Animation by Tim Peacock
Life on college and university campuses has changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to protect students and halt the spread of infection, administrators have enacted a number of measures that limit in-person interactions.
However, the ability to connect with students, develop relationships, and foster community is essential to campus ministry. So, what impact have coronavirus-related restrictions had on RUF ministry this year?
Many groups have shifted weekly activities to an online format, including large-group meetings, prayer times, and even game nights. In some cases, students gather in small groups across campus to experience large-group “watch pods” where they view a prerecorded sermon, discuss its content, and spend time in prayer. But in order to develop and maintain relationships with students, campus ministers have had to get creative.
Creating New Ways to Connect
Lucas Dourado, serving at the University of Connecticut (UConn), acknowledged the challenges at the beginning of the fall semester. While UConn’s typical undergraduate population is around 19,000, a mere 5,000 returned to campus this past fall.
While pursuing digital connections with students, the UConn team also sought ways to spend as much in-person time as possible with those who remained on campus. According to Dourado, that included walks around campus and lots of socially distanced activities on the campus lawn.
To accommodate some of those activities, UConn RUF purchased a spacious canopy tent. Each week it set the tent up and invited students to come and hang out. The tent’s visibility created opportunities to meet new students, several of whom have become involved in the ministry.
Responding to Rapid Change
RUF campus minister Jay Denton recalls ongoing changes being made to COVID protocols at Boise State University in Idaho. In compliance with university policy, RUF held its first large-group meeting online, assigning students to watch parties around campus. A week later, policies changed again, allowing up to 50 students to meet outdoors — as long as they observed social distancing rules. Student leaders shifted gears, mobilizing quickly to set up large-group meetings in a nearby park.
Then, just as ministry in Boise was starting to find its rhythm, Denton tested positive for COVID, requiring him and the entire RUF staff to quarantine. Instead of bringing campus ministry to a halt, however, the quarantine created opportunities for student leaders to step up in new ways. Denton said it was encouraging to realize how much God had been at work in the lives of students by equipping them to serve.
Cultivating Community in a Time of Social Distancing
As student leaders returned to the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, John Trapp and the RUF team conducted a survey about how the pandemic was impacting their lives. The surveys revealed two key themes: Students were struggling with loneliness and a loss of structure.
UConn RUF purchased a 10-foot by 10-foot canopy tent. Each week it set the tent up and invited students to come and hang out.
With these needs in mind and based on the book “The Common Rule” by Justin Earley, Trapp and the RUF leadership crafted a rule, or set of habits, they hoped to instill among their students. The rule included: meeting daily for prayer via Zoom, engaging in a Scripture- reading program, participating in study groups, and getting out to enjoy recreational activity. With so much time spent online in disembodied activity, Trapp said recreation became critical.
Students were also encouraged to participate in four weekly practices, including participating in large-group watch pods, practicing Sabbath, and fasting from media for a specific length of time on Sundays.
The fourth practice involved a commitment to meeting in “quads” — groups of four — that met for an hour a week to deepen connection with God and one another.
The quad format first introduced at UT has since been replicated among other RUF ministries, including at the University of Vermont. According to campus minister John Meinen, within their quads, students are learning to pay attention to the emotional toll the pandemic is taking in their lives. Students have worked through the Psalms with a focus toward noticing how God shows up in the lives of those who struggle with difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear, despair, and grief. The impact, according to Meinen, has been increased vulnerability and deepening of relationships among students.
Extending the Impact of Mercy Ministry
In his work with international students, University of Georgia campus minister Jeff Thompson relies on the BBC and other foreign news sources to stay abreast of global events. In late November 2019, Thompson began hearing about a deadly virus that was taking a horrific toll across the globe. Friends at the Japanese consulate encouraged Thompson to gather food and supplies and prepare students to shelter in place for an extended period.
“At the time, we didn’t know if we would be planning funerals for students halfway around the world from their families,” said Thompson.
Mercy ministry, while always crucial, took on an even greater sense of urgency once the virus reached the U.S. Thompson began to see a heightened sense of vulnerability among students.
In response, Thompson and his family began checking in regularly to make sure students had adequate food and supplies. He found himself going to the grocery store three times a day. Thompson noted that these short encounters have allowed him to deepen relationships.
Tennis has served as another, albeit unusual, means of developing connection with students. The only available court in the area lies in proximity to both the Thompsons’ home and international student housing. A local coach offers lessons for a mere $10. For many students, the lessons provide opportunity for recreation and exercise as well as a context for interacting safely with one another and the RUF ministry.
Expanding the Reach of the Gospel
It might seem as though an increased reliance on virtual ministry would limit ministry. But in some cases, the opposite is true.
Dourado described an opportunity he had to engage a UConn student he’d never met after she viewed one of his sermons online. The two texted back and forth on the nature of true faith, a conversation that would never have taken place apart from her ability to log on to large-group meetings.
Similarly, Trapp shared the account of a student leader at UT who had been praying for his unbelieving father to come to Christ. After his father watched several RUF sermons online, the student witnessed the answer to his prayers.
In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul wrote of his confidence that the word of God would not be bound despite the circumstances of his imprisonment. Likewise, it’s evident that gospel ministry continues to flourish across campuses despite the lockdowns and restrictions.