With about 1,000 students being reached through InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty chapters at Harvard, this ministry has transformed its focus for engaging the campus.
A Thriving Ministry
In Kelly Monroe’s book, Finding God at Harvard, the author sets straight the myth that Christian faith cannot thrive in a rigorous academic environment. While some may believe that it’s hard to find God at Harvard because it’s a secular institution, the evidence suggests otherwise.
InterVarsity has about 1,000 students and faculty on the mailing list for Harvard’s graduate schools alone. There are nine chapters, with students from every school involved. Some of the chapters boast higher numbers of active students than others, but every chapter has members just as serious about their faith as they are about their studies. And even more exciting, they are dedicated to being salt and light on campus and in the world.
Jeff Barneson has been working in ministry on the Harvard campus since 1983. In 1993 he began working with graduate students and faculty for InterVarsity. Now he oversees four Graduate and Faculty staff workers. Over the past few years he has been a part of the transformation of the Harvard Grad and Faculty chapters from being internally focused groups to outwardly focused groups; and has watched as the students take seriously their role as part of God’s bigger mission on campus and in the world.
One challenge staff workers have faced is the tendency for graduate students to become so wrapped up in their studies that they lose their identity. Harvard tempts students with the allure of prestige, scholarship, and success. Because of this allure, the chapters’ transformations to a ministry with a missional focus has taken a few years and a lot of prayer.
InterVarsity encourages students to find their identity in Christ and encourage them to live out the gospel in their whole life – in school and in their future careers. Jeff said, “It’s easy for the institution to tell students who they are, but InterVarsity teaches students that followers of Jesus have him as the key to their identity, not Harvard.”
Missional Christians have been stepping into roles of leadership, helping to guide other students into the understanding that they are on campus to advance God’s mission and bring him glory through their scholarship and their outreach to others. InterVarsity is not on campus to encourage personal fulfillment but to serve the campus and bring others into relationship with Jesus.
Kim Kreiling, the campus staff worker serving students and faculty from the schools of Arts and Sciences and the School of Design, said, “If you asked any of the student leaders the purpose of InterVarsity, they would all talk about reaching the campus, they know that InterVarsity exists for God’s purposes on campus and in the world.”
InterVarsity has a chapter for each school because students in every academic discipline look different. Each chapter has a weekly meeting organized to match the focus of each school. So the business school will often have CEOs talk about how they integrate their faith in business, the Law School will have lawyers who share how their faith influences their practice.
Having a testimony and discussion format provides a place for students, Christian and non-Christians alike, to talk about the intersection of faith and scholarship. This non-threatening environment has made for an effective outreach.
Once a month all the chapters gather together for a monthly worship night. They also join together several times a year for retreats and missions projects. And once a year they do a campus-wide event – this year it was the Veritas Forum (a discussion forum that raises tough questions in an interactive format. This year the theme for discussion was beauty). These events help to keep the chapters connected, remind them of their larger purpose on campus, and invite them to participate in what’s going on in the world.
On a mission trip to New Orleans this past spring, Leif, a non-Christian student from Norway, met many people in New Orleans who had spiritual needs he didn’t know how to fulfill. Leif was prompted when he returned from the trip to look further into the person of Jesus. When Kim, Leif’s staff worker, shared the gospel with him, Leif eagerly accepted Jesus. Since then, Leif and Kim have been meeting twice a month to read through the gospel of Mark.
Graduate students and faculty offer something unique to InterVarsity’s ministry. They are further along the road of adulthood, often more serious in their attitudes and goals, and are certainly more focused. They have made significant choices and sacrifices to be in the academic programs that they are in. This focus also provides InterVarsity staff with opportunities to help graduate students consider how the gospel relates to their subject.
Reflecting on her work with graduate students at Harvard, Kim said, “Knowing that so many of these students will eventually assume positions of influence contributes toward making the work very rewarding. It’s such a privilege to be around people who are really seeking to submit their vocation to God wholeheartedly.”
Clearly, God is not hiding at Harvard.
You can make a direct financial donation to support InterVarsity’s work among graduate students and faculty at Harvard by following this link.