For many churches college ministry seems like a daunting challenge. After all, college students keep weird hours, have loads of course work to keep up with, and have the strangest diet. Although no one would argue the validity of that description of the American college student, ministry targeted to them and outreach for them is not and should not be optional for the church.
According to the LCMS campus ministry website:
Approximately 18 million students are pursuing post-secondary degrees on college and university campuses across the United States. Many have faith that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of a lost and sinful world; many–that is, millions–do not. Of these 18 million people, probably about 100,000 are baptized and confirmed members of Missouri-Synod Lutheran congregations. They are attending college close to their homes or far away from their homes and home congregations.
College is a crossroads; it’s a place where a person’s faith can be challenged and allowed to weaken–or be stretched and built up. Students in college who are already Christians are ripe for developing a deeper relationship with Christ. Those students who do not yet know Jesus as their Savior are asking the questions and seeking in ways that can lead them to Him if someone is there to show them.
College students are not the church of the future but they are a vital part of the body now. However, like some aspects of our own personal bodies they are far too often neglected for a plethora of reasons that we can dream up and use as ammunition to fuel our negligence.
Mark Twain once said that there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics”. That being said, it is hard to deny the recent research that is out regarding the American college student and young adult. In a Barna Group research study of “twenty-somethings” in 2006 they found that the majority of students who grew up in the church or had church connection in high school had a drop off in their church connection while in college:
In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twenty-somethings–61% of today’s young adults–had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one-fifth of twenty-somethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. Another one-fifth of teens (19%) were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.
Statistical data and others like it can scare off churches from attempting ministry to college students instead of emboldening them to step up to the challenge that the church faces in regard to this demographic. This generation of college students are as complex and varied in their beliefs and religious practices as ever before. Ministry to and for college students therefore is messy, complex, and there is no one right or wrong way to go about this endeavor.
Often what does occur when congregations decide to launch a college ministry is that it becomes an “add on” to the already overloaded job description of a person on the church staff, most likely the DCE or pastor. The reality is that most churches cannot afford a full-time (or even part-time) college minister and most college campuses do not have a Lutheran campus ministry, much less a Lutheran campus pastor. What then occurs is that the college ministry becomes relegated to the back burner of the priorities of the church, leaving it under-funded and under-exposed to the larger congregation, and students never really feel like part of the larger body of Christ.
So, for a congregation looking to launch a ministry to college students, where do they begin? How can a church begin to tackle the range of complex issues and logistics that comes with the territory of college ministry? The following are some helpful tips when thinking about college ministry. This is by no means the “end all” list of what to do, but it is meant to stir some thoughts regarding this matrix called college ministry.
MAKE COLLEGE MINISTRY A “TOP DOWN” EFFORT
For a college ministry to succeed in growing disciples and sowing gospel seeds on local campuses, it cannot be the job of one person in the church. College students need to not only feel connected to the group targeted for them, but they also need to be a growing, contributing part of the larger congregation. The ministry must have buy-in from the senior pastor, church council, elders, and even the janitorial staff!
Most college students are already hesitant to try out new churches, and it is crucial to create a welcoming environment and community for them to feel connected. This happens from the pulpit to the pews and all the spaces in between. It has to be an attitude of the congregation that college students are welcome and invited into this place, that they will be supported and encouraged in their faith walk during this time of their lives. A college ministry that is a compartment within a department is doomed from the start.
BUILD AN ARMY OF MINISTERS
This goes hand in hand with the previous point of a “top down” effort. The college ministry cannot be the job or responsibility of one single person. The need is too great and the effort to begin and maintain a ministry of any kind is too large for one minister to handle. Before launching a college ministry the point person must rally members in the congregation who have a heart for college students to be a part of this new journey. Time needs to be taken to train, empower, disciple, and release this army of ministers to answer the call of reaching out to college students. Paint a vision for the future that the volunteers can attain to and be excited about. It is as important to pour into this team as it is to pour into the college students themselves.
KNOW YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE
Not every community has a large state or private university located within the area. Every community, however, does have college-aged students living within the area. It is important to know who your target audience is and where they are. If there is a large college campus in the area then go there and get to know the campus. If there is a “spiritual life director” or campus chaplain, make contact with them and glean from their knowledge of the student body. If other churches in the area have an established college ministry, talk with some of their leaders about their perspective of the local college ministry needs. Some universities have “church fairs” on campus, giving local churches the opportunity to set up booths on campus to meet students. Churches can also request a list of LCMS students who are going away to college and have filled out a “Student Connect” form on the LCMS campus ministry website (lcmscampusministry.org). Get in touch with the students who might be moving to your area for college and begin to form a relationship with them even before classes begin.
PREPARE THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS IN YOUR CHURCH FOR COLLEGE
This may not seem like a way to launch a college ministry in your church but it is important that we think in a broader sense than the walls of our church building. By preparing the high school students in your church for college you are impacting college ministry on a Kingdom level. Host events where educators and people in higher education can come and talk with families about how to get into college, how to apply for financial aid, how to narrow your college choices and what to expect during the college years. All of these can seem overwhelming to both parents and students, and creating opportunities for families to not only talk about this but actually work together on these items are huge blessings.
When students begin to make their college selections, set up times to meet with them and help them find a campus ministry and church they can connect with even before they leave home. Have some opportunities either on Sunday morning or mid-week to meet with seniors with the intention to prepare them for the college transition. Encourage students to attend a church at least three times before they make a decision whether or not to join. Helping your student’s transition to college is the best way to strengthen college ministries around the country.
BEGIN AND END WITH PRAYER
The Lord tells us in James 4 that, “You quarrel and you fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives.” Too often churches dive into ministry efforts because it seems like the popular thing to do, or out of some misplaced guilt put upon them by someone or some idea. Before beginning anything, begin with earnest prayer and a leading from the Spirit. Ask the Lord for guidance, vision, and the workers for the harvest. Do not try to make your college ministry look like the ministry across town or the one that you have seen on the internet. Jesus has called and gifted each church body in different and unique ways. Do not neglect the call to college ministry but be faithful to the Lord above all else. Devote yourselves to prayer in this matter, seek first His Kingdom and God will be faithful to lead.
College is a time of deep exploration and for many a time of soul searching and truth seeking. Churches need to be prepared to reach out to college students, answer the questions that they have, provide a family for them to be active and involved with, and encourage them in their spiritual journey from adolescence to adulthood. If churches answer this call then the Bride of Christ in America will be stronger in the future than it is currently and shine like the beacon of grace, hope, and truth that it was created to be.