mennonites were unavailable and therefore I am restricting my historical analysis to the MB church.
Another source of information has been my personal experience. In 1968, as a young faculty member of the University of British Columbia (UBC), I was appointed to the President’s Committee on Religion. The role of this committee was to coordinate religious activity on campus. Every religious group with a presence at the university was represented on the committee, which consisted largely of chaplains employed full-time by Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Anglican, United, and Catholic churches, as well as representatives from parachurch organizations such as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Since Mennonites in British Columbia had not appointed a chaplain, the president invited me to address the issues faced by Mennonite students. As a member of this committee, I also annually received over two hundred religious affiliation cards completed by Mennonite students at registration.
What, then, is the MB experience in attempting to minister to British Columbia’s university students? And, by implication, what does that experience say about the MB perspective in British Columbia on faith and learning?
APPOINTMENT OF THE REGEHRS
In 1958, the MB churches in British Columbia appointed Henry Regehr as a full-time youth worker in Vancouver. He undertook a variety of activities such as the organization of various group meetings, Bible studies, and instruction in a Bible school organized by the Vancouver churches. In 1959, Regehr wrote that “the process of urbanization and the many problems associated with it are relatively new to our churches. The work of contacting individuals who have strayed from their fellowship is proving to be a very difficult task.” 5 The number of MB young people working or attending school in Vancouver during this time was considerably over two hundred.
The Sunday afternoon discussion groups were particularly popular with Mennonite young people. It was not unusual to find fifty or more crammed into the basement of the Regehrs’ home. After listening to a paper presented by one of the advanced undergraduate or graduate students on a topic involving the integration of Christianity and an academic discipline such as biology or psychology, the students engaged in a lively discussion, after which food was served. Even today, many former members of this group consider these gatherings to have been a rich opportunity for personal growth and development.
After several years the MB leadership in British Columbia asked the Regehrs to discontinue the Sunday afternoon discussion groups and replace them with Bible studies and prayer meetings. This request created considerable misunderstanding, and after several years of service the Regehrs resigned.
The Regehrs’ experience clearly illustrates the differences in understanding between the MB church leadership and university students in the 1950s. Students valued free discussion and honest intellectual inquiry, while the church leadership felt uneasy with this approach. This marked contrast in attitudes toward faith and learning is a general theme which runs through much of the historical record. While the intentions of MB church leaders were admirable, they were unable to fully trust the university students’ striving for autonomy and freedom. The differences in how each saw their world resulted in much confusion and misunderstanding. In fact, these contrasts have often been the root cause of conflict between the generations. This is true even today.
Upon the resignation of the Regehrs, the MB Board of Reference and Counsel (BRC) in 1964 passed a motion that, “in principle, we endorse an on-campus counseling program,” and we “request the Canadian Board of Higher Education to assume local responsibility to initiate a counseling program at the University.” 6 The members of the Canadian Board of Higher Education had not the time, energy, or resources to undertake such an ambitious program. Although well intended, this recommendation was not implemented.
In October 1965, the topic of ministry to students was again on the agenda of the BRC. The board minutes contain lengthy discussions on this topic which I have abbreviated in this paper. Herbert Brandt, who was then the moderator of the conference, appealed to the conference leaders to take seriously the needs of university students. He indicated that “we are all convinced that a problem exists. We need to be honest with ourselves and face the fact that a good percentage of our students do not attend the MB churches in the city. Some never make their appearance and attend only when they go home to the Valley churches. Beloved, let’s accept this as a fact—and it grieves us.” 7
In response, the BRC recommended that a church be established in the West Point Grey area near UBC that would appeal to students but also to families and adults in the community. This church was encouraged to conduct Sunday school and to plan services in a simple manner and to reach people from the community and the university. The meeting place would be a house which was available to begin with. All costs would be carried by the group. It was anticipated that the organization of the church would develop over time.
After much discussion, the BRC concluded that the problem of commuting from the west side of Vancouver to the east side churches was impossible for students. Although a taxi service had been arranged by the Killarney Park Church, this solution was unacceptable because of the large number of students at the university. The bus service was slow and it took at least one and a half hours traveling time to attend church. To get to Sunday school, students would have to miss breakfast at the university residences.
In September 1967, Point Grey Fellowship was launched. The meetings were held every Sunday morning in the lower floor of a beautiful home overlooking the city of Vancouver. Soon over fifty students, professors, and other individuals attended the Sunday morning worship services. The format of the services was similar to that of other Christian churches and included prayers, Bible reading, singing, and a sermon delivered either by an outside speaker or by someone from within the group.
