Benjie Shaw, the TBMB’s campus student minister at UT Health Science Center – Memphis, talks about the challenges and strategies of reaching a Millennial generation with the gospel. Many have grown up with no church background or have wandered far from church. Benjie discusses how to engage and discuss deep spiritual questions.
Chris Turner: Hello, and welcome into this edition of Radio B&R. I’m your host, Chris Turner, director of communications for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. Today our guest is Benjie Shaw, who is in Memphis and works with Baptist Collegiate ministry. Benjie , you have a lot of titles, so what exactly do you do?
Benjie Shaw: Yeah, three titles. As far as the TBMB is concerned I’m a collegiate ministry specialist. I’m a campus minister at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Baptist collegiate Ministry, but I was hired to be the Metro Memphis BCM Director, so anything that we have that’s a campus ministry in the city of Memphis that’s not the University of Memphis will be my responsibility. We’re hoping to start expanding and adding additional campuses beginning in the fall.
I’m also the president of Baptist Collegiate Ministries of Memphis, which is our parent corporation that governs all the collegiate ministry in Memphis, and is a subsidiary of the Tennessee Baptist Mission board. I guess that’s technically [crosstalk][01:01] You can tell me that.
Chris: Yeah, it is. No, that’s a lot, but the bottom line is you’ve spent a lot of time working with college students, especially here at the medical center. The BCM unit that’s located near UT health signs. You spend a lot of time working with people that are between 18 and 25 years of age. Just give us a little synopsis about what it is that you see folks that come through, and the type of individuals that you connect with.
Benjie : Yeah. At UT health, we’ve got the super smart folks. I’m not an undergraduate institution, which makes me different than pretty much every other BCM that I know of, with a few exceptions. We have students who are in medical school, who are in dental school, who are in pharmacy school, so these are folks who — I’ve described them as the top 5 percent of everything they’ve ever done without ever really having to try hard.
Benjie : I get two real extremes here. I get the students who believe in Christ, and who know why they believe, and who are really dedicated and committed to their faith, and I get students who don’t believe, and know why they don’t believe, and are very dedicated to that.
We’ve got a lot of intermingling of students, which is a little different than a lot of places that I’ve been as well. This is the third campus that I’ve gotten to work on. Most of the time you’re around Christian students, here, we do a weekly lunch and that’s about the only regular thing we do because their schedules are so busy.
On a given week, if we have 60 students here, it’s possible that of those 60, 30 to 40 are Christians.
Chris: You were talking a little bit earlier about the type of agnostics, or people that come from different faith backgrounds, and giving a little bit of the faith background of the different ethnic background, but certainly the different religious backgrounds that you’re dealing with and folks that are coming through here. Give us a little synopsis of some of those that you’re encountering?
Benjie : We are diversity. If you are at one of our lunch programs, week to week it can vary a little bit, but on our best week when we’re at our most diverse we have white students, we have African-American students, we have Hispanic students, we have Asian students, we have students who are Muslim, we have students are Buddhist, Hindu, some fringe groups from Hinduism, we have a couple of Mormon guys. We have Agnostics who are former Muslims, who are former Christians, who are former anything. We’ve got a couple of secular Jewish students who are in and out. We’ve got a couple of dedicated Jewish students who are in and out. Week to week our audience is about as diverse as you can get, in almost any way that you can slice diversity.
Chris: Yeah, it sounds like it really is this cross cultural intersection of religion. Obviously a cookie-cutter presentation of the gospel, and you talked about the intellect, this isn’t just throw out four spiritual laws and see people come to Christ. You obviously must spend a lot of time reasoning with people, as Paul talks about.
Benjie : Yeah, they’ve heard all that stuff. They know why they don’t agree with it. Our approach, is generally speaking, and I’ve got maybe 10 minutes on a Thursday to present a topic. All I’m trying to do is get them to think about it differently.
We’ve got a leadership team here of, I think we’re eight or nine students right now, we work a lot with them on how to talk with their friends and their colleagues and their classmates about these types of issues. I really my see my role on a Thursday is to kind of set it up and make a presentation, present a topic, present an idea, in such a way that’s a little bit different, that at least gets people curious so that they will then go and either seek me out to talk to me, or find one of those people on leadership.
