By MARILYN TINNIN
David and Meg Robbins spent three years of their early married life working with college students at the University of Georgia. They spent four more years overseeing the 48 Campus Crusade for Christ (renamed Cru in 2011) college ministries across the Southeastern region. Counting their own college experience, these Ole Miss graduates spent a total of 12 years in daily contact with the collegiate scene. They have observed dramatic changes in every aspect of that specific culture, and along the way, they developed an appreciation for the unique challenges as well as a deep love for the “Millennial” generation.
That group encompasses all those born between 1980 and 2000. They have come of age in a chaotic era of increasing violence, few moral absolutes, rapid and expansive technological transformation, a secular humanistic education system, and society’s subtle message that Christianity is not so relevant to real life anymore. Is it any wonder that so many of them depart the traditional church somewhere around age 15, and more than half of them do not return when college ends? In this competitive, dog-eat-dog world, climbing their career ladder takes center stage. The Barna Group calls them the “exiles.”
Who better for God to call to a unique ministry to just that age group in New York City but this couple who share a common purpose? They sealed their marriage vows with the scripture in Joshua 1:16, “All that you have commanded us we will do and wherever you send us we will go.”
A Change of Plans
Meg and David spent a year as part of a Cru team in central Italy and decided to live there long term to serve at the University of Pisa. They came back to the states to train, to raise their support, and to convince their families that this was exactly where God was leading them. They were excited about living abroad and intended to raise their future children there.
And then God intervened. Five months into their work in Pisa, and after Meg had become quite proficient with the language; David received a call from the Cru leadership back in the U.S. asking them to consider serving at the University of Georgia. Their initial reaction was, “That is crazy! We had put so much time and effort into getting where we were—telling everyone we were so called to this!” Meg says.
After much persuasion, they reluctantly agreed to at least pray about it. The Lord taught them much in that situation, the first thing being that He is the one with the plan—not them. The unique thing in having a ministry as a couple is the fact that they are a true team in every sense of the word. This baffling situation was a great test for their future ministry together as they prayed independently, and over a period of days, they both discerned that God was indeed leading them to go back to Georgia even though neither of them was just in love with the idea. There was some grief and a few “Why God?” questions in the mix.
But God was ready for all their confusion. Any worries like, “Oh, no. We convinced other people to come to Italy because we are going and now we are going home” vanished as all those people they had recruited still wanted to go to Italy regardless of whether David and Meg were there.
“Not only did they want to come,” says David, “but they all brought other people with them!”
The lesson for Meg and David was that God was definitely able to accomplish whatever He wanted to accomplish and nothing in His purpose was dependent on their gifts or abilities. He was the “One who is able to do exceedingly abundantly…”
Italy had made so much sense to them, but then, the University of Georgia made sense, too. A southern campus with demographics much like their alma mater, Ole Miss, meant an immediate understanding of the student population, the likely mix of churched and some unchurched students, and a pretty accurate idea of what issues were the toughest for most of them. So, they settled in and began to build friendships and see the ministry flourish.
Any lingering questions about why God had called them home from Italy became abundantly clear with Meg’s pregnancy a few months later. An early sonogram revealed the likelihood that their baby boy would be born with Cystic Fibrosis. Here they were at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta where they would have access to the very best and the newest and most effective care for a CF baby—something that they would not have had in Italy.
“That was a huge gift,” says Meg. “We do feel like that was definitely the reason why the Lord brought us back.”
Ford Robbins was born on August 15, 2006. And, yes, he does have Cystic Fibrosis—and yes, there have been some challenges in that. Did Ford’s diagnosis ever cause them to think maybe they should not pursue ministry? They did not see it that way at all. Instead, they viewed the care and the early intervention—that occurred BECAUSE they were where they were—has given Ford a “leg up” in so many ways. And so they have grateful hearts.
Today, as a six year old, when he goes to his periodic checkups, he seems to have become quite a “poster child” for the amazing strides that are happening every day, improving the quality of life for CF children and moving ever closer to a cure. Meg says that doctors always want to invite colleagues and students to see Ford because he is thriving so beautifully.
The Preparation and the Call
The University of Georgia proved to be another point of preparation as God continued to connect Meg and David with collegiate millennials who were just a few years younger than they were— and yet living in a culture that seemed to have changed and continued to change on a daily basis.
One of the primary things David learned: “You can assume deep wounds with this generation. They have been exposed to so much. Whether it’s family hurt or dysfunction of some kind—they have the internet in their hands, the sexual experimentation. So much—and it’s all extreme.”
David and Meg share that on summer projects they would often do anonymous Q&A Twenty Questions. It is an icebreaker of sorts and a way to get the kids talking about specific issues. Questionnaires are passed around and answered anonymously, then shuffled, passed out again and students raise their hand based on the questionnaire they were given. No names. No identities. But a revealing look into the habits, regrets, secrets, and regular lifestyle of so many collegiates.
“Mind-boggling,” is the way Meg describes it.
When David assumed the role as Regional Director for the Southeast, his one-on-one contact with collegiates may have been curtailed, but his constant contact with the leaders on 48 campuses where Cru had a presence continued to impress on him the challenges and the complexities that this group—younger by a mere decade—face.
There came a point during David’s stint as Regional Director when he and Meg began to really miss being on the front lines in ministry. They had added a daughter, “Mim,” and a second son, “Roe,” to the family. Life was good. It was very comfortable, and as Meg says, “We just began to question if this was really where we were supposed to be.”
“We just related so to Abraham during that time,” Meg says. They knew God was stirring their hearts, but they had no idea what was going to come next. Walking by faith in 2012 did indeed look a lot like it looked for Abraham in 1500 BC. They told the Cru leadership that they were leaving. They began to pack up their home and put it on the market— although they were not sure where they were going at first.
