As Lewis and Clark prepared to reach the headwaters of the Missouri River and the perceived halfway point of the expedition, all conventional wisdom of the time assumed that they would find a river nearby that would flow west, and they would continue their river-bound expedition to the Pacific. Everyone assumed that the second half of the trip would be much like the first. Then they caught their first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. Suddenly all their experience canoeing up the Missouri was thrown out, because from there on they wouldn’t be on the river, but climbing mountains.
What would you have done at that moment? What would you have felt? I am amazed that Lewis and Clark did not turn back. Thomas Jefferson had given a mission to their team, the Corps of Discovery: to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase, to find a water route to the Pacific, and to map, document, and learn about “the West”. Well there was no water route, the Rockies made sure of that. Why keep going? Because the spirit of the Corps of Discovery was to explore and learn, so on they went.
This story has much to teach us, but there is one thing that I want to highlight. What do you do when the terrain around you unexpectedly changes, when skills and methods that have taken you so far become useless? Do you turn back, giving the mission up to a failure? Do you “stick to what you know” and try to canoe up a mountain? No, you press on towards the mission, and you adapt to the new terrain.
There is so much changing terrain around us. Churches feel this as the communities that they serve become more and more post-Christian. Everywhere there are Church communities that were once amazingly gifted at shepherding their mostly-Christian locales, but are faltering as the mission field becomes their backyard.
On the college campus we are experiencing much of the same thing. Ministry in the past half century has been so successful in part because students have come to college with a background of knowledge and respect for the Bible, and with basic beliefs in God, in Christ, and in Heaven and Hell, even if they were not yet trusting in Christ. From there, they needed to be reminded and called to make a decision. But as our culture continues to change around us, this is no longer the norm. Students come to campus ignorant, ambivalent, or expressly hostile to the Word of God, to Christ, and to the gospel. Do we call the mission a failure? Do we “stick to what we know” and keep doing what we’ve always done?
No. Like Lewis and Clark we must press on toward the mission. It is still true that people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It is still true that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. Sin only steals, kills, and destroys, but Jesus gives abundant life. And God is still the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort.
But while we must press on, we also must adapt. A veteran Campus Outreach staffer once said, “There are all kinds of methods, but only a few principles. Methods can come and go, but principles don’t change.” Like the Corps of Discovery, we must have a spirit of exploration and learning to discover how best to travel this new terrain. The sight of the “Rockies” should humble us to look at God’s Word with a fresh eye; to seek out the principles of kingdom growth that can be found in Jesus’s life and in the spread of the gospel through the early church. What methods will we need to adapt or let go? What principles will need to be even more central to our mission? And finally, what sights will we see as we climb the mountains?
Chase Walker, Campus Director (Campus Outreach, Truman State University)