What is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship?1
InterVarsity is an inter-denominational, evangelical organization serving students, staff, and faculty on college and university campuses. It began at Cambridge University in 1877 when students began to meet together to pray, study Scripture, and witness to fellow students. They eventually formed the British Inter-Varsity, which means between-students. In the 1920s it expanded across the pond to Canada and was incorporated in the U.S. in 1941. Last academic school year there were 1014 campus staff members who worked with over 37,000 students and faculty in 893 chapters on 576 campuses throughout the country. 1.Plagiarism disclaimer: With a bit of editing, most of this section was lifted directly from Wikipedia and InterVarsity’s website.
According to its website, the purpose of InterVarsity is to “establish and advance at colleges and universities witnessing communities of students and faculty who follow Jesus as Savior and Lord: growing in love for God, God’s Word, God’s people of every ethnicity and culture and God’s purposes in the world.” This is its motto: “Our vision is to see students and faculty transformed, campuses renewed and world changers developed.” However, InterVarsity’s purpose and vision was perhaps most adeptly summarized by Keith and Gladys Hunt with their book title, For Christ and the University.
Why did I choose InterVarsity over the other options?
There are two chapters at Baylor University: Asians For Christ and Unite InterVarsity.22.The former is pretty self-explanatory while the latter is an intentionally multi-ethnic chapter. This year I’ve been helping with Unite in a volunteer informal capacity. As of now I’ve received a provisional appointment and, assuming all goes well with the fundraising, I plan to become a full-time campus staff member next fall. The question is, why did I seek out InterVarsity given the multiplicity of other on-campus ministry options? Even their people were puzzled when they found out I had no undergraduate experience with them. So I’d like to explain why I found myself drawn to InterVarsity.
Several things ought to be clarified before jumping into my reasons, though:
- I’m not arguing for the overall superiority of InterVarsity. Rather, I’m describing why it’s such a good fit for me. That’s a really important difference.
- I’m explaining the things that are important to me. I’m not suggesting these are or should be objectively more important to all people. The Body of Christ has many members, right?
- A couple of these reasons aren’t unique. I’m primarily explaining why I was drawn to InterVarsity, not why I wasn’t drawn to other organizations. There’s going to be some overlap.
- Organizations like Cru33.Formerly Campus Crusade for Christ. and Navigators are co-laborers in and for the Kingdom. I don’t see them as competitors… No, seriously, I don’t. Nothin’ but love for those folks.
That having been said, here are 15 reasons I felt drawn to InterVarsity generally and Baylor Unite specifically:
- Evangelical. For better or worse, I’m an evangelical Christian. That evangelicalism is a part of my spiritual DNA is an undeniable reality. There was a time when I was fiercely critical of the movement and wanted to get outside of its sphere of influence. Today I see the advantages of being a prophetic44.Forthtelling not foretelling. influence within the community.
- Healthy. I sense in InterVarsity a psychologically and spiritually healthy environment. It’s undoubtedly got its internal crap like everywhere else, but the organization today has set its eyes squarely on honoring God by serving His people. The importance of that cannot be overstated. I was tired of drama and needed a time of encouragement and renewal.
- Thinking. InterVarsity has always been a shining counter-example to the rampant anti-intellectualism that pervades society at large and evangelicalism in particular. It historically does an excellent job exhorting and equipping Christians to worship God in and through the cultivation of their minds. This is an essential element for my ministry context.55.My favorite book, the one that saved and transformed my faith, is Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It validated my existence and made my faith feel whole. I’ve dedicated my life to making a dent in this problem.
- Context. I love college/university settings and need to be around thinking people. It’s not hyperbole to say that the life of the mind provides the sustenance of my soul. Whatever life has in store over the coming years, on-campus ministry is an absolute necessity. Me serving that community is like Mother Theresa serving the poor. Nothing else is acceptable.
- Compassionate. My calling is to help Christians and non-Christians who’ve been wounded in life, are asking difficult questions, are discontent with the status quo, etc. I need to be among people who graciously and compassionately encourage such honest wrestling. Both InterVarsity as a whole and Unite in particular were open to this.