Already in the early years of this fellowship, its relationship to the MB conference became an issue. As might be expected from a group of students, the church developed its policies fairly autonomously. After a few years, the Fellowship dissolved due to lack of leadership. Many of its leaders left Vancouver to pursue graduate studies elsewhere.
In October 1965, the BRC had also considered the possibility of establishing a chaplaincy at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Although a chaplain was available, the SFU president rejected this initiative on the grounds of lack of consultation and refused to make the appointment. After this failed attempt, no further efforts were made to establish a chaplaincy there.
In May 1969, a new vision for university student ministry was presented to the BRC. The vision assumed that the needs of university students are basically the same as those of other believers, the difference being that the struggles of students are compounded by circumstances such as extreme loneliness, exposure to secular assumptions, lack of fellowship as experienced in the home church, and finally, adapting to a new environment in which they must discover meaningful ways of witnessing to the unsaved. Based on these assumptions, a course of action was proposed: “we believe that the greatest need for students is to be able to meaningfully relate to a group of positive, vibrant believers through fellowship, sharing, and Bible study in which they can express their problems, be received, and contribute to others within the framework of the fellowship.” 8 Arising from this rationale, a proposal was presented to the annual British Columbia conference that a fellowship be organized as soon as possible so that ministry to university students could be undertaken beginning in fall of 1969. A budget of two thousand dollars was made available to the fellowship.
Like other proposals for student ministry, this one died before it received serious attention. One cannot help but ask, why? Where was the Spirit of God leading the MB conference in British Columbia? What were the hindrances to effective student ministry?
In November of the same year, yet another vision was presented to the BRC. This one proposed that several family student fellowships be established near UBC which would minister to university students. Letters were sent to MB pastors in British Columbia by the Home Missions Board requesting the names of university students attending UBC. Only two pastors responded.
Within six months of the 1969 vision, a report on new directions for student ministry was tabled with the BRC. In June 1970, this new direction was adopted at the annual conference of MB churches in British Columbia. This report stated that, “whereas the plan for a church to be formed in the university area to serve particularly the needs of university students has not materialized, the BRC recommends the following to meet existing needs.” 9 The report recommended that local churches assume full responsibility for student ministry and that the pastor or other church personnel meet with university students several times per year, that the local church develop an active follow-through program for students in residence at the university, encouraging them to establish relationships with other believers, that in cooperation with students at least one student retreat be held annually, and that a central service agency be established which would appoint and salary one full-time worker to handle university student needs such as providing counseling services, handling information on bursaries, employment and educational opportunities as well as opportunities for Christian service. While this was a visionary proposal with considerable merit, to my knowledge very little of this new direction was implemented in the local church.
In February 1971, at a meeting of the BRC, the MB Board of Christian Education in British Columbia (BCE) was charged with the responsibility of organizing at least one student retreat every year. 10 At the Annual Provincial Conference in June 1971, the BCE reported that it had been unsuccessful in carrying out this assignment. The reasons given for the failure were that Board had been unable to spell out the intended purpose of such retreats, had not found people to accept responsibility for organizing them, and, finally, was uncertain about the validity of planning denominational retreats for students.
THE SILENT YEARS
Beginning in 1971, a new vision for the MB Conference in British Columbia emerged. This vision addressed the need for outreach into the community with imaginative programs of growth and development. Church planting took on new priority. While this active outreach program is commendable, university student ministry is now largely a thing of the past. One former Mennonite university student, now a member of the Presbyterian Church, recently stated: “the MB conference had little interest in the spiritual well-being of university students during [their] university years. The result is that they have lost a generation of university students.” This comment, certainly an overstatement, nevertheless reflects the viewpoint of one disappointed former student.
In line with the church planting vision, the MB Board of Church Extension recently attempted to establish a church in the West Point Grey area of Vancouver with the stated goal of serving university students along with other members of the community. The effort was unfortunately unsuccessful. The fallout of the failure is recorded in the August 2006 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. Katrina Wiggins writes:
Amidst the chaos, our church planting efforts continued. We determined to target a community called Dunbar, just outside the University of B.C. endowment lands, hoping to eventually build a campus ministry at UBC . . . [w]e planned an inaugural church service for December. Only four people showed up.
We felt overwhelmed. Should we give up? Had God left us to freefall off the edge of a precipice? We struggled in the darkness, looking for God’s leading, angry that he had let us down. 11
The question posed by Wiggins is particularly alarming. Has God left us to freefall off the edge of a precipice? I think not. Many reasons have contributed to our unsatisfactory relationship to the university and to our ineffective ministry to university students. One of the most important is that there has been a general withdrawal of churches from the public university system. Furthermore, university teaching is not widely supported as a ministry area for Christian intellectuals. The church often views universities as a foreign mission field rather than as a center for research and learning. Consequently, most church support is directed toward Bible colleges and our own educational institutions rather than to programs involving university student ministry.
