The crisp air is filled with the noise of people talking—getting reacquainted with old friends and greeting new ones. Fall colors adorn the trees, but the parking lot colors are an even brighter cardinal red and gold. It is football season, and the Iowa State Cyclones play a home game today. Fans are gathered for that home-game tradition: a tailgate party. Seemingly every student and alumnus is enjoying the cool fall weather, Cyclone football, good friends, and food that requires a grill. In this laid-back atmosphere, everyone is everyone else’s friend, even if they’re wearing the other team’s colors. Tailgating provides a much needed break from the routine of classes and schoolwork.
Unfortunately a disorderly, often bawdy side exists. Loud, raucous music emanates from many parts of the parking lot. Police officers patrol constantly. Sadly, they will cite a number of students for public intoxication, underage drinking, or both.
Many believers respond to such an environment by removing themselves from the situation, avoiding the location in the first place, or complaining about “those wild college students.” Cyclone Bible Fellowship (CBF), the campus ministry of Campus Baptist Church, Ames, Iowa, which is now an official student organization at Iowa State University, has chosen to follow the example of the apostle Paul.
Acts 17 records Paul’s being forced to flee Thessalonica. While he waited for the rest of his team to finish stabilizing the church in Berea, Paul found refuge in Athens. He toured the city, looking at the art, design, and other sights. Although he was a world traveler and was accustomed to seeing idolatry, Paul was shocked at the depth of degradation in Athens (v. 16). But he found people willing to discuss their beliefs with him, and he began to evangelize (vv. 17ff.). The word that Luke, the writer of Acts, used to describe Paul’s evangelistic activity predominantly carries the thought of discussing or conversing.
Lee Abuhl, a missionary to Iowa State University, had an Athens experience several years ago when he saw a parking lot full of tailgaters. Some brainstorming with colleagues resulted in CBF’s serving hot dogs to the young people and using that contact to share with them the Good News. The idea developed over the years, and CBF expanded its menu to include pancakes and sausage for an early game. We have found that many students forego the school’s food service breakfast or lunch and come straight to the excitement. They get hungry after several hours of fun and fellowship. Their options are to wait to get into the stadium and pay stadium prices, go home, or get some free food from Cyclone Bible Fellowship. That is when we engage them:
CBF: Would you like a free hot dog?
Student: What’s wrong with it?
CBF: Nothing! It’s hot off the grill.
Student: Thanks! Why are you guys doing this?
CBF: We care about people’s needs in general and your needs in particular. God gave us salvation freely, so we are demonstrating that same caring to college students today. By the way, would you consider yourself a good person?
Honing our approach
Our evangelistic presentation has grown over the last few years to be as effective and culturally relevant as we can make it. Like Paul’s model, our method is to engage a group of students in a spiritual conversation. We use several conversation starters and physical tools to help us start that conversation. A question such as, “If you could ask God anything, what would you ask Him?” works quite well in almost any situation. We use physical tools such as coins, quizzes (with monetary prizes!), and even a tract that looks like a million dollar bill. These are all designed to begin a conversation.
Our limited success in communicating with college young people in the past has driven us to examine our presentation of the gospel and to assemble information from several sources. Evangelism Explosion provides the framework we teach to our CBF students. But while that method gives an excellent summary of the gospel, we believe it fails to resonate with many of today’s young adults. Several years ago Ken Ham, founder and president of Answers in Genesis, spoke at the Iowa Association of Regular Baptist Churches state meetings and introduced the concept of creation evangelism. He correctly maintains that our culture is steadily becoming “less prepared soil” for evangelism as our culture removes God. The most recent tool we use came from Ray Comfort, author of The Way of the Master. Most of the dialogue comes from our mix of these three sources.
These sources allow us to reach college students more clearly. We build a case that, first, there is truly a God Who created all things and that, second, we are responsible to Him. The Way of the Master quickly establishes that all people are sinners. Talk of sin, personal responsibility, and consequences often put people on the defense, but The Way of the Master appeals to the conscience and to things that are clearly seen, though not often acknowledged. Evangelism Explosion carefully walks a person through a presentation of the core of the gospel.
CBF: Would you consider yourself a good person?
Student: Yeah, I’m pretty good.
CBF: Have you kept the Ten Commandments?
Student: Well, I suppose I’m better than most. Isn’t that all God expects?
CBF: Have you ever told a lie?
Student: Well, yes, but everyone has to tell a few lies just to get by. If you tell a lie so you don’t hurt others, that’s a good thing.
CBF: How about stealing?
Student: I’ve never stolen anything big, but everyone has stolen small stuff.
CBF: So, even though you consider yourself a good person, you have described yourself as a lying thief. Do you think you would go to Heaven or Hell?
Student: I would go to Hell.
CBF: Does that concern you?
Student: Yes, actually it does, but I try not to think about it.
CBF: If you could know how to deal with your faults, would you want to know?
Student: Well, yes, I would like to know.
CBF: The Good News is that salvation is not something anyone can earn. It’s a gift from God. . . .
One of the main objectives of our tailgating ministry is to train Christian students to present the gospel. The Iowa State football team has several practice fields they use throughout the week to prepare themselves for the Saturday game. Tailgating is the practice field for Cyclone Bible Fellowship. Believing students are at various levels of learning, and they always get opportunities to put their knowledge into practice.
Our tailgating ministry is just one of the tools Cyclone Bible Fellowship uses to reach unchurched, unsaved students and to disciple the saved students. We are constantly looking for new ways to share the gospel corporately. The exciting challenge of college ministry is learning to reach today’s culture as it rapidly changes.
John Murray is assistant minister to students and Lee Abuhl is college minister at Campus Baptist Church, Ames, Iowa.