Comedy on Campus

A Man, A Plan, A Guitar: Shelby Abbott motivates students to be bold and reach out.

Jonathan Moynihan
Photos by Guy Gerrard

Buzzing with side conversations and eager to laugh, students of George Mason University await Cru's stand up comedian.

Shelby Abbott takes the stage. Dressed in a checkered shirt and faded khakis, the 33-year-old starts his routine with a question.

"How many of you are in college?"

Everyone raises his or her hands, some chuckle at the obviousness of his question.

"Ok, good," he says. "I'm in the right place."

Ever since 2001, Shelby has become somewhat of a celebrity among students. Many just call him "The MC" as he's been the master of ceremonies for Cru's national spring break conference in Panama City Beach, Fla., for the past 10 years.

Whether he's in his local region or a nationwide event, Shelby uses his comedic timing, quick wit and musical parodies to fill conference halls with laughter and excitement.

"The times that I really feel alive are when I speak, when I do [evangelism] training, and when I emcee and make people laugh," he says.

It was these gifts and passions that led him to create a brand new strategy, within the U.S. Campus Ministry, centered on training students in evangelism through the medium of comedy and humor.

Shelby travels to campuses all over Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania performing 1-hour shows title "Shelby's Entertaining Seminar," designed to motivate students in the area of evangelism.

Through storytelling, stand-up comedy and videos, Shelby offers students a fresh perspective while challenging them to be bold and intentional when reaching out to their friends on campus.

"So many of us live in the Christian hot tub," Shelby explains. This is a concept he discusses during his seminars.

"It's warm, we're all together, and we don't want to step outside of it because we're alone, and it's cold out there. But if you look at Jesus' ministry, it was outside the hot tub."

Shelby loves making people laugh, but for all his silliness, he's thinking strategically.

"Humor has a unique ability to break down walls and lower defenses in a way that no other form of communication can do," he says. "Humor is such a common language; it makes sense to connect with students in a way that will eventually inspire them to tell others about Jesus."

After a school schedules Shelby for one of his "Entertaining Seminars," he contacts student leaders to meet before and after each show.

Usually at a coffee shop or local restaurant, Shelby engages with the ministry's leaders to discuss how they can increase the movement's effectiveness and excitement for evangelism while receiving feedback about the show. Shelby knows there's always room to improve.

The hour-long seminar climaxes when Shelby challenges each student to make a list of 10 friends who don't know Jesus, and think of practical ways to converse with them about their faith. "If they can't make a list of 10 names, I ask them 'Why not?'"

After the show, Shelby remains "in character" while talking to students and answering questions. His on-stage persona, a throwback to his former self as a freshman in college, continues joking with students and making them laugh after the initial performance has ended.

Only after the show the next morning, when he meets with student leaders, does he turn off the stage personality.

Shelby startles people by the striking contrast between his reserved offstage character and the boisterous, outgoing man-up front.

If met in passing, few would suspect him of willingly shaving his legs on camera, or serenading 1,000 college students while lip-synching to Michael Bolton's How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?

Some of his most successful material comes from his song parodies, which can be seen on the online video-serving network, YouTube. One parody to the tune of David Archuleta's Crush, about overzealous single men in pursuit of romance, received more than 12,000 hits.

However, the success of his shows and performances are only a means to an end, he says.

The seminar's influence long exceeds Shelby's presence thanks to the distributed content that's given to small groups on campus.

"He has a Bible study that goes right along with it. We did it in the immediate weeks following the show," says Mary Sarah Kneebone, a graduate from Salisbury University who attended the seminar at her fall retreat in 2009. "By him providing that outside resource, it really helped him make a bigger impact."

The study reflects specifically on the points discussed in Shelby's seminar. Designed to motivate and challenge, it leads students through 2 Corinthians 5:10-21 and opens them up to face their fears and hesitations about evangelism.

Hosting Shelby's seminar was a key component of her campus' increase passion for evangelism, says Mary Sarah.

"Using comedy to address the topic that is somewhat daunting -- it made it so it seems everyone can do it."

Hoping to branch out, Shelby has begun to visit schools outside the Mid-Atlantic area. With shows scheduled in North Dakota and Michigan, "The MC" seeks to broaden his area of influence in order to better serve the U.S. Campus Ministry and train students in effective evangelism.

"It's less about the performance, and more about helping students advance their existing evangelism movements on campus," he says.

"I'm not the answer to solve a campus' evangelism woes, but if I can come in and spur them on with accountability and intentionality when thinking about being outside the Christian bubble, I've done my job."

When it comes to reaching the world for Christ, Cru's funny man means business. 

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