For better or for worse, public universities are where the ideas that shape society are forged. The university is the place where the leaders of the next generation are developed. It is where the moral tone of society is formed and nurtured. Most public leadership has been university educated and trained. It appears that the MB Church in British Columbia has underestimated the importance of the university in influencing the future direction of society. It has missed an important opportunity to become involved in ministry to its students and to engage the university more generally.
THE PACIFIC CENTRE FOR DISCIPLESHIP ASSOCIATION
The history of ministry to Mennonite university students in British Columbia would be incomplete without drawing attention to a new development. In the early 1980s, an ad hoc committee of British Columbia Mennonites was struck to begin conversations on the relationship of faith to learning. Its activities were organized under the umbrella of the “Centre for Discipleship” and included members from both Mennonite conferences in British Columbia. The purpose of the Centre was to explore, clarify, and promote Christian discipleship as an expression of our Evangelical and Anabaptist heritage. Centre members offered to teach classes and provide consultations at various Christian institutions and churches on issues related to faith and learning.
The Centre for Discipleship soon became aware that the Mennonite constituency had a large number of students in postsecondary institutions. The imagination of this group was awakened by the realization that physical facilities were needed to more fully express their vision. Soon a large estate of 4.94 acres became available for purchase on prestigious Southwest Marine Drive in Vancouver. The planning and design of this uniquely magnificent residence would serve well as a retreat center for students, faculty, and others, as well as provide housing for students. An offer to purchase for $880,000 was accepted by the owner. At a hastily called dinner meeting with some two hundred people in attendance, members of the Centre made a passionate plea for help with the purchase of this large and handsome estate. But the funds raised were minimal and the offer to purchase was withdrawn.
While discouraged, the group struggled onward. An application to form a society with a federal tax number was made to the federal government. One year later, on June 27, 1986, a new society was registered under the name of the “Pacific Centre for Discipleship Association.” Its purpose was to promote Christian faith and discipleship, to foster Christian community and fellowship, to support Christian scholarship, to facilitate the study of Anabaptist Mennonite heritage, to assist in the integration of faith and contemporary lifestyle, and to purchase, sell, lease, and hold such property, equipment, and materials deemed necessary to accomplish its purposes.
Within days of the Association’s registration, a Roman Catholic convent at 4000 W. Eleventh Avenue became available for purchase. Beating several competing offers, the Association took ownership of the property at the end of August 1986. They named it the “Menno Simons Centre” in honor of the sixteenth-century Dutch Anabaptist leader.
Thus began a serious work of Mennonite university student ministry. Several hundred university students have since lived at the Centre and experienced the warmth and acceptance of an intentional Christian community. Weekly community meals for residents and other students from the university community have been served. Several annual student retreats have been organized by Centre coordinators. The Centre has now served the university community for more than twenty years.
In this paper I have presented an historical record of the Mennonite Brethren approach to university student ministry in British Columbia in the last fifty years. It is a story filled with good intentions, frustrations, and some triumphs. The record is not particularly compelling. Hopefully, the next fifty years will see the emergence of new approaches to working with university students and with the university generally. For this to occur, Mennonites will need to develop models of faith and learning which are much less adversarial and much more complimentary of the relationship between faith and learning. The conflict stance will prove unsatisfactory.
This hope-filled articulation of the future rests on the fundamental conviction that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe and all truth rests ultimately in him. A new relationship with God is possible in realizing that God took on ordinary human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Learning at its best is filled with discovering the mystery of the unknown. It involves the genuine pursuit of truth and wisdom. This is the challenge of the future.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).
- Denis Alexander and Robert S. White, Science, Faith, and Ethics (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
- Ian Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (London: SCM Press, 1990).
- Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen, Scholarship and Christian Faith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 16.
- H. Regehr, A Report on Vancouver Youth Ministry, Proceedings of the Annual MB Conference (BC, 1959).
- MB Board of Reference and Counsel, Proceedings of the MB Board of Reference and Counsel (BC, 1964).
- H. Brandt, Report on University Student Ministry, Proceedings of the Board of Reference and Counsel (BC, 1965).
- MB Board of Reference and Counsel, Proceedings of the Board of Reference and Counsel (BC, 1969).
- MB Board of Reference and Counsel, Proceedings of the Board of Reference and Counsel (BC, 1970).
- Katrina Wiggins, “A Slow-Moving Dream: Partnering with God in Downtown Vancouver,” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 11 August 2006, 16.