Humility & Power People: Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas and Campus Ministry

Last week I attended the annual New College Lectures at the University of New South Wales. It’s a wonderful series of lectures that have attracted some stellar names in theology over the years.

Stanley Hauerwas

This year the lectures were delivered by Stanley Hauerwas. That’s him at the right with the wonderful tie. He is the recently retired Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University in North Carolina. He is widely regarded as one of the Western world’s most influential living theologians, and his work has been very influential in my own developing theological thinking. There’s a useful (short!) introduction to his thinking here.

Hauerwas’ New College Lectures covered a lot of ground, but in this post I want to focus on his thinking about the modern university and what it means for campus ministries like the one I work with at the University of Sydney – the Evangelical Union (EU).

In his third and final lecture, Hauerwas remarked that the modern university trains students to be ‘power people for the future.’ In my experience studying and ministering at Sydney Uni, his description rings true. The university teaches students that they are the culture-shapers and world-makers of the future; the ones who will rule and conquer and subdue and remake the way things are.

In order to do this students are expected to work hard enough to get a plum internship in a powerful company, so that they might get a foot in the door of the corridors of power. The promise is that they will gain power and influence – indeed, in our world they are two sides of the same coin. Many of the students I know are run ragged chasing that dream. It is certainly a tempting vision: you are the ones who will make the world in your own image (and make a fine salary as you do so). You are powerful.

On my campus the primary indicator that the temptation to be power people for the future is too powerful to resist is the growing prevalence of summer internships and overseas holidays. We frequently have very able gospel-hearted students who forsake opportunities to learn and lead in our ministries for the sake of a mid-year European sojourn or a fancy post-semester internship with a big law firm or consultancy. In my experience (that is, anecdotally!), the number of students choosing these activities over going on mission to a rural church or learning to teach Christian basics to international students is increasing. The university’s tempting vision of becoming power people for the future is winning.

The desire for power is at the heart of sin: Adam and Eve’s temptation was to take hold of the power to define good and evil (Genesis 3). The temptation facing students at the University of Sydney is one and the same: it is the temptation to think we can remake the world in our own image. It is easy to be blind to this temptation for many university students on my campus because they often come from the upper echelons of Sydney society, have significant family wealth, or have graduated from a highly respected school. In addition, many come from churches that are almost exclusively populated by upper-middle class Anglo-Saxon professionals, thus completing the illusion that there is no real tension between the humility of Christian witness and the way we wealthy Westerners lead our lives.

In short, they have always been able to do what they want, which gives the illusion of control over one’s destiny. It’s an illusion because, as the Scriptures teach us, our lives are ‘meaningless,’ (hebel, the refrain of Ecclesiastes) ‘a chasing after the wind.’ Rather, it is God who sustains every moment of our lives by his Spirit and through his Son, ‘in whom all things hold together’ (Colossians 1v17), ‘according to the riches of his grace that he has lavished upon us’ (Ephesians 1v7).

By contrast, Hauerwas argues that Christian politics is embodied in a life of humble witness. Humility is key to the politics of Jesus, as he himself teaches his disciples (Mark 10v35-45) and exemplifies in his own self-giving for the sake of the world, stepping down from his rightful place of power to become incarnate, suffer and die (Philippians 2v1-11). The example Hauerwas gives of this politics in practice is the hard, patient work of learning to live with those suffering intellectual disabilities. Such work requires the humility to place the needs of the intellectually disabled above our own, not asserting our power but forsaking it for the good of the other. Again, this is in contrast with the life of ‘power people for the future,’ who learn to assert themselves, climb the career ladder and make their mark on society in tangible, impressive ways.

Hauerwas asked: ‘What would it be like if the life of the University of New South Wales revolved around that work?’

After the lecture I approached Stanley Hauerwas with a question. Reminding him of his description of the university’s work as training students to become ‘power people for the future,’ I asked him what he thinks those of us ministering on university campuses can do to help students avoid giving in to such a powerful temptation.

His response was unexpected. (The quotes that follow are approximate, as it felt a little rude to be busily typing his response into my phone while he was speaking!)

“Well, I think you’re fighting a losing battle.”

For the reasons mentioned above, these pessimistic words resonated with me. He continued:

“I knew a student ministry that centred around Eucharistic celebration and mission trips to Honduras. When they arrived they discovered that the poor didn’t need them. They discovered that they needed the poor; they didn’t know the language or know how to get around. They didn’t know that you could be poor and be a Christian. I think that kind of experience is essential if students are to avoid such a temptation.”

