Looking back on James “Bebo” Elkin’s fruitful career with RUF

In preparation for writing my article on the history of RUF, I had the honor of interviewing James “Bebo” Elkin, one of the founding fathers of Reformed University Fellowship. Bebo Elkin, along with Mark Lowery, Jimmy Turner, Ford Williams, and Bill Smith are the men most responsible for bringing RUF into being. This group formed out of a group of friends who attended Belhaven College together in the 1960s. They worked together in the leadership of the Westminster Fellowship (of the PCUS, hereafter “WF”) at Belhaven. It was there, through WF, that these men got a taste for campus ministry. After Belhaven, the friends moved on to Reformed Theological Seminary.

After graduation, Mark Lowery was called to work with WF at the University of Southern Mississippi. Unlike many of the WFs across the country, WF at USM was conservative and faithful to the gospel. At the time, most of the WF campus ministries had become very liberal and were teaching a type of social gospel. To help with the work of reviving the campus ministry at USM, Lowery brought in a friend from seminary, Bebo Elkin.
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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. Continue reading