February 11, 2003
KIRKSVILLE – Putting more energy into evangelism has paid off for the Baptist Student Union at Truman State University, where a fresh approach to presenting the gospel on Thursday nights is yielding conversions.
Gene Austin, who took over as BSU campus minister in June 2000, said that there were 14 known conversions to Christ during the last school year as a result of the new service called Damascus Road. By going to a coffee-shop type of atmosphere with music, drama, video clips and a message, which is what Damascus Road is, the BSU in Kirksville has grown from around 95 to 200 or 250.
Austin remembered a young man who became friends with a BSU student last year and attended Damascus Road. The young man was amazed at how committed the BSU students were. (Austin estimates workers put in a total of 200 hours of preparation for each service.) The young man then thought about what kind of God would be behind such a commitment.
The student went on a mission trip with the BSU group, and at a Sunday night church service that first evening of the mission trip, everything came together in his mind and heart. “It wasn’t what you call a high evangelistic service,” Austin recalled, “but this guy looked at me and said, ‘I received Christ.’ I mean, we didn’t have an invitation, it was just right there where he was. And to see how is life has changed is amazing.”
Rachel Haffey, one of nine BSU interns at Truman State, plays a key role in planning the Damascus Road services. “I think it tears down a lot of barriers on this campus, particularly for people who maybe have pre-conceived notions about Christianity or church.”
Haffey’s little sister brought a hallway full of students from her dorm to some Damascus Road meetings last year. “She would come home at night and there would be conversations happening all over her dorm,” Haffey said. “People were coming to the Christians in her hall and staying up late talking to them. I think two or three of those people have since accepted Christ.”
The planning that led to the emergence of Damascus Road took place after Austin observed that the existing BSU lacked a meeting for unbelievers. “It wasn’t really intentional. This would be the best word I could use,” he said. He felt that his student leaders, who originally worked on connecting more with the five Baptist churches in Kirksville, needed to be more purposeful for the 2001-2002 school year. After a planning retreat in the spring, where they decided that an outreach-oriented meeting was needed, the students took on Damascus Road as a challenge.
“We were best positioned to reach out,” Austin said.
Ever since then they have been working very hard.
“By the time the band rehearses, there’s five people that put in an hour or two a week,” Haffey said. “There’s a producer for every service who coordinates everything that happens and puts art pieces on video. Then you’ve got a speaker who spends 10 or 15 hours on a message and a team that previews that message.
“On Monday nights we have three hours of planning meetings. Advertising and the atmosphere team are under me-they’re the ones that set up tables and decorate. We recently did a service on Lord of the Rings, and I think that there were probably 100 to 150 hours put in alone, just on that team.”
Austin is quick to point out that what works in Kirksville will not necessarily work in other areas of the state. “Don’t copy us,” he says directly. However, in the vital area of evangelism, lessons of hard work and reaping what one sows are definitely transferable.
“To keep that outward focus in evangelism you just have to constantly keep it before people,” said Austin, who was a pastor for 10 years in Missouri before he became a campus minister. “Realize that doing evangelism takes a lot more energy because you don’t naturally want to do it. We are naturally selfish, so we naturally turn inward. It takes a ton of work to keep your outward focus.”
Austin, who is a member of Hamilton Street Baptist Church, said that all five Baptist churches in Kirksville financially support the BSU.
“I think we are more connected with local churches,” Austin said. “I know we’ve made a lot of attempts to do that, and they’ve made some.”