RUF: A Vision for Reformed Campus Ministry

“RUF? What’s that?” As a college student I was asked that question many times. RUF, or Reformed University Fellowship, was the hub of my college life. It was where my friends were. It was my safe haven away from home. It was what I looked forward to all week. But most importantly, it was where I matured in my faith and learned to love Reformed doctrine.

And that was the point. When RUF, also known as Reformed University Ministries (RUM), was first started, the goal was to equip college-aged covenant children in the faith, to reach out with the gospel to unbelievers on campus, to teach college students how to develop a Reformed world-and-life view, and to funnel these students back into the churches ready to serve. This was the dream of men like Mark Lowery, Ford Williams, Jimmy Turner, and James “Bebo” Elkin.

In the early 1970s, the world was in upheaval. Politically and culturally, the United States was transitioning away from the “good old days” of post-war America. Denominations like the PCUS were trending towards the social gospel and away from traditional Reformed teachings like inerrancy of Scripture. It was during this time that the PCA was formed. Along with a new denomination, a desire for a new campus ministry was born.

On campus at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mark Lowery was feeling called to campus ministry. He was particularly concerned with how to carry out campus ministry from a Reformed perspective.

The idea of taking the institutional church to the campus was not novel to Lowery, who had attended a Westminster Fellowship (PC-US) while in college at USM. Nationally, however, the Westminster Fellowships on most college campuses had succumbed to social gospel ideology. At Southern Mississippi, the Westminster Fellowship had remained biblically sound, but had not known much recent success. Parachurch groups were now in vogue. In 1971, Westminster Fellowship at USM found itself without a campus minister and approached Lowery, though he was not ordained. (Joe Maxwell, A History of RUM at the Millennium, [Atlanta, Georgia: Reformed University Ministries, 1999], 16)

One of the biggest challenges in the early years of RUM was convincing the denomination that a church-based campus ministry was worth their time, money, and effort. The prevailing opinion in the PCA was that campus evangelism and discipleship should be left to the efforts of parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity. Others, such as Mark Lowery favored a “Presbyterian and Reformed approach.” The report from the Sixth General Assembly stated his reasoning:

This church-based approach “commends itself to many because it promotes a ministry entirely agreeable to the doctrinal standards of our church. This may, in turn, result in greater fruitage of young life in dedication to Reformed-oriented spiritual life, Reformed doctrine, and an evangelistic outreach agreeable to Reformed doctrine. It may properly induce to membership in distinctly Presbyterian and Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church in America. (Ibid., 26)

Mark Lowery wanted a campus ministry where local presbyteries sponsored local campus ministers who would “equip students to serve” and “reach students for Christ.” The 1979 Manual for Campus Ministries set forth the goals that Lowery had developed in his work on campus at USM. The goals included growth in grace, evangelism and missions, fellowship and service, and a biblical world-and-life view.

Bebo Elkin explains why the emphasis on local church and local presbytery oversight was fundamental to the founders of RUF:

The local RUF groups are the ministries of the PCA churches within the geographical area of the local “presbytery.” Owned and operated by the presbytery where the ministry resides, RUF is the labor of the churches joining together to reach and equip students in the close proximity of the churches. RUF, then, is no “parachurch,” as some would think; it is clearly the specialized ministry of a number of cooperating churches.

RUF is served on the campus by an ordained, seminary trained man called by presbytery. The great assurance to the churches is that the minister will be properly prepared, trained, and encouraged, and that he will be properly responsive to his brothers in faith, the presbytery. (Ibid., 21)

One of the other fundamental differences between RUF and other campus ministries is the focus on Reformed doctrine. Hal Farnsworth, an RUF campus minister at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt universities, said of RUF’s philosophy of ministry:

RUF is gospel driven. It springs from a very profound theology- a Reformational theology. And because of that, RUF brings up disciples who understand justification and sanctification. And if you’ve got that, then you’ve got what you need. You don’t have to take someone jumping through fourteen hoops. RUF is organic. Organizations that are inorganic can build buildings or groups, but the won’t transform; they might help you know what to do, but the focus is on behavior and having a strategy to help your behavior. They will help you reform but not transform. (Ibid., 27)

Despite the early struggles, RUF soon proved that this new approach was working:

By 1984, RUF at Ole Miss and Mississippi State had eclipsed any parachurch ministries on their campuses. Conversions were occurring. Small groups were thriving. Large groups were drawing about 100 steadily at State and about 200 at Ole Miss.

During Ford Williams’s and Jimmy Turner’s campus ministries, which ended in 1984 and 1987, respectively, the two men sent out scores of men into the PCA pastorate and surely hundreds, if not more than one thousand, active members into PCA churches. (Ibid., 39)

By 1986, RUF’s were on 11 campuses. Today, there are RUF’s on over 100 campuses nationwide. Up to 80% of RUF graduates become members of PCA churches. This is exactly what the founders of RUF hoped and prayed for from the beginning.

Rod Mays, RUF’s national coordinator, said:

One of the missions of the church, as stated in The Westminster Confession of Faith, is “to gather and perfect the saints in this life” (WCF XXV). Reformed University Ministries is attempting to fulfill this mission on the college and university campus. As one campus minister has stated, “Some ministries seek to take the minimum amount of truth to the maximum number of people. We want to take the maximum amount of truth to the maximum number of people.” Reformed University Ministries is a unique ministry, it is the church going to the college campus, gathering together the saints – our children – to perfect them in this life. RUF is that fold away from home for His sheep. It is that place were they can be equipped for battle and, later, find healing and comfort.

Reformed University Ministries has labored in the past years to see young men and women grow in grace, enjoy fellowship and service in the local church, use their gifts in evangelism and missions, and develop a biblical world-and-life view. What a wonderful goal for our covenant children! What a wonderful hope for this God-less culture around us! The next millennium looks brighter because of our hope that our covenant children will be ready to do battle, having been equipped biblically to fight for the truth. We rejoice in what God has done thus far through the work of Reformed University Ministries. Please join us in renewing our commitment to the future ministry of Reformed University Ministries, for the sake of our covenant children, for the sake of the culture, for the sake of the world and, ultimately, for the glory of God. (Ibid., 75)

It is my hope that RUF will remain faithful to the goals that Mark Lowery set out more than thirty years ago. To find out more about RUF, please visit Reformed University Fellowship’s website here.

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