“We were trying to fill in the blanks,” said David. He and Meg spent untold hours in prayer. They reviewed the core principles they had written down together when they returned from Italy seven
years earlier. At the time, they had agreed that those principles were to define their ministry and family over the next decade. Had they stayed on course?
“One of those values was to surrender completely to something that there was no way we could do on our own, but only because it was God’s movement,” David says.
The Heart for the City
In reviewing those principles, they were reminded of their initial hope to live in an international context. The pieces began to fit.
“We thought we were coming home from overseas temporarily when we left Italy. Then Ford was born and we thought hopefully medicine would advance to a point that we could still go overseas one day. And, in a way, our prayers are answered because we are definitely going to a different culture. It is just not across the ocean,” he says.
Doors opened quickly once the New York City decision was made. They would NOT be leaving Cru at all, but instead accepted the invitation to be part of a small team moving to NYC to launch something brand new. CruNYC is an outreach to millennials, the very age group David and Meg had so poured their lives into during their years in campus ministry.
In the middle of the worst housing market in modern history, their four-bedroom house sold quickly. Close friends offered temporary quarters living in a basement apartment, while Meg and David stored their belongings until they secured a place to live in the city. It seemed a lot like a great adventure for a few weeks, and David sees that as one of God’s many gracious preparations. By the time they left there and finally moved into their very small two bedroom apartment in New York City, the family was accustomed to living in close quarters.
A second unexpected blessing was a phone call they received in the fall before they were scheduled to leave for New York City in December. Although they were completely surrendered to God’s call to serve in New York City, they had some degree of anxiety about the brutal New England winter and the effect it might have on Ford’s CF.
Ford’s doctor confirmed that Ford’s genetic test results made him one of a minute percentage of pediatric patients who would likely respond favorably to a new drug that vastly improved the immune systems of CF patients. With Kalydeco, the doctor explained, Ford’s response to the hard winter should be no worse than that of his very healthy siblings. Five months later, after an unusually cold and wet season, David says Ford’s good health has just been one more way God has blessed their move.
The Robbins family arrived in the city the second week in December. They had several weeks to explore the city, and enjoy the novelty of a totally new way of life before school started for Ford, and the ministry was launched. From adjusting to walking everywhere—and not even owning a car—to the challenge of grocery shopping and figuring out how to get the items from the store back to the apartment on foot with three little people in tow, there have been a myriad of adjustments! And as Meg says, “We are still trying to figure out some things!”
Meg and David are part of a very small team. They have another full-time teammate and one part-time teammate. But it is amazing in this era of social media the outreach these four have already had.
Prior to their January launch, they had used social media to connect with NYC-bound Cru graduates from an array of colleges and universities letting them know about this new thing that would be starting in New York City. Through word of mouth and the amazing networking that is hallmark of millinneals, the team has a core group of about 60 people with whom David says they are cultivating “significant” relationships.
Their ministry team has put together an impressive website, www.Flourishingcity.com, geared toward answering the questions millennials in transition ask—both practical and spiritual. The romanticized notion of living in the grand city can fall short of expectation in the middle of some pretty overwhelming adjustments. David and Meg see that as one of those crisis moments when many hearts are seeking the safe place that is Christ. There is an opportunity and a desire amid the discomfort to seek true security in a way that one may not have done in a previous life. The website even has an entire page of insider tips on everything from finding the right apartment to interviewing a potential roommate. After reading that, who wouldn’t want to connect with these wizards who had figured out so much of the nitty-gritty? There is contact information, a blog, and a weekly devotional—and it is all done in a way that is very low key, but honest.
David points out that traditional approaches used by churches and ministries in the past have been discipleship through events and programs rather than through relationships. That does not work with this generation. Cru’s research revealed seven out of ten 22-32 year olds will not accept an invitation to a Christian event—many believing they’ve been there, done that—but at the same time they are very “community” minded and eager to join in a cause to benefit someone else. The Cru team builds a ministry through relational networks and shared projects, seeing themselves as a sort of bridge back to the church over time.
To David, success is defined, not in terms of how large the gathering was, but how large was the “scattering.” As he and Meg attempt to live “incarnationally” as he puts it—that would be in a true Christ-like manner—their belief is that they will gain the trust of those they seek to serve as they show up as friends loving them where they are, and trusting that God will open the doors to a deeper conversation.
They know it works because they have already seen it.
Thursday nights are part of their “Third Space” approach. People have work friends, church friends, and even work-out-at-the-gym friends. A casual dinner at David and Meg’s on Thursday nights gives believers a chance to invite their friends to a place where the only agenda is making friends. There are no gospel presentations there, but easy conversation, a lot of networking, and a lot of relationships move to a little deeper level where friends begin to share their heart.
There is nothing forced, but God has already opened so many doors. One unbeliever who came with her friend has become a regular, but when she left the first night she was so amazed and not offended, because of the easy flow format. She asked David, “Do you know all these people?”
He said, “No, but I am definitely getting to know them.”
She said, “Well, I just never heard people talk like that and there is something unique about them.” Her curiosity was piqued, but she was not intimidated. She has become a regular.
David has some amazing stories of the opportunities that continue to present themselves—not just for him—but for the Cru graduates who have connected with them and been able to keep the flame burning in their own hearts in a way that has enabled them to pay attention to their co-workers and their other connections.
There is a little revival there in the heart of Manhattan. I mean, if Jesus could turn the world upside down with his ragtag group of disciples, who’s to say a revival can’t happen in New York City?