Christian Union, Founded by TEDS Alum, Engages Ivy League Influencers for Christ

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We caught up on the phone with Matt Bennett (MDiv, 2001), founder of Christian Union, a ministry focused on students at eight leading Ivy League universities in the US. We asked him about why the ministry focuses on this demographic, what some of the challenges are, and why he’s interested in hiring TEDS students for this work.

Rory: Tell me what Christian Union is.

Matt Bennett: Our belief is that to have a significant impact on the nation we need a large number of dynamic Christian leaders to step forward. I mean leaders—not just people who are in ministry, but people who are in business, government, journalism, and everything else; people who love the Lord and have the dynamism of Daniel or Esther, or so many other leaders in hostile contexts in Scripture. Our goal and mission is to renew the larger culture and our way for going about that is by reaching the most influential and training them in Christian leadership, inspiring them, and helping to network them together with a common vision.

We have two focuses—most of our work has been on the university to date, and about 90% still is, but we’re just starting work in New York City among non-students. Our focus historically is on the Ivy League. We’re on seven of the eight campuses [Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale] with full time teams, and will expand to the eighth, Brown, this summer. Our research has shown that about fifty percent of the most influential leaders in the nation went to just these eight schools. So there’s a really high concentration of the nations’ future leaders. The sad thing is that these places are very secular and have been for a very long time. Even those Christians matriculating often have their faith squeezed out of them in some way. Others who might have an interest get inoculated against the faith. It’s been a long-term train wreck for our nation. So we focus on these schools because the list of graduates from these schools is really a who’s-who—government, business, education—of well-known national figures.

Rory: You mentioned that you’re also starting work in New York City among non-students. What’s the vision there?

MB: On the campus we’ve worked out a very set sort of model for developing leaders, but in cities it’s something we’re still experimenting with. We plan to have our same values as a ministry and the same objectives, but our programs, in terms of achieving those ends, are still being worked out. Once we have a number of best practices set in New York we plan to expand to other influential cities in our nation. We do some direct spiritual development, a number of salons and forums in the city, exposing people to the more intellectual aspects of the Christian faith, but also a strong emphasis on what we call a “seeking God lifestyle” of fasting, prayer, the lordship of Christ, similar things. It’s very similar to what we do on campuses, but how we intersect [people] and have the most impact given our limited resources is something that’s still in development.

Rory: Some of your vision for Christian Union comes from your time at Trinity.

MB: I was still working for Cru when I came out to Trinity; I was directing the ministry at Princeton from afar. When I got there, I’d been thinking for some time that God would have me move on and do something else, but it was there that I sensed God’s call coalesce in this direction. I thought it would be with Cru but they thought it would be best if it was a separate ministry. That was disappointing at the time, but now I see the Lord’s hand in it. Being at Trinity really helped me in terms of biblical depth and meeting others with a heart for spiritual dynamism as well as the life of the mind. I’m also really grateful for particular classes I was able to take along those lines, such a class with John Woodbridge on the decline of evangelical institutions. This helped me think, if the Lord’s having me start something new, is there anything I can do now to help this organization not decline and drift away [from the faith] like the very universities we serve? And I remember taking a class with Steve Roy on unity, which was very helpful, and so many other classes. I also particularly appreciated the great emphasis at Trinity on the intellectual depth of the faith coming from people like Wayne Grudem and Don Carson and others, and also an emphasis on the heart side of the faith, particularly from church history professors Doug Sweeney and John Woodbridge and their heart for revival.

Rory: What are some of the challenges the ministry encounters on these Ivy League campuses?

MB: Just as an aside, I want to emphasize that of course there have been parachurch ministries and churches ministering there for years. I just felt that we needed to do more given the intense secularity and influence.

In terms of challenges—there are a number, so stop me when it’s too much. One is that the students are very busy, and they’re activity-driven sort of people. That’s what attracts them here in the first place. They aren’t just hanging out, so intersecting their lives is a difficult process. Once we do, they love what they’re getting, but it takes a lot of effort to intersect because they get overwhelmed with their studies and all the different clubs and teams they want to be a part of.

Something that’s both a challenge and a help is the assumption that if you’re intellectual you leave this religion and Christianity stuff behind. The positive side of that is when they see a Christian, believing peer of theirs on campus, it makes them stop and think, because they know it’s not an easy school to get into and they have respect for their peers. This happens all the time—you have friends of people you know who are influenced to consider the faith because of the relationship—but it really has a super strong impact because they know these people are their intellectual peers, and so they can’t dismiss them as fools. It makes them sort of cautiously step in to investigate. I think in other contexts they could easily dismiss somebody because, in their minds, well, they haven’t studied as much as I have on these issues so I don’t have to take them seriously.

Another challenge is that it’s expensive to live close to these schools. We really need people who have either seminary degrees or who are older just to be able to address these students’ concerns in a deep way, because there’s so much other information they’re receiving on campus. So we need older people and people with degrees, but that means you have to pay them a decent wage, and places like New York City and Boston are expensive to live. It takes more money and is a bigger fundraising issue, which is why we raise money centrally with full-time fundraisers and our employees don’t raise their own support. They get paid a salary from the general funds we raise.