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper and meeting Christ’s people among the poor. Could such experiences really have the power to snap us out of our presumption that power is a good thing for us?

The more our students preference European holidays over rural missions and summer internships over speaking the gospel to international students the easier it is to give in to the temptation to be power people for the future. They move from one institution of power and wealth to another, in the process moving further and further from those every day Christians living out their witness to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in humble circumstances. Instead of feeling the tension between worldly power and the humility of Christian witness, that witness becomes accommodated to power. Many students are probably under the illusion that Christians cannot be poor; or, even if they assent to this in theory, their experience confirms that such Christians must not be the norm.

In the EU we have been trying to burst this bubble by living out a value we have called ‘Less Resourced, Less Reached’ (LRLR). We have been encouraging students to consider making the move after graduation to an area where churches are less well supported and communities are less exposed to the gospel. We have sent mission teams to South West Sydney, areas of the city dominated by non-English-speaking populations, rural towns like Narrabri, the wealthy but relatively gospel-poor city of Adelaide, and suburbs comprised mostly of housing commission premises. We have tried to feature missionary guests at our conferences from nations where the soil is hard, like France and Italy, and from nations where the local residents struggle to feed themselves each day, like rural China.

The rhetoric is hard live up to. Even this well-intentioned rhetoric runs the risk of placing ourselves in an idolatrous position, as the well-off, well-educated, well-funded saviours of those poor churches who are unable (for whatever reason) to really get their act together. We need to keep working (as we have started to do) at making sure such missions are an opportunity to see how the gospel is at work among people and in places very unlike our own – and to see what we might learn from sisters and brothers in the Lord who are not as wealthy or powerful as we are. Such missions are an opportunity to see that the witness of the life of the church to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not dependent upon expensive buildings, the rendering of professional services or enough members with six-figure salaries to have the ears of influential culture-makers.

I know of some students who have been powerfully confronted and convicted that Christian witness may not be as comfortable as they had assumed. Some have begun to seriously consider taking up the LRLR challenge to move for the sake of the gospel; some have even done so.

At present the ministry on Sydney University campus is centred primarily around the preaching of the Word and training students to handle the Word well themselves. The goal is that they might serve their churches as bible study leaders for the rest of their lives. While I’m certainly excited by that goal, and while I certainly believe the preaching of the Word should be central, are we doing our students a disservice – and through them the wider body of Christ – if we fail to adequately challenge the presumption that there is no tension between the Christian politics of humility and the worldly politics of power? Are we solidifying the illusion of control by failing to allow LRLR-thinking to pervade not only our rhetoric but our activity? Are we training our students in a half-hearted, insufficiently practical form of witnesses?

I’ve only begun to wrestle with this. There are many questions that remain unanswered for me. But as a thought experiment for all of us in campus ministry, here are some questions:

  • What might it look like if training in humility was the central focus of our campus ministry?
  • How could the celebration of the powerlessness of the gospel of a crucified Lord and exposure to Christians in circumstances unlike ours be integrated into large ministries in wealthy cities like the EU in Sydney?
  • How would active engagement in the care of the mentally disabled and ministry among the poor shape our students’ witness?
  • What would be the shape of a campus ministry with the goal of helping students avoid the temptation of power by training them in the politics of humility?

I’m not yet sure what it would look like. But it would certainly shake things up.

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24 thoughts on “Humility & Power People: Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas and Campus Ministry

  1. Thanks Richard, this is thought-provoking stuff.

    My thought at the moment is that training in humility probably doesn’t start with ministry to the mentally disabled and the poor (even though I would love to see both!), but with key people (staff and student leaders) actually showing true humility in their interactions with students and others. I am soundly rebuked in my attitude towards others here!

    Do we play straight into the politics of power when we think of university ministry as ‘strategic’ precisely because it produces the future leaders of society? Or perhaps the politics of humility are not in conflict with actually seeking, holding, and using power – but that seems just strange to me.

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for reading 🙂 I agree, genuine humility in our attitudes towards one another is key. But I’m not sure it’s enough. I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the ‘strategic’ language for a while – you know the Charles Malik quote: ‘change the university and you change the world.’ I wonder if this thinking actually reinforces an unhelpful lie being inculcated in our students – that *they* are the ones who change the world. Another thing I’ve learned from Hauerwas: ‘Christians aren’t called to change the world, but to witness to the change Jesus Christ has already made.’ Perhaps our ‘you can change the world’ language is insufficiency eschatological and makes us think more of ourselves than we ought. Maybe the strategic nature of campus ministry in the West actually lies not in changing the world but in showing Christian students that their power & privilege doesn’t go as far as they might think.

