“Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’” Ellen White, Ministry of Healing, p. 143
Alan Newbold walks onto campus like any other student. But he’s not any other student. He’s a pastor like few others. And more often than not, he feels all alone on this mission he has accepted. It seems too big, too impossible. But Scripture anchors his world, that with God all things are possible. So here he is, in Bozeman, Montana, in his own unique mission field.
On this particular crisp, cold Friday, he rises, grabs breakfast and heads to his 9 o’clock French class on the campus of Montana State University (MSU), home to 15,000 university students. He’s attending classes for one main reason — it’s where the students are. He’s been spending his days at MSU since 2012, when the Montana Conference decided to move a dream into reality by placing a full-time pastor into secular campus ministry.
But this is not what you might think. It’s not a short-term push for student converts, not a benchmarked goal for baptisms. This is a focus on building or rebuilding relationships that lead to an ultimate and personal partnership with Jesus Christ. And relationships take time. They don’t always follow familiar pathways. And, hence, Alan’s challenge to answer the question: How many students have you baptized this year? It’s the wrong question for this particular outreach, at this particular stage.
So with relationship-building in mind, Alan heads after his early morning class to The Daily, a coffee shop across from the university. He’s got a 10 o’clock rendezvous at a table there with Justin, a freshman business/marketing major. Justin’s had a rough background including a period of homelessness, but he’s determined to turn his life around. Alan is an encourager and friend. Where will Justin be six months from now? 12 months? It’s anyone’s guess, but Alan is investing the capital of time, a listening ear, a friendly presence, with no hidden agendas. He believes it is what Jesus would do.
By the stroke of 12, Alan has made his way back across campus to the music building. He is in the select chorale, and today there are sectional rehearsals. In room 217, he and five other young men lay out the music for an upcoming concert. MSU has no particular empathy toward religion. But on this bright fall day, the Christmas-themed songs have religious themes that would resonate with any Adventist. Even a secular campus sees value in religious culture. Many students have Christian backgrounds. They may even occasionally attend church with their parents when home on vacation. But Christianity as a cultural experience is very different than following Christ as a daily journey of faith. And that is what Alan is here to encourage, little by little, step by step, relationship by relationship.
Practice over for the day, Alan is off to a brief meeting with the faculty sponsor of his on-campus group — Merge — a chapter of Adventist Christian Fellowship, a loose affiliation of campus ministries across the country. Julia Cory-Slovarp, MSU assistant visiting professor of cello, claims no particular faith tradition of her own, but Alan has often played in one of her cello groups, and she sees value in what he is trying to do on campus.
It’s Friday, so that means a planned get-together in the evening at one of the local church member's homes. So, after a quick goodbye to Julia, Alan is back in his Subaru, headed toward Costco — to pick up supplies for a weekly gathering for students hungry for food and fellowship. He loads up the cart with tomatoes, lettuce, pesto, buns — a good indication that it’s going to be a burger night. Alan’s place has one good refrigerator and well-used freezer. They are both stocked with food — not for him, but for them, the collegiate men and women to whom he is both friend and pastor.
After the Costco supply run, this frenetic Friday continues in a short collaborative meeting with Julie Helwig, team leader for the MSU chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). In contrast with Alan, who is the first and only full-time Adventist pastoral presence at MSU, IVCF has an entire team, with student leaders throughout the campus. They’ve been at it since the 1940s. So you can understand when Alan sometimes feels all alone in this fledgling Adventist campus effort. Certainly church members and conference folk have been invaluable as mentors and financial supporters. But there are precious few Adventist friends of Alan’s age as a personal support group for him — with whom he can “defrost,” who share his values and zest for life. He’s passionate about what he is doing, but he has chosen a lonely road.
During the remaining couple hours in a waning afternoon, Alan heads back home to regroup with his own thoughts and plans for the evening. Who will come? What will they want to talk about? What will come up in the passage of Scripture they read? Will they have enough food?
Jerry and Molly Cypher, Bozeman City Church members, have opened their home for this week’s Friday evening gathering. The food is prepared and laid out. As the sun slips low on the snow-covered mountains around the Bozeman valley, the group begins to arrive. Some consider themselves Adventists; others have a former Adventist connection. A few are just there for the food and the friendship. Alan surveys the room, moves from person to person, watches for an opening, waits for an opportunity. The Sabbath has begun, and Alan’s parishioners have come.
One thing seems clear. Alan is respected and liked around campus. And in the brief but sustained relationships he is building, there is a growing respect for the belief system he holds. This is the nature of relational outreach. Alan believes in the need to listen and understand someone else before you have the right to suggest, before they can accept, life-changing principles.
Remember Justin, Alan's morning appointment in the coffee shop? He has since added "spiritual things" to his list of priorities. He even plans to join Alan's Merge group headed to Thailand during March to help Adventist Disaster Relief Agency (ADRA) install a gravity-fed water system for a remote Karen hill tribe community. This group will include students like Justin, just now open to a quest for spiritual meaning, and others who are not yet ready even for that. Does this sound like a reason for prayer support from all Northwest members? Yes, I believe it does.
In the world, but not of the world: That’s a familiar mantra to Adventists. But some of us have become so adept at avoiding the “of the world” part that we have ceased to be effective “in the world.” Jay Jutzy, one of the primary instigators of this campus ministry, believes Adventists need a rebirth in the gospel commission. “As followers of Jesus,” he says, “we have a wonderful obligation to leave our comfort zone, our church pews, and mingle with people who need to know Him. But, when you follow Jesus, get ready for the ride of your life. He doesn’t just open doors; He pushes us through closed doors.”
That thought may be well kept in mind this March as conference leaders determine the future of this important endeavor. It's important to note that this effort has moved forward because rank-and-file members realized they could keep talking about the need or start doing something about it. They put their collective toes in the water, and God added His miracles. Spiritual seeds have been planted in the hearts and lives of students. Will the watering continue?
Will the story continue at MSU and in campuses around Montana? Will the spirit be caught and re-enacted in church groups and in university communities across the Northwest and beyond?
The question is a simple one. If Bozeman, Montana, can step out in faith, why not us?