Chris: So, when you’re looking at just that group of people you’re talking about and the diversity of thought, it doesn’t sound like there’s any lack of spirituality, but it’s a more of a skeptic’s perspective. What are some of the topics that you’re addressing? Because you’re taking this head on, like you’re going for the hard stuff and then working backwards from there?
Benjie : Well, some of this is from stops that I’ve had before. Some of it even with seminary. I didn’t do the collegiate ministry track, I was a theology, philosophy, and history, guy. I was the guy in seminary who said, “Hey, Aramaic sounds like fun.” I’m just kind of a big nerd to begin with. As I moved across, and I’ve had interactions even with Christian students, there’s some real questions about really deep level stuff that they don’t seem to be encountering good answers to wherever it is they’ve been. Churches, other ministries, whatever. Some of this was also just this context that I’m in, we meet a lot of students through service projects, so we went to Ecuador last summer, took 19 students and I’m pretty sure that 10 or 11 of them aren’t Christian. I know six of them weren’t. I got pretty close to one of the guys who is a former Christian, now Agnostic, and we started having some of these conversations as we got back and started building a relationship. It was all stuff that I had heard from Christian students who were struggling with this stuff. He was just five or six years down the other end and had never found any really good answers.
Benjie : So, we started brainstorming with the leadership team about what we could do in the spring that would be a little different. We decided that we were going to focus on subjects and issues of doubt. So far this semester we’ve addressed the idea that all religions teach the same thing. They don’t. We’ve discussed how can we can know God exists, or why do we believe exists, and talked about how that’s not just deciding on something and then burying your head in the sand.
There’s actually a reason to think this. We’ve talked about how we got the New Testament, and why the New Testament is reliable, and how that compares to other sacred texts. We’ve spent two weeks addressing sexuality. One week in particular we dealt with Christians and homosexuality. Last week was just general sexuality. Why does God even care who we sleep with and who we love?
Throughout the rest of the semester we’re going to hit issues like why do people suffer. We’re going to have one week where we look at the Old Testament and talk about did God actually command genocide? That’s something that students are worried about. They see some of the atrocities in the world and they look back in the Old testament and they think that God is the same thing.
Just hitting stuff like that. We take 10 minutes on Thursday and kind of introduce it, and I try to make it where it’s a little interactive. We try to solicit follow-up questions. We record that, put it on a podcast, and then address those follow-up questions in a subsequent podcast.
Chris: Really, obviously you’re not going to….Somebody that has a lot of doubt, questions, or is really a skeptic, obviously not necessarily in 10 minutes are they just going to transform. Sounds like you’re really trying to plant seeds and engage in meaningful conversations, even if that’s a one on one conversation or maybe somebody from your leadership team that’s connected with them to equip that person to go out to really spend time with that person. This isn’t a quick fix thing to get them spiritually right, this is really answering some heavy level questions for them?
Benjie : Yeah. The phrase I use with our leadership team as we were planning this semester is I think we traffic in relationships. We have the students, who because they are so heady — for lack of a better term — and who know why they don’t believe something, there’s not going to be a quick fix. As you kind of study how students like that become Christians you see that is a over a long haul of time with multiple relationships. What we teach our leadership team is we’ve got to stop thinking about conversion as a light switch moment where you’re going to say the right thing that’s going to pierce this person’s heart and the light is going to come on. Most of the time, that doesn’t happen. It’s more like a continuum, where if you’re ranking somebody on a scale of zero –I don’t want to believe that God exists — to ten I’m a Christian, we’re targeting these students who are in the two or three range. We all want to be the one that moves them from nine to ten, but we’ve got to be willing, as our role at this point, to be the one who moves them from a two to a four.
Chris: It’s almost like Jim Engvall’s scale from way back, this probably predates you, but he has a scale that actually starts on the negative side, people that have no knowledge of Christianity. Just getting them to zero is sort of introducing the whole idea. Then from zero to where they eventually do come to believe, unless the Holy Spirit just does something miraculous it’s not jumping from zero to ten and as you say a light switch moment. It really does take an investment in relationship, and seeing people more as more as people to love, and to lead, and to interact with, and not projects, not evangelism projects.
