How Did RUF Begin?

July 22, 2013

In the early 70s, everything “American” seemed up for grabs. Baseball’s American League in 1973 voted to allow an unprecedented “10th player” on the field – the designated hitter; Secretariat won horse-racing’s Triple Crown, demolishing all challengers; and Billie Jean King defeated brazen Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in “The Battle of the Sexes.” America’s once-silver screen was now sullied by violence and sex in movies such as Marlon Brando’s The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. Norman Lear’s norm-challenging All in the Family led America’s TV show ratings. President Nixon kept campaign promises to pull back troops from Vietnam and won re-election in a staggering landslide, only to have Watergate ruin him in 1973. Senator Ed Kennedy plunged into a quagmire called Chappaquiddick.  And when, in 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted 18-year-olds the right to vote, suddenly post-adolescents were asked to make weightier decisions than whom to date and whether or not to sleep together; they were expected to help choose the nation’s moral and civic leaders.

Amid such secular and ecclesiological upheaval, a new denomination was forming. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America broke from the PC-US (Presbyterian Church – United States), creating an opportunity for a new biblical, institutional-church-based campus ministry. In the 1970s a multitude of para-church groups flooded campuses across the nation, some more biblically sound than others. Drawing from the examples of some of the more successful models, RUF gleaned intellectual rigor from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an understanding that the university was a goldmine for making Christian converts from Campus Crusade for Christ, and the one-to-one aspect of The Navigators.  RUF emphasized key elements of the means of grace, immediate connection to God’s visible church, and the life-changing Reformational doctrines of justification and sanctification in the church-based and church-governed ministry.

It all started with a student conference organized by three men in ministry – Jimmy Turner, Mark Lowrey, and Ford Williams. The conference’s gathering they named Reformed University Fellowship. As these founders looked to extend their organization to a real campus ministry, they acknowledged the importance of naming. Keeping the original name, they determined Reformed University Ministries would be Reformational, go the nation’s universities, and there it would minister.

Reformed University Ministries – Mississippi was the trailblazer, developing, testing, and providing resources and assistance for others in the field-testing of new ideas and approaches, conferences, and finances. Those best practices crafted an approach for campus ministries then provided for other churches and presbyteries within the PCA.

Reformed University Ministries began in the vein of a PCA ministry, though it developed its identity prior to becoming a full-fledged arm of the PCA. At first, RUM was under the Mission to North America (MNA) umbrella, though by 1985 it was comparable in size and accomplishments to the other PCA agencies.  JI Packer affirmed, “A church-based ministry on a campus is always needed. As a Reformed man, I am glad to commend a Reformed work.” That growth was hard-fought, though. The first leaders of RUM were cautious to build carefully, slowly gaining acknowledgement by the PCA.

Mission to North America (formerly M-US) sought to “maintain the unity of the program while maintaining the autonomy of the presbyteries.” (according to the September 1985 MNA subcommittee on campus ministries). So in the mid-eighties, RUF grew and developed a week of staff training, preparing a manual for presbytery campus ministry committees, and coordinating an RUF summer conference. Big advancements.

The first RUF intern was in 1976-77 at USM. The second served at Ole Miss in the early eighties. By 1986, there were RUF interns on six campuses in five states, as many interns as RUM had claimed total campus ministers in 1980. At this time, RUFs were on 11 campuses; the strategy was to plant a successful RUF on a key state campus and watch the surrounding universities follow. In March of 1987, MNA laid out aggressive growth goals for the PCA; MNA hoped RUM would have 75 chapters by the year 2000….in the year 2013, RUF campus ministers serve on over 120 campuses!

To grow, RUF moved whenever possible on a campus near new church plants. It developed its Philosophy of Ministry which, unchanged, is still dearly held today. The early founders of RUF felt conviction that the visible, institutional church is charged with a covenant responsibility to pastor its late adolescents upon entering college and to make new disciples there as well. RC Sproul said, “I have great appreciation for RUF and for the commitment to the Reformed faith that typifies those bringing leadership on the campus through RUF. It has given confidence to the students to know the One in whom they believe and to know why they believe, adding a depth of devotion and commitment often not experienced by other campus ministries.”

RTS Jackson professor of systematic theology, Duncan Rankin noted, “My best students come out of RUF college ministries,” and in fact many confirmed this to be true. The meaty theological training RUF students received was noticeable among churches receiving the new members and seminaries accepting the recent graduates. Furthermore, perhaps the greatest pastoral recruiting tool the denomination had was RUM.

Adapted from Pressing Toward the Goal of the Upward Call of God: A History of RUF at the Millenium