      • I was thinking about humility and something that always strikes me is that between Exodus 2 and 3 are 40 years. Moses was 80 when he went and challenged Pharaoh, in this day and age you’re past your prime at 80. Moses would have lived for 40 years as a shepherd, and you would have…by the end of that, thought, well I suppose this is where God has wanted me to serve him. I’m coming to the end of my time.
        Little did he know what the Lord wanted him to do IN HIS EIGHTIES AND NINETIES.
        No wonder Moses was a humble man, he of all people would know how not to ‘rush God’ which I feel is something students do. I feel like so often we don’t dwell upon the length of time that most biblical characters actually had to wait for God to work, because the bible goes through 15 years in a sentence.
        Joseph was in jail for 15 years.
        That is a long time! We see 2 years as a long time, waiting for God to ‘do something’ and if he doesn’t then we need to, cause we’re ‘wasting time’.
        We think we need to act NOW, change the world NOW, there is so little TIME, I need to be the best that I can be right now so God can use me at my prime/peak.
        But are we fundamentally working from a viewpoint not of working in weakness but working when I’m at my peak and strength.
        I can’t ‘waste’ these years of university, I need to experience it all and get as much knowledge as possible. The 20s are your ‘prime’ according to the world. You cant let people walk all over you.
        Perhaps that’s why we don’t model humility… we don’t understand what it is.
        And that it requires sacrifice.
        And that it’s not easy. It doesn’t come naturally to sinful human beings, yet we seem to expect it to – yes I’ll be humble about this – but actually we need to consciously make the harder decision. And at first it is VERY hard…

        It’s hard because it’s a fine line we walk that is truth but often distorted to the world’s perspective.
        I heard a missionary from France say once…
        There are christian values and middle class values.
        Education is a middle class value, not a Christian one.
        That gets very hazy in USYD student’s minds I feel.
        We are privileged and blessed enough to be able to have education, but it is not essential.

        Just some musings that have come up from reading this and going through my students years.

      • Emily, thanks for this. I think you’re right. Most students see 35 as over the hill: nothing left to do for their employers, nothing left to do for God.

        It reminds me of something else Hauerwas talks about: God, by becoming incarnate, has redeemed time. That means ‘we have all the time in the world’ to do whatever it is God gives us to do. That means Christians can’t waste time! Which is related to ‘power’ in that we aren’t really in control in the way we’d like to be – we don’t really know what time was well spent until after the fact. Students (and young people in general) struggle to realize that life & witness are long-term journeys. You don’t have to have and do it all now.

  2. “Instead of feeling the tension between worldly power and the humility of Christian witness, that witness becomes accommodated to power.” This is the key sentence for me.

    In our context (Tanzania – gospel rich, resource poor) I am constantly confronted with my own power (education, wealth, white-ness, etc.) and in large part, both missionaries and aid workers have used that power with the best of intentions but lacking in humility.

  3. Another thought. I reckon it’s not just where we send students but how we send them. For example, when I as an Adelaidean hear about a Sydney uni mission team (actually, any team from Sydney – sorry guys!) coming to Adelaide, the first thing I think is, ‘What do these guys know about my (gospel poor) context? Do they know that the Spirit of God is already at work here? Are they going to try to tell those of us who are already here how to do things?’ (Nothing personal here Richard! 🙂 )

    Of course, I am now on the ‘going’ end rather than the ‘receiving’ end of this equation (having been ‘sent’ from Australia to Tanzania.) It’s pretty easy for us to think that we know how student ministry or perhaps more dangerously, theology ought to be done and to waltz in with our solutions.

    I wonder whether another question to be asking that might foster humility is what the Sydney EU has to learn from others around Australia (including those in gospel poor Adelaide!), and of course, from around the world!

    • Hi Tamie,

      Don’t worry, didn’t take it personally – it’s a good criticism!

      I agree wholeheartedly. Too often we (Westerners, Sydney Uni EUers) go with the attitude of those American students who went to Honduras: we go perceiving ourselves as the saviours. We’ve been trying to fight this in the EU’s ‘LRLR’ drive by speaking about missions as an opportunity to learn from other churches; but by itself, in a context in which all the voices in our students’ lives scream “you’re the bees knees!”, I think we have a long way to go.