Benjie : Yeah, and the guy that I referenced who went to Ecuador with us who in large part kind of spurred this whole idea, I’ll go out to lunch with him once a month, and it might be every other month where we talk about spiritual stuff. Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, how you doing? Tell me about your family.” His grandmother had surgery over Christmas, “How’s your grandmother doing?”
That keeps that relationship going, but what that does is I’ll always look for an opportunity to kind of nudge the conversation a little bit. At the same time, I give him the freedom if he wants to shut it down then shut it down, we’re in this for the long term. I know he’s going to be here for 18 more months. I’ve got more opportunities. We’ve built this relationship where he knows to expect that from me, and he’s actually one of the guys who has helped me recruit students for our summer mission trip this here. Not a Christian, not going with us, but he’s telling people they need to come, and they need to be involved here.
Chris: He obviously sounds like he’s obviously not heard anything yet that offends him, that he’s willing to continue to engage in a conversation and participate in what’s going on.
Benjie : I’ll let him have the last word. That’s one of the things that really frustrates me. When Christians actually will engage in these conversations, a lot of times it becomes a contest to see who can win the argument. I have absolutely no interest in winning the argument, I want to win him. I’m going to push him, but I’m going to let him shut a conversation down. I’m going to let him have the last word. I know he’s going to keep thinking about it. He comes back to me and says, “Hey, we talked about this and so I’ve been thinking…” He actually recommended that we do a book swap over Christmas.
He came into my office and said, “What do you recommend for me? I want to bring you something to read.” We did it. We sat down and talked about it. He’s open, and we see that with other students. I’ve got two quick examples. I’ve got a first year med student who the week we were covering the reliability of the New Testament and how that compares to other sacred texts, she invited a friend who is a former Muslim now Agnostic. They left here and had a two and a half hour conversation on the subject.
She sent me a list of his questions. We worked through, “This is how you talk about this.” She is continuing to engage him. After engaging again with him, he has said he wants to talk to me. They’re just on spring break and been busy studying for exams, which is very important to them. I understand that.
We’ve started setting up these opportunities where we’ll pick a date on a the calendar and say, “Hey, on this Thursday night we’re going to go to this restaurant. My leadership team is coming and the understanding is I want you to use that time if you have somebody that you’ve been talking to or praying about talking to, invite them.” If you have a conversation about the gospel with them, or just about faith in general, it can be one of those things that kind of lead up to faith. That happens with our students here, a lot.
Save your receipt, and I’ll buy it. If we spend all our money on you sharing the gospel one on one with people, I think my boss will be OK with it. Last Thursday we did that, and we had a student who came. They were sitting down at the other end of the table and called me over, and we wound up having a two hour conversation with this guy is is former Church of Christ, who got into school and started asking questions, didn’t really get a lot of good answers to it, and just really engaging him where he was. At the end of the conversation it was, “Man, I really want to keep this going. I want to talk more and find out more about this.
Students are open, they want to talk about it, but especially our students where we are, they’re so cerebral that they’ve got to process it. They’ve got to think through it. A lot of times what I do isn’t so much answer their questions, but try to show them that they actually don’t have the best answer.
Benjie : That gets them thinking through, “OK, what would you say about this then?”
Chris: You’re in your upper twenties–
Benjie : I’m 32.
Chris: Are you really? I didn’t know that.
Benjie : Yeah.
Chris: For some reason I thought you were 27.
Benjie : I’m deceptively young-looking.
Chris: Obviously still, though, in the millennial generation. A majority, if not all, of the people you’re dealing with are in the millennial generation. For better or worse there’s a lot of misinformation about millennials. From the perspective that you’re looking at as far as connecting with, and witnessing, and reasoning with, millennials on spiritual issues, what are a couple of the things that people really need to be aware of when they’re dealing with millennials when it comes to leading them to faith in Christ
Benjie : You’ve got to know your stuff. Knowing your stuff is more than citing one bible verse and saying something along the lines of, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” That’s a turn off to them. They value education and they value intellect. They’ve had very intelligent people who they respect who have given them seemingly reasonable explanations for why they shouldn’t believe this. We have to be able address really difficult and uncomfortable questions aside from throwing down any kind of gauntlet.
