Over the last three decades college campuses and cultures have changed more than nearly any other sub-culture in America. Schools offer more, enroll more, and cost more, while lowering the standards for students in most areas outside of the classroom. Through all of this change what remains true is the cultural variations from one campus to the next.
In our community we have six colleges and universities with extremely diverse cultures: a nationally recognized private university, a historically black university, a women’s college, a nationally known arts school, a small Christian college and a technical college. Making a list of the differences between these schools – all within 10 minutes of our church’s central campus – would take much longer than visiting all six in a single drive. So, with many unique demographics, how is it possible to reach the lost and mobilize ministry?
This dynamic keeps countless college ministry leaders like myself up at night. Do you target one school, hire staff to reflect the needs of each, or simply ignore the needs of all the campuses hoping someone shows up at your church?
Gospel ministry isn’t marketing, so why limit ourselves to one demographic on one campus? Your church budget is probably like ours – tight. Hiring more staff is certainly out of the question.
The average college student won’t happen upon our church campus. The question becomes, “What is an effective college ministry to do?”
Determining our efforts requires careful consideration of our purpose. Only then can we establish the appropriate steps forward in our context to maximize our effectiveness. What then, is the purpose for your college ministry?
Reach the lost. The Bible demands it, and the growth of the church hinges on it. Everyone must be sharing the gospel. This requires us to provide a place where lost students can come and to be where lost students are.
Don’t worry college pastors, this doesn’t mean you need to go to frat parties. But it does mean you might need to buy a parking pass, stay up until 1 a.m. or cheer against your favorite school as you discover intentional ways and reasonable environments to engage.
Equip the saints. Ephesians 4:12 clarifies our role as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers is to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” That means investing, counseling, guiding, challenging, teaching and modeling what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ – no matter the environment or vocation.
Sometimes this will be the difficult rebuke of a student walking in open sin, and sometimes it means the vulnerability of allowing a college student to be the teacher. This won’t be a program with a date of completion, either. This will be needed until the day we enter eternity, for as Paul says in Ephesians 4:13, this continues, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ …”
Honestly, this is harder than reaching the lost, but it seems to be one of the most widely missing elements among struggling churches.
Celebrate sending. There are times I wish I could stand as Moses did before Pharaoh with a message from God and say to pastors, “Let My people go!” Too many tears have been cried, hearts been broken and feelings been hurt over the natural transitions that come in life.
What if we began celebrating sending students to graduate programs in different parts of the country or the world? What if we began celebrating students transferring to another school or spending a summer, semester or year studying abroad?
What if we understood our white-knuckled grip on “our” students caused them and us tremendous heartache, when God intends for us to not only expect them to leave, but to actually encourage them to go?
Let’s face it, rarely does anyone under the age of 30 stay in the same place for an extended period of time. Recent reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest the average length of time an American holds a particular job is 4.4 years and the number cuts in half when looking at an organization’s youngest employees.
To not encourage and celebrate sending is to miss both the reality of our culture and the mandate of scripture.
If there is any hope of having effective college ministries in our churches – no matter how many schools are in your community or demographics are represented at each school – we must begin with what our purpose is and continue to revisit it often in order to measure what we are doing.
Out of the mandates for the church, we learn ministry. Learn your cultures and activate this mission mandate for all ministry.
From these intentional efforts our college ministries will experience the flourishing He desires for His Kingdom.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Steven Ackley is associate pastor of college & young adults at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.)