The Times They Are A Changing

Recently, I came across a photo of our house about the time we moved in.  Except for a different color paint on the house, the house looked about the same.  However, over those thirty years the lawn, bushes and trees had gone through significant changes.  Any given year one would not see the change. Over thirty years the change is very obvious. In a similar vein, if I look back at any given year in the 46 years I have been involved in InterVarsity (four years as an IV student at Florida State, one year as volunteer staff in New England and 41 years in the Blue Ridge Region), I do not usually recognize significant changes in one particular year.  However, over those 46 years there have been significant changes.

In those 46 years, the world has left the modern culture and moved into the postmodern culture. While the modern culture was primarily western in its orientation, most culture watchers see this postmodern culture as more universal.  While the gospel has not changed, how we need to live out the gospel has significantly changed. Over these last 46 years I have noticed four significant ministry changes that should impact how we do ministry.

1. Guilt-Based and Shame-Based Culture

Guilt suggests I have done something wrong; shame suggests there is something wrong with me. This cultural shift should shape our evangelism and discipleship. There is certainly a legal dimension to salvation that states I have sinned and thus am guilty and need to repent and then am justified. God has forgiven me and now looks at me just as if I had never sinned. 

In a shame-based culture I might believe God has forgiven me, but I still have not forgiven myself. In addition to a legal dimension of salvation, there needs to be a relational dimension. We need to recognize that we all have been created in the image of God. Like the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, we have spent our entire life running away from that identity. In that journey we experience shame and try to run away from God, others, and even ourselves. We need to recognize that God, the one who created us and gave us our identity, can overcome our shame and desires to adopt us as his daughters and sons.

Those of us who are not Asian need to seek out our Asian brothers and sisters, many of whom have grown up in a shame-based culture. They can help us better understand a shame-based culture and to develop strategies for ministering in this culture.

2. Individual and Community

When I was a young Christian in my senior year in high school and my first few years at Florida State, I thought all I needed was God and me. My theme song was Simon and Garfunkel’s song I Am a Rock, I Am an Island. If you do not know who Simon and Garfunkel are, I would encourage you to listen to them to better understand the 1960s.

I began to realize that if I was going to mature as a Christian, I needed other people, and the best place to develop community was through small groups. The first small group I ever led as a sophomore at Florida State was a total disaster because it was just a Bible study and not a community. My next attempt at leading a small group during my junior year was highly successful because we became a community of people who came together to worship God, study the scriptures, become a family and reach out to others.

I have spent all forty one years on staff equipping students and staff to lead small groups. Recently at a time to honor me and Betsy, my wife, for our time with InterVarsity, one of my former students reminded me of the phrase I repeated over and over: "small groups change lives." He now oversees the small group ministry at his church that has over fifty small groups.  Their small group ministry vision statement is Small Groups Change Lives.

3. Belonging and  Believing

During my college days and my first twenty years on staff, students believed in Jesus and became followers of Christ, then belonged to a ministry like InterVarsity and a church. During the last twenty years that pattern has significantly changed. Unlike my college experience, most students today are looking for community. Belonging is the first priority, then a chance to see if Christians and the Christian faith is real, and lastly becoming committed followers of Jesus. My experience has been that seeking students need to see if Christians are authentic and if the Christian faith can make a difference in their lives.

So we now have many more students in our InterVarsity chapters who are not yet Christians. This doesn’t mean we should water down what we do or say.  Many of our seeker friends need to discover that their pre-conceived notions about the Christian faith are wrong. They become full participants of our InterVarsity chapter and small groups.

However, I just want to caution us not be satisfied that we have so many students who are not followers of Jesus in our community.  They may think that involvement in our community is all there is to the Christian faith. We need to help them see that they have been converted to the Christian community but not necessarily to the King of the Community, Jesus Christ. We need to make sure they not only belong to the community but also believe in Jesus.

4. Positional Authority and Earned Authority

A few years ago at our national Orientation for New Staff, a veteran InterVarsity staff leader came up to me and asked, “Why do these new staff not respect me more?  They need to respect me.” I chuckled at the comment. I told the veteran staff that my staff couldn't care less that I had been the regional director of the Blue Ridge Region for over thirty years.  I have found that no matter what position I was serving in, if I was authentic and developed trust with my staff they would follow me anywhere.

In 1975 when I came to the University of North Carolina as staff, the students were suspicious. When Betsy and I arrived, we did not realize that they were hoping one of their graduating seniors would be placed at UNC as their staff. I did not know any of the 200+ students involved in the chapter. To get to know the students and for them to get to know us, Betsy and I decided to have one of the 23 small groups over to house every week. By the end of the year we knew all 200+ students in the chapter. As they grew to know me and began to trust me, they also began to allow me to coach them.

Betsy and I continued that tradition of hospitality when I became a regional director. Within their first year on staff, every new staff in the region had been in our house at least two times. We did all of our prospective staff interviews in our living room. For those who came on staff, one year later all those new staff were in our house for three days of new staff training. 

The person my staff saw in our living room in front of five people was no different than the person they saw at summer camp in front of five hundred people. My daughter attended the celebration of Betsy and me at our regional staff conference, and I asked her what she thought. Her response was priceless. “They described my daddy”. The person my staff saw was the same person my daughter saw. To be a leader today, one needs to be authentic as a person and to develop a community of hospitality.

I leave my 46 years of ministry with InterVarsity so much the wiser. I am so thankful God allowed me to be a part of what he is doing on the college campuses.  I hope you are thankful that God is allowing you to be a part of his ministry on your college campus. I do not know of any place I would rather have been these last forty six years.

About the Author
Regional Director

Jimmy Long most enjoys spending time with his family- Betsy, Tiffany, Andrew. Megan and of course his two grandchildren Asher and Charis. He also is intrigued how culture impacts ministry. He has written two books on the subject, Emerging Hope and The Leadership Jump and is in the midst of writing a third book on the topic Identity Transformed. For fun, Jimmy is an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and UNC Women Soccer. This summer Jimmy will retire after 41 years on InterVarsity staff.