      Any wisdom from the mission field about how to use our God-gifted skills & resources more humbly?

      Thanks heaps for your comments 🙂

      • Well, from our perspective, we drop the language of ‘mission trip’ and go for ‘exposure trip’ instead, because implicit in ‘going on mission’ seems to be the saviour complex. ‘Exposure’ suggests that the one ‘going’ is the one learning, receiving, etc. I reckon the same could be done within Australia as well. It doesn’t mean you don’t ‘do’ anything, but it means you go to do mission alongside and under others, learning from them.

        One example is that Ridley did an ‘exposure trip’ to Adelaide last year for the Missional Leadership Learning Community (that’s the guys who are probably going to stay in Oz but in non-ordained roles e.g. youth pastor, AFES, etc.) They still helped out with a church’s mission week but the trip director actively discouraged the language of mission and organised a stack of seminars and opportunities for the students to hear about mission in Adelaide from Adelaideans in a variety of contexts.

      • Thanks for the thoughts. I reckon the language of exposure trips would be a welcome change: to go somewhere with the attitude of discovering what God is already doing, and thinking through how we could be a part of that.

        Perhaps what is needed is a shift in focus. University students do have particular capabilities and skills that mean, by comparison, the language of ‘Less Resourced, Less Reached’ areas isn’t untrue. But maybe instead of using those capabilities to ‘save,’ ‘fix’ or ‘resource’ a church in such an area, we should be encouraging university students to use those capabilities to think through contextualisation: How can my knowledge of the gospel be shaped by another context in such a way that I can become a part of the movement of the gospel in this place?

      • I’m not sure this is going to post in the right spot – couldn’t see a ‘reply’ button on your last comment.

        I’m not sure about what you suggest with contextualisation. I’m not even sure it’s possible on a short term trip to ‘become part of the movement of the gospel in this place.’ I wonder whether the question we need students to be thinking through is how meeting with these people would change the student’s own view of the gospel i.e. what the students themselves have to learn.

      • Hi again Tamie,

        (Those ‘reply’ buttons are frustrating; they disappear after a certain depth of comment is reached!)

        I agree with you completely. When I said ‘become a part of the movement of the gospel in this place,’ I think I was trying to say (inadequately, I suspect!) precisely what you’ve just said. Go with the expectation that the experience will change you more than you’ll change the place you’re going, and go with the attitude of discovering what is already happening and what you need to learn & change in order to be part of the gospel going out in that place – in the long term, not immediately.

        Does that make sense? Am I on to something? Keep pushing back, I’m loving this conversation 🙂

      • Oh, now I see! Yes, if it’s long term, I think that makes sense. Then a question to ask is what ‘long term’ means – how long do you listen and learn for before you consider yourself having something to offer? For us, it’s 3 years, but I’m told we won’t actually be all that useful for 6 or 7.

    • You’re welcome! (By the way, I think we have a mutual friend in the form of Dave & Sarah Taylor. We’re at church together in Newtown. They speak highly of you.)

  4. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for sharing these challenging thoughts. Your questions as to what our campus ministry might look like with a focus on training in humility so as to produce a gospel-shaped but practical form of witness are good ones to think about.

    In your response to Brian’s comment, it’s interesting that you referred to the Charles Malik quote,which is one that I’m sure I used in my own ministry brochure as I explained the significance of university ministry to my prospective supporters. You’ve definitely caused me to think about it in a new light! It seems we’re very comfortable with and conditioned to the “change the world” language, probably because we really believe it to be true. We heard it at school, we heard it at uni and it seems we do hear it to an extent in aspects of our campus ministry.

    Perhaps our challenge in “changing the university” is to change the perceptions of Christian university students regarding power, influence and so on, that they would be the people who lead the way in making radical, other-person centred decisions for the cause of the gospel? I agree completely that the value of LRLR is beginning to do this within the EU, particularly as it has gained momentum over the past few years, but as you rightly point out, perhaps even our approach to LRLR still has a way to go. I think your suggestion of using the language and framework of contextualisation is a helpful starting place as we seek to do this. And maybe we just need to be told more explicitly at times that we’re not the saviours, problem solvers, fixers etc. That as you said earlier, we’re to witness to the change Jesus has already made, and that we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters doing gospel work in contexts different to our own.