Rory: I imagine that frees them up significantly to actually do ministry.

MB: Our thinking is that the personality type that may succeed in providing the depth students need may not crossover from the personality type that succeeds in being a good fundraiser. They’re different skill sets. I think of some profs at Princeton who are brilliant, but they could never fundraise for their jobs in a million years. We really want to have people who can do a great job of ministering to the students and not have to be limited to those who also have the skillset to be good fundraisers.

Rory: You’re coming to Trinity’s campus soon to speak in chapel. I understand you’re also hoping to possibly hire some TEDS students.

MB: Besides myself, we have a couple who works for us who are Trinity alumni—Zach and Caroline Albanese—and they’re wonderful. We’re looking to hire people who will join the ranks on campus serving the role of Ministry Fellows. We’re expanding to Brown next summer, so we’ll be creating that team, and adding to teams elsewhere. Even though we’ve expanded our capacity on campus, for the past four years we’ve had to turn students away every year, including this fall. We can’t handle the demand. Having people like Zach and Caroline provides a strong attraction to the students, but they can only handle so many students. We are hiring, and by God’s grace we anticipate funding to be able to hire several folks for next summer.

So much of what attracted me to Trinity is that it’s firm in the fundamentals of the faith—its emphases on everything from the inerrancy of the Scriptures to other key doctrines—but allows flexibility on secondary matters. That’s very attractive and so much of what we need on these campuses. We deal with students from every background, so we need a person who can handle and interact with people from different backgrounds. It’s great to have your own view, but it shouldn’t be the end of the world if people don’t agree. At the same time, we need to be firm on the fundamentals of the faith, and on these campuses there can be temptation to be drawn away and have unbiblical views on some core fundamentals. Trinity attracts those students and models that behavior in its faculty, who have a variety of views on secondary matters but affirm the fundamentals of the faith, and that’s very attractive for us to recruit from.

Rory: Forecast fifty years from now. What would you hope to see happening with Christian Union?

MB: As I think to the future, our desire is to see that these campus environments would be more Christian in their belief and outlook than the nation at large. We feel that if that’s the case then the nation can’t help but be impacted positively by the students graduating. That means at least twenty percent of the student body involved with some ministry on campus—either ours, or another church, or another ministry. We’re not too far from that at Princeton; in our ministry alone we have about ten percent of the student body involved, and if you add other ministries you get to about seventeen percent. We’re on our way there, we just need to hire enough people to be able to do that—people who have a devotion to Christ, Godly views on relationships and sexuality and money and justice. We look forward to the day when by God’s grace these schools would be seen as centers of American Christian strength, as a great treasure to the nation; but now they are seen as just the opposite—as the seedbeds of destructive ideologies in many ways. It’s a tall order, but at the same time I think back and look at what’s happened to Korea in the past fifty years. If God can do that for a whole nation he can certainly do it for eight schools.

Rory: Tell me a bit more about yourself. What’s your family like? What are you reading currently?

MB: I’m unmarried, but have a lot of nieces and nephews and keep busy with them. I was working in Princeton for a long time, about twenty years both with Cru and with Christian Union, and moved to New York City a couple years ago to better oversee the ministry on the campuses and also to advance what we’re doing here in New York. In terms of what I’m currently reading, most of what I read has to do with how to go about stirring up and encouraging revival and a call to return to the Lord. I was just reading some of Edwards’ work on it, re-reading “Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement…” etc., and rereading parts of Religious Affections. I took a wonderful course on Edwards with Doug Sweeney back when he was at Princeton. I’ve also recently reread Tozer’s The Pursuit of God; and I recently read Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book on revival.

This is an extremely important part of God’s calling on my life, I’ll just mention briefly here—the Lord speaks to me in dreams periodically, he shows me different things, people who need help in something, people who are demonized who need deliverance. There’s only a couple where the Lord’s been in the dream. One which was very significant and powerful happened in 2006: the Lord showed me the whole nation and his desire to bring revival to the United States in about ten years’ time, and I needed to help with that in some ways. A lot of my time is really focused on that, which is why I was recently in Michigan with a prayer retreat. So that’s really consumed so much of my thinking, my reading, my time, my prayers. And I love the book that Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge put out on revival [A God-Sized Vision], I think it’s been a great help to train our staff.

Rory: Where in NY are you living, and what do you like about it?

MB: 29th and Madison, just about three blocks from the Empire State Building. I love all the action, the activity, the people to see, the cultures that come here from around the world—that’s fascinating. I think there’s one place in Queens where they have more native languages spoken than anyplace on the earth in the history of the world. It’s such a place of influence for the nation and the world, and I love to be in a place to meet people and see what they’re thinking and see what we can do to have an impact for Christ here. I want New York to be a place of light and blessing for the world and not a propagator of destructive mindsets and ideologies—in a lot of ways similar to campuses in that it’s both influential and secular.

Matt Bennett will be on campus Oct. 3-4, 2013. Find out more about Christian Union

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is committed to forming men and women for ministry in a variety of vocations–not just the pastorate or academia. Find out where our Master of Divinity can take you at teds.edu/mdiv.

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