Cardboard Evangelism Brings Gospel to Campus
By Jim Burton
STATESBORO—Every person is a story in process with a beginning, middle, and end. There are peaks and valleys; challenges, defeats, and victories.
The Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) of Georgia Southern University in Statesboro wanted to hear those stories, so they borrowed a strategy from homeless people. About 70 students used tattered cardboard to paint simple signs. The students didn’t ask for food, money, or work. Instead, they wrote “I am” statements in an Engage 72 evangelism campaign.
I am wanted.
I am loved.
I am valuable.
Ask me my story.
Evangelistic conversations ensued. For three days during the Spring 2013 semester, BCM students sat on campus benches and student center couches, and in cafeterias and hallways.
Fellow students did stop, not just to ask, but to tell their story, too.
BCM Evangelism Team Leader Shannon Kahn of Kissimmee, Fla., issued the Engage 72 challenge during Prime Time, the weekly worship session at the BCM center. The signs were ready; all the students had to do was complete the “I am” statement.
Though Kahn issued the challenge, Engage 72 wasn’t easy for her.
“Engage 72 pushed me outside my comfort zone in many ways,” said Kahn, a biology major. “I’ve always used the excuse, ‘Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words,’ and I thought that just by living a godly life, that would speak for itself.”
However, she felt conviction when her pastor spoke and said that words are necessary. “If you never really engage with people and explain to them that you live the way you live because Christ first loved you, they’re never going to know,” Kahn recalled the pastor saying.
Like many BCMs, Georgia Southern had regularly done mission trips, particularly during spring break. Several years ago, Campus Minister Jerry Jones said student leaders asked how they might view their campus if they were coming to Georgia Southern for a weeklong mission initiative.
“If we’re going to do missions elsewhere in the world, we ought to be taking the mission to Georgia and to our own campus,” said Jones, one of more than 50 campus ministers who serve throughout the state. He estimates that as much as 80 percent of the campus population at Georgia Southern is non-Christian.
The desire was to be challenge driven, not event driven, Kahn said. After more than 30 years of campus student ministry, Jones understands the challenge students face with peer evangelism. In theory, evangelism is not a hard sale, he said. The challenge is overcoming stereotypes of evangelists. Few of the BCM students have had personal evangelism training before they came to college.
The Engage 72 campaign gave them the “hook” to start evangelistic conversations. Following several weeks of evangelism training by Mark Galo, collegiate minister from Statesboro’s First Baptist Church, the students took their cardboard to campus during the Spring 2013 semester. And the conversations began.
Kahn talked to a co-worker with whom she will have a continuing relationship. Engage 72 helped to initiate a conversation between them about Christ.
When another BCM student, Nick Fortenberry of Marietta, randomly shared his story with a girl, he didn’t know she was planning an anti-suicide rally. After sharing how someone’s suicide affected his life and faith, she invited Fortenberry to speak at the anti-suicide rally. More than seventy people heard a testimony that no matter what was happening, God was available and willing to receive them. Many expressed appreciation for Fortenberry’s words, and that he mentioned the name of Jesus.
“I’m not much of a public speaker, but the words came out smoothly,” said Fortenberry, whose major is mechanical engineering.
Both Kahn and Jones agree that students want to hear each other’s stories.
“There’s something about human interaction that brings joy to many people,” Kahn said. “As we’re (college students) trying to figure out where we’re going, we all have stories of where we have been.
Whether Christian college students choose to carry a cardboard sign or not across their campus, their life is a sign, said Rebecca Henry of Marietta, who serves as a BCM vice president.
“You are a sign that says, ‘I’m a Jesus follower. Let me tell you my story,’” Henry said.
Next year’s BCM leaders are already brainstorming their campus-missions emphasis.
How do we take it one more step into the culture?
How do we send missionaries weekly to our campus?
Jones knows that evangelism rarely happens without intentionality as evidenced in Engage 72. Though the BCM does not track professions of faith, he said that BCM students have taken other Georgia Southern students to local churches since Engage 72, and that the number of students in local churches has risen.
Perhaps next year, more students will have a good-news story to tell.
– Jim Burton is a photojournalist living in Cumming, and the bivocational pastor of Suwanee International Fellowship, in Suwanee.