    • Hi Kat,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I this is the beginning of a long road. You’re right to recast the Malik quote – we could see ‘changing the university’ as an opportunity to challenge students’ notions of power and privilege. I hadn’t thought of that, but I like it!

  5. A couple more thoughts/ideas on structuring our student ministry so as to promote the thriving of humility:

    1. Practise humble praying. Students are very capable in many ways – but all for nothing without God. Help them to form their prayers in ways that make less of themselves and more of Jesus.

    2. Do walk-up evangelism. There is nothing that makes you feel ill-equipped so quickly as to start a conversation with a complete stranger. (I thought of this a few days ago but I’m not so sure now!)

    3. Collect and share stories of God’s power in weakness. Use stories of God’s work in less-reached, less-resourced areas to counteract the temptation to think that we need to save LRLR areas.

    4. Model repentance.

    5. Show outrageous generosity. Some examples: pay for lunch for the entire small group; offer someone a lift home even though they live an hour out of the way; set aside money so you can give to the homeless in Redfern. Demonstrate in action that you consider others better than yourself.

    • Brilliant thoughts. Let me know how you go at managing to implement them in your second year of HGP! 😉

    • Brian, I’m not sure that practising humility is the same as feeling or being ill-equipped, as you mention in your example of walk-up evangelism. Humility is also about loving and knowing the other – walk up evangelism has very little place for this.

      • Hi Tamie, thanks for your reply. I think you are correct (I will qualify this below), but I’d like to see if I can make my thinking clearer.

        I think there are at least two kinds of humility appropriate for us – one is a healthy view of our own weakness and limitations (which is what I was thinking of with regards to stranger evangelism), and the other is an attitude of giving up our privileges in order to serve others (which partly what it meant for Jesus to humble himself).

        So partly what I was trying to think of was activities that will help students to experience Romans 12:3 “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”

        My thinking was that doing something that was by nature hard and that we are likely to “fail” at is helpful for counteracting our tendency to take pride in our ability and achievements. I could have just as well said “try dating” for another activity where we often see our own failures!

        The reason why I said I wasn’t so sure, however, was that we are very good at fooling ourselves, overlooking our failures and inflating our successes. So while some are appropriately humbled when they undertake difficult tasks (evangelism, Christian leadership, dating), others are pridefully unaware that they are in need of God’s forgiveness and his help. For such people, I think your comment about not loving or knowing the other applies. Doing walk-up evangelism will not by any means guarantee an attitude of humility.

        I wouldn’t say, though, that walk-up evangelism is by nature unloving and non-humble. Although you start from a position of low knowledge about the person, it is still out of love that you talk to them. Moreover, as far as I have seen in the Christians I have observed, their walk-up conversations are not likely involve spouting unloving truths at an unwilling audience, and are much more likely to involve asking good questions, inviting others to find out more, and moving on when asked to. To me, it seems that they approach the activity with an attitude of humility. But I would appreciate your thoughts if you would like to share more about how you feel about walk-up evangelism.

  6. Hi Brian

    Fair enough about there being two types of humility. 🙂

    I think I might add a third category of humility – recognising that we may have a great deal to learn before we can be effective in a situation. We may have something to give, but that doesn’t mean it’s what people need. Now, of course everyone needs the gospel! But the way we give it to them may largely make it inaccessible for them. It may be that we first need to recognise the deficiencies in ourselves and our own understanding BEFORE we can effectively serve others.

    My comments about walk up evangelism for students largely come from a reflection of my own context in Tanzania. There were many great missionaries who brought the gospel here in the past, out of love for those who are perishing, but with low knowledge of the people. The result (broadly generalising here) was a gospel that largely missed people’s felt needs and didn’t speak to the categories they thought in. When people talk about African faith as a mile wide and an inch deep, I suspect the first place we should be looking is the failure of western missionaries to contextualise the gospel.

    Now, doing walk up on a uni campus in Australia, you’re more likely to encounter someone who comes from a similar cultural background (maybe), so you may not run into the same problems so much, nor perhaps, will they have such serious consequences. However, if we want students to learn this sort of cultural humility, re-thinking walk up might be a good place to start. Does that make sense? What do you reckon?

    • Tamie, I think this is spot on – the form of humility we lack most in the Western context is the humility that says ‘I may not know what’s best, and I may not even know enough to know if I know…’

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