You’ve got to be in a relationship with them. The kind of cliche thing is true. They don’t care what you know until they know what you care. That’s very much true for young adults, but when they know you care they not only will listen to you they will seek you out to talk to you about things that you would never know.
I’ve had students confess some really crazy things. On any given day you’re not waking up thinking that you’re going to wind up having a conversation about subject X, but they know that I care about them. They know that I’m willing to talk about things that are hard. I’m willing to process through those things, and not just, “It’s this or that. The end.” That kind of thing. When that happens, they disengage, “You’re not even open to any sort of alternative or other perspective.” Their generation values other alternatives and other perspectives.
Chris: Feel free to correct this if this is wrong, I think older generations get so hung up that we need to communicate with them through technology and all that kind of stuff. It really sounds like what you say they’re really looking for is authenticity. That the technology and all the things that we think we need to be up on is really a secondary issue. It helps when you engage in that realm, but ultimately authenticity, you approaching me and me approaching you from a perspective that there is a mutual respect and that I genuinely do care?
Benjie : Yeah. What I’ve noticed over a couple of campuses is everybody is on social media, everybody is on the Web. They don’t so much consume branded content like that. If I get on my personal Snapchat and I start doing videos where I’m basically preaching, or sharing a gospel message or something, they’re going to know what that is, “Done, don’t have time for that.” When I get on those social media tools and I connect with them personally and I share about my daughter. I share about the trip that we’re going on, or I’m going to see my family. They come back and ask me about that. [crosstalk] [18:44]
Chris: A person with a real life, yeah.
Benjie : Yeah, you actually do things outside of this–
Chris: You have a life.
Benjie : You have a family. There are other things that you’re interested in and you’re involved in. That kind of humanizes me. It humanizes our ministry some. We don’t put a whole lot out as a ministry. We’ll advertise. I’ll send out an email, “Don’t forget about lunch today. We’re going to go this. There’s this deadline for the mission trip coming up.” Outside of that, we try not to over-communicate stuff. We try not to over-do it. We use all that stuff as a tool to have a window into their lives, and for them to have a window into our lives.
As I said, we’re trafficking in relationships. It’s just a tool for us to get to know them, for them to get to know us, a little better. Now, we do the podcast. The reason we do the podcast is because in a year and a half of being here I haven’t had really one successful small group. We’ve kind of punted on the small group idea, we’re pushing students into churches for that. This is a way for us to fill a gap that we don’t really see churches engaging in this way.
Chris: You mentioned earlier, just their schedules. This allows you to get that type of teaching that you’re wanting to cover, and those hard issues, into their hands for them to consume when they have the opportunity to consume it. Otherwise they physically have to be here to hear it, and you would miss your opportunity.
Benjie : Right.
Chris: So, this is an opportunity for them not to miss their opportunity.
Benjie : Right. These guys. You hear college students all the time talk about how busy they are. What I tell people about the difference between my students and college students, regular undergraduate students, is regular undergraduate students will tell you how busy they are and then binge-watch Netflix for six hours that night. My students will tell you how busy they are, and then they will actually study.
At the very beginning of the semester we’ll go visit local churches as groups. First Sunday after they start school, “Hey, we’re going to go to this church and then stick around afterwards. I’ll buy you lunch.” Church is over, you all come into lunch, “Nope, got to go study.” They mean that. Part of me, when I first got here it was, “How are we going to compete with this?” Then I started to appreciate it a little more.
You know, I really don’t want my doctors and my dentist referencing their textbooks when they’re treating me, so it’s a good thing for them to be that devoted to this. What we do want to try to carve out and emphasize to them is that this is a priority for you, and your spiritual life wherever you stand in it, is not something that for two to four years you can put on a shelf and then pick it up later.[crosstalk] [21:38]
Chris: That’s right, pull it back out.
Benjie : It doesn’t get picked back up, and when you leave here you might think that you’re going to have all this free time. No, you’re going to have a life. You’re probably going to have your own office, your own practice, which means you have responsibilities at work. You have employees. Some of you are either already married, or you’re going to be married, or you’re going to be having kids. The complexity just goes up from here.
You’ve really got to figure out now how to lasso this, and how to make this a priority, and what that looks like day to day for you.
