Student returns after semester of ministry in New England

PLAINVIEW - For many college students, putting off their final semester before graduation would be unheard of. But for Steve Howe, it was simply a matter of following God's call.

Howe, a senior religion major at Wayland Baptist University, returned in January from a semester missions venture in Massachusetts. A native of Buda, Howe spent his semester on the other side of the desk, serving as a collegiate minister at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

The idea for the trip came last spring after a guest speaker at a Wayland worship service spoke on the need for ministry workers in New England, specifically Connecticut.

"I'd never really thought about that area, but I really felt like God was laying it on my heart," Howe said. Though he'd be putting off his last semester of school - delaying graduation by six months - Howe said he "kept feeling like God wanted me there."

He registered with Go Now Missions, a project of the Texas Baptist Student Ministries office of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and planned on heading to Connecticut. No positions in that area were available, however, but with Howe intent on his calling, the BSM office found a position for him in Massachusetts.

During his semester at Clark, Howe was one of four collegiate ministers working with the Worcester Collegiate Christian Network, working with seven of the twelve universities in the town.

The experience was definitely an eye-opener for Howe, who had been active in the BSM at Wayland and was familiar with its programs and ministries.

"There was no real program there like we're used to. Here, we rely heavily on our programs to get students to come hear the message," he said. "Without programs, though, it forces you to get out where all the students are."

To that end, Howe said his typical day involved spending a few hours in the cafeteria just visiting with students and building relationships. In the afternoons, he'd set up in the common areas and play his guitar. He said at first he wondered about his effectiveness, but later realized the methods were necessary in this culture so different from his own.

"People would come up eventually and ask me why I wasn't in classes or what I was doing and I got a chance to say, 'Funny you should ask.' and tell them a little about what I was there for," Howe said.

Howe helped with a biweekly service called "Ignite," which rotated between different university campuses in order to involve more students. Sometimes the service followed a traditional worship format, while other times it featured a coffeehouse format or a discussion session. He also held a Bible study on campus one night a week, featuring topical lessons of relevance to students.

But in retrospect, Howe said one of the most effective evangelistic tools employed was holding jam sessions in one of the campus dorms, playing along with one of the Christian student leaders. In between their sets of secular music and popular tunes, Howe said they'd sneak in a worship song or two, which was a "very non-threatening presentation of the gospel." The sessions gave them a chance to visit afterward with curious bystanders or dorm residents.

Howe said the biggest lessons he learned involved realizing how different religion is viewed in different parts of the country.

"Some are really jaded toward Christianity because they see some who are supposed to be Christians but don't live like it," he said. "At Clark, they're pretty liberal and open minded, which just means they'll listen to what you say but they don't want you to push anything on them.

"Absolute truth is not a popular idea to talk about, so we had to be really tactful when we presented the gospel. God really convicted me about my mindset about other religions and having a greater sensitivity toward people who aren't Christians."

Howe said the semester confirmed for him a calling to collegiate ministry which he had felt for some time, though God reworked his ideas of what all that entailed. He also had to come to a realization that numbers in ministry were not what counted, and that God had bigger plans than humans could accomplish alone.

"You walk in thinking that you're going to do all these great things, but I think I came away receiving more than I gave away," he said. "God really reduced me to the place where I realized I'm just a guy trying to reach out and not judge people."

Howe said he found solace in knowing that he had helped disciple student leaders on the Clark campus that will be able to make an impact long after he's gone. But he hasn't completely ruled out the idea of returning to the area when he graduates in May. And whether he chooses that route or opts to continue his education at seminary, Howe knows that God has given him a new passion for college ministry.