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Interview with Bart Campolo

Interview | Campolo and his recruiters have trouble finding Christians willing to devote a year to urban ministry

Bart Campolo founded Mission Year, a long-term urban ministry, in the mid-1990s after a meeting with his father, Tony Campolo, and an anonymous philanthropist. Mission Year places 18 to 29 year olds in blighted urban neighborhoods for one year. Mission Year's motto, "Love God/Love People/Nothing Else Matters" seems like it would catch on in the evangelical world. Still, 10 years after the group's founding, Campolo and his recruiters have trouble finding Christians willing to devote a year to urban ministry.

WORLD: If you look at New Testament teaching, it seems fairly clear that we're to be oriented toward service to others. If that's the teaching, why doesn't our Christian culture reflect that?

Campolo: There's a long, proud strain of teaching in evangelical circles that economic success is an indicator of successfulness (i.e., the protestant work ethic). In the church you see a lot of emphasis on working hard and being successful and then sharing that blessing with the church. When I go to a Christian college, I find kids are very focused on getting a good job, finding a wife, buying a home. It seems like the American dream has become synonymous with the evangelical dream.

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If you go to a Christian college and talk to kids about taking a year and devoting it to mission work in the inner city before they go into the workforce, they often say, "Oh, that sounds wonderful. My parents would never let me do that." I think people know that if you let kids spend a year-the one-week mission trips are safe (you're always with the group, you're always playing with little kids)-living among the poor, two "terrible" things will happen. First, they will discover the injustice upon which their privilege is based. Second, they will start to feel the excitement of God using them to bless and transform the lives of other people. I think a lot of parents are maybe cognizant that if they let their kids experience service, they might not turn back.

WORLD: So it sounds like the parents are the people holding back enrollment in the program. Is there a common denominator among the parents who do see their kids get involved with Mission Year?

Campolo: There's another very real reason why parents don't want their kids to do something like Mission Year and it has nothing to do with their desire for their kids to be successful. And that is, they're scared. The inner city to them seems to be a very dangerous place and they love their kids and they don't want their kids to be in danger. And it's common for the kids who do come in to be scared also. So with most parents, their first question is, "Can you guarantee my kid's safety?" And of course, the answer is "No." But, I can't guarantee your kid's safety in Princeton, N.J., either. And in fact-if you really believe Jesus when He says don't fear that which can destroy your body, but be afraid of that which can destroy your soul-in some ways, Princeton, N.J., is a much more dangerous place. Your soul might have a better shot in our neighborhood.

Most kids who do Mission Year, do it with their parents' acceptance rather than approval. At some point, the parents tend to come around. They notice their kid has come alive and is passionate, like "He seems to have a sense of purpose I've never seen."

WORLD: I would guess that everyone who does Mission Year has a great experience. So why wouldn't more people want to do it?

Campolo: I don't think it's fair to say everyone has a great experience. The program is really stressful. First, it's a lot of work. But also you see a lot of struggle. You see a lot of bad stuff. In many ways, it's like climbing Mount Everest and passing people along the way. You can ask them if they're having a good time. They might say, "No, this is the hardest thing I've ever done." But at the end of it when they're back down in base camp, they'll say it was the greatest thing they ever did. Mission Year is a tough sled. Most everyone who does it will say it was the hardest year of their life. Many, many of them would also say it was the best year of their life.

The other thing is that Mission Year has a way of ripping away from people any illusions that they had about themselves. Our team members are living in a house in the inner city with five or six other young people. They're working hard and there's no television-there's nowhere to hide. If you've got an eating disorder, it's going to show up. If you're struggling with depression, it will be seen. For a lot of people, Mission Year is a crucible in which their issues finally emerge. So a lot of times they'll say it was a really hard experience, but it changed them.

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