Chris: One other thing I wanted to touch on, backing up just a little bit, you mentioned churches. Churches, everybody talks about wanting to connect with millennial generations, what are just maybe one, two, three, things that just churches could do that would give them a better opportunity to connect with millennials and reach millennials in their communities?
Benjie : They’re not interested in your events. The best event that a church can do is still a church event. You either have the really dedicated Christian millennials who are already involved somewhere, or you have those who are pretty much completely disengaged and you’re just not going to be on their radar.
What we’ve kind of stumbled into by accident, is the way that we connect with law students is that we serve with them. We find ways to develop service opportunities. We did two last year where we went to an apartment complex around town where we tried to do a dental clinic for refugee families. We partnered with a local church. We partnered with another non-profit in the area. Had about 15 students come out, I knew 6 of them, so 9 new people. When we went to Ecuador we took 19 students, I knew 5 of them, 14 new people and 3 and 4 of those we’ve had regular ongoing conversations about faith with since.
This year I’ve got, I think, 15 students signed up for Ecuador and I know 5 of them. It’s students and young people who have an interest or have a passion and who want to use their interests and passions to better their communities in some way.
They will work with you, outside of the laws of the church. Then it becomes all about the relationship. What a church has to understand is is they’re going to something like that it has to completely selfless. The church cannot even appear to gain somehow from this or it reinforces this idea that churches are only concerned about themselves or are self-serving. Whether you think that’s true or not, that’s the perception that non-Christian young adults have of the church. We have to understand that.
If you can find some way to be involved in your community, you can find some way to advertise that. That’s where social media becomes a tool. Join us for this workday where we’re going to go clean up this really nasty park, or we’re going to go work at this housing project and do auto care, or something like that. You’re not going to get large responses. It’s not going to be something like in the old days when you have this event and 300 lost people come and they all hear this thing and a lot of them professed faith. You’re going to have two or three people.
Chris: Maybe churches need to…Obviously a hallmark of millennials is they’re service-oriented, so that’s one thing. Second thing is with, like, churches in relationship to that, adjusting their expectation of what success looks like in reaching. Success may be, “We had three, or two millennials.” We put out an all-call, they came, they participated, we were able to establish a relationship with them. Now we’re going to move forward looking for ways that we can just connect relationally with them. Maybe we need to adjust our expectation of what success is?
Benjie : Yeah. I’m not saying that the Lord can’t do something huge where masses and masses of people come to faith in one fell swoop, but I think we’ve got enough evidence now where that’s not really common. Even when you look at Christ, he started with 12, and even of those 12 he only really had 11. Those 11 over a period of time were developed and began to change the world.
That’s kind of where we are now. We’ve got to adjust the target a little bit and say, “Man, we’re going to be happy with reaching three.” Really equipping and teaching and challenging those three, and those three are then going to go…That’s going to become a ripple effect.
We didn’t get where we are in our country, spiritually speaking, where there’s more people saying that they have absolutely no faith than ever before and that number is rapidly increasing, we didn’t get there because someone woke up one day and said, “I don’t think I’m going to believe anything anymore.” This happened over a period of 20-30 years. We’re foolish if we think it’s just going to get reversed like that.–
Chris: No quick fix.
Benjie : It’s going to take time. It’s going to be people investing in the long haul, and what I really challenge churches is I get to talk to them about this sometimes, I feel like there’s a lot of times I’ll butt up against the idea of, “Well, we can do all of these things and we’re not going to see anything from it.” The frank truth is, yeah, for a lot of churches you’re going to do stuff like this and you’re probably never going to see a whole lot of fruit, and if you do, there’s a good chance that even the people you reach might leave and go somewhere else. Jesus said he was going to build his church, he didn’t necessarily say anything about yours. It’s this idea of being really selfless in our mindset.
Maybe you’re the one who connects with that person who is a three. You might move them on down that line somewhere. Praise God if you’re the one that gets them to ten, but then you get them to ten and you’ve kind of committed them to the Lord.
Chris: That’s that whole…Paul. Some plant, some water, some reap. Be content with wherever you are. When you have those opportunities, invest in that person. Move the ball down the field in some way. Answer a question, or invest in them some way spiritually as well as just investing in them.