- Incarnational. InterVarsity values the incarnational nature of the Gospel. They believe in making disciples who are a faithful presence within the world as a means of helping bring in the Kingdom. This includes but certainly isn’t limited to the realms of academia, art, politics, healthcare, and business. They prepare students to be salt and light in every walk of life.66.Another way to say it would be that InterVarsity is opposed to the escapist mentality where the chief end of man is to “get ‘em save” and keep them safe within the confines of the christian sub-culture, thereby extracting them from the influence of the big, bad world.
- Inter-denominational. There’s a tension within my faith in that I’m firmly committed to the Anglican expression of Christianity yet am passionately ecumenical. That’s why I feel uncomfortable in non-denominational settings. Instead of a watered-down mere Christianity, InterVarsity actively encourages humble dialogue between the various traditions.77.In my opinion, this is a model many other evangelical parachurch groups would do well to emulate.
- Complementary. As one aspiring to ordained ministry, it was important I be part of an organization that’s not only compatible with but is actually complementary to the Anglican tradition. InterVarsity fits the bill. There’s actually a significant degree of conceptual and cultural overlap between the two, which no doubt reflects their mutual English heritage.
- Leadership. InterVarsity makes clear that each of its chapters is to be student-led. This isn’t to say that staff members are superfluous. They’re encouraged to disciple students, provide counsel, help lead Bible studies, assist with organizing prayer meetings, and all sorts of things. But at the end of the day the staff members shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat.88.This jives well with not only my own leadership philosophy but also my personality. As an ENTP on the Myers-Briggs, I jointly hate to control others and be controlled by others. I loved it.
- Egalitarian. I believe in full gender equality, especially in non-ecclesiastical, parachurch ministries. While I want to be careful not to reinforce the unfortunate caricature that all complementarians are misogynists–they’re not–the fact remains that I’m at odds with their “distinct but equal” philosophy.99.In my experience, in practice it too often it resembles the supposed equality of the “separate but equal” Jim Crowe South. I’d be delighted to serve under a competent female director.
- Multi-ethnic. I stand with InterVarsity in the affirmation that the Gospel should transcend barriers–linguistic, geo-political, socio-economic, gender, ethnic, etc.10.Also, to the best of my knowledge InterVarsity is the only on-campus student ministry of the big three that consistently emphasizes social justice. Looking at the evangelical sub-culture, something has gone terribly awry when your average Christian doesn’t actively care about human rights, clean water, prison reform, economic oppression, sex trafficking, etc. Last year I went on Baylor’s Civil Rights Tour over spring break. It was truly a perspective altering experience. I’m increasingly leery of white exclusivity and am committed to multi-ethnicity.10
- Affinity. There are just three institutions within the broad umbrella of evangelicalism that have earned my implicit trust: Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary, InterVarsity Fellowship/Press.1111.Each of them shies away from the extremes of mainline and fundamentalist Protestantism, representing a joint commitment to historic, biblical orthodoxy and cultural consciousness. Perfect for a hardlining moderate such as myself. Almost without fail I like those people who like those institutions. That may sound insignificant, but given my critical nature it’s a real compliment.
- Association. Speaking of InterVarsity Press, that’s my second-favorite publisher behind only Oxford Press. IVP stands for a commitment to excellence amidst its evangelical peers who seem content to crank out all sorts of trite drivel.1212.I’m not naive to the fiscal realities, but I don’t know how they can in good conscience put out that stuff. Only rarely do I come across an IVP title that sounds uninteresting, let alone awful. Job well done.
- Structure. InterVarsity seems to have found a good, healthy balance between structure and flexibility.1313.Granted, I say this tentatively since my knowledge in this area is underdeveloped. Look no further than their diverse chapters for evidence of this. Rather than a largely homogeneous organization, InterVarsity successfully takes its basic model and incarnates it among ethnic groups, Greek sororities and fraternities, faculty members, etc.
- Pragmatic. I’m not gonna lie. My wife just started her PhD at Baylor, so we’re going to be here a while. That reality combined with Unite’s existence made the decision pretty darn simple. One of the life lessons I’ve learned over the years is to work within the system when possible rather than expending precious time, energy, and resources reinventing the wheel.