Benjie : Churches can also really do their members a service by beginning to engage in some of these issues a little more deeply. Your church members are going to be the ones who are talking to people about this. If you’re a minister, you might have some opportunity, by and large no. It’s going to be challenging for you to make these sorts of connections just by virtue of the fact that you are a minister and people are going to know that and act differently and talk differently around you, or just outright avoid you. I get that some too.
My leadership team, who is in class with these people every day, I might start a conversation or encourage them to start a conversation, but they’re they ones that are having it and that are coming back to me and saying, “OK, this is what’s going on.”
We spend time intentionally training them and teaching that this is how you have this conversation, these are some resources that you can go to or you can point people to. You can always come talk to me if you want, but if you can find it on your on please find it on your own. You don’t need me for that. We’ve got a lot of church members who just really have no idea how to even…They’re not even basically conversant–
Chris: It’s almost like we’re equipped in the wrong thing. It’s good for us to have an understanding of things like the four spiritual laws and those Bible verses, because ultimately it’s going to be the proclamation of the word that wins people to Christ. We need to have that foundation. It’s like a foundation. It’s not like we need to go learn something else as a substitute. What we need to do is find something else that’s in addition to that, that is more in it for the long haul, building the relationship, and then adds the opportunities there to see that conversation with all of those other things that we have always kind of had in our back pocket.
Benjie : A lot of those tools were really great when there was a common cultural understanding. With young adults we don’t have a common cultural understanding anymore. Whereas 30 years ago you could sit down with the four spiritual laws conversation with somebody and they’d be tracking with you, at least foundationally. Increasingly people under, let’s even say 35, they’re not tracking at point one. When I say God, I have to be very specific about which God, how do I know anything about him, why do I even believe in him, is it a him? That’s the point of conversation where we begin engaging with young people.
Chris: It’s a great point, 30 to 40 years ago there was this sort of religiousness to culture. It was just kind of ubiquitous. We still had blue laws and those types of things. Now, that’s just not the case. We live in such a a secular culture, and kids are growing up in very secular houses. They don’t even have a category from which to start a conversation about what you’re talking until you lead them to that.
Benjie : It’s either secular, or very pluralistic. The reason why…When we started this semester we started with, “Do all religions teach the same thing?” Because, those are my students. They’re the ones, because they’re smart, because they have neighbors and really good friends who belong to all these other faiths, even the Christian ones, and I can kind of sympathize with this as a guy who really doesn’t like confrontation. We don’t want to think that all these people are wrong.
We like them, and so we want to be able to affirm them. Now, we understand as we approach scripture and we look at the example of Christ and we compare religions, all of these things can’t teach the same. They can’t all go together, which means that at least one of them has to have more truth, at least on some level, than some of the others.
When we were able to do that and kind of unpack, “Hey, this is what this faith teaches about this. This is what this faith teaches about this.” They’re not the same. They may be similar, but similar isn’t same. That’s when students really started kind of engaging with this idea of, “OK, so maybe we need to start asking some questions.”
Chris: We’ve mentioned the podcast a number of times. What’s the name of the podcast?
Benjie : It’s called, “Sacred Space,” but if you go looking for it, like, in iTunes, you’ll have to search for UTHSC BCM. Somebody else already had the Sacred Space name. UTHSC BCM, that’s our podcast.
Chris: Well, I definitely encourage folks to go and listen to that podcast, not only because it’s informative, the topics that you’ve covered, but it does give people an idea of what it is that your ministry is and what you’re trying to do with students. The cool thing is you are part of Baptist Collegiate Ministry across Tennessee that potentially can reach 350,000 students, most of whom are showing up on our campuses who have no understanding of who Jesus Christ is — or a wrong understanding of who Jesus Christ is. Tennessee Baptists support more than 20 campus ministers through Golden Offering Cooperative Program.
Tennessee Baptists are having a presence there, and we’re seeing some great things come out of our Baptist Collegiate Ministries, from Memphis all the way east across to East Tennessee State University, so strongly encourage people to find out more about what we’re doing as Tennessee Baptists in the Collegiate Ministry. I just want to thank you for the time that you’ve taken to give us a little bit of glimpse of what’s going on here.
Benjie : Well, thanks for the opportunity.
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