While the Buffalo, NY, area is most commonly known for its snow, it also feels like there is a very high concentration of colleges and universities, both public and private. For years before I came on staff at my current church, the congregation felt called to serve students at these universities, especially the University at Buffalo which is only about three miles from our building. As my internship year started in 2010, we began to explore what God’s call on campus might look like for us. It took nearly six years to discover, and finally last year UB Common Ground, our campus ministry, became an officially recognized ministry by the University and with LCMSU. It was a crazy journey, but here are a few things we learned about campus ministry along the way:
IT TAKES TIME; CLING TO THE CALL.
As I said, it took years to discern exactly where God was calling us. There were plenty of frustrating times along the way, but whenever we were tempted to give up and throw in the towel, we remembered God’s clear call to serve those students and make a difference on the university campus. Clinging to this gave us energy to persevere until He led us right into where He wanted us to be. Looking back now, if we would have tried to do what we are doing now five years ago, I don’t think it would have actually worked. God was preparing us, but also knew when this ministry would be most effective and influential on campus. College students today NEED Jesus. Don’t give up because it takes a long time or is hard!
DON’T BE AFRAID TO “FAIL.”
The craziest thing about what we now do on campus is that we stumbled into it out of a complete failure. We had a grand idea of a ministry that would meet a need on campus. We talked to students who thought it was awesome. We partnered with other ministries who were excited to get behind it. We did planning, preparation, training, and even got a grant to cover start-up costs. We stumbled through a few rough semesters trying to “give it time to grow” before deciding that showing up week after week with no students attending wasn’t the best use of our time or resources. Sitting there with grant money to spend by June on something related to college ministry, I just started asking students how we could serve them best near the end of the semester. Out of that failure we stumbled into one of our biggest ministry successes ever and ultimately God’s call.
FOCUS ON WHO NOT WHAT
Among other things, that “failure” taught us was to focus on “who” over “what.” We had a GREAT idea, but it wasn’t what students really needed. After talking with more students, we made a plan to use the rest of the grant money. The week before finals when students are most stressed, we set up a room with free coffee, bottled water, healthy snacks, and homemade cookies. Then, we just talked to whoever came in. A lot of amazing things had happened in the first five years I had been in ministry on campus, but I am not exaggerating at all when I say more happened in those five days than the five years before that. Lives were literally changed for eternity through God’s power that week. What started as simply “trying to be good stewards with our grant money” turned in to the biggest ministry opportunity we could imagine. Excited by that week we wondered what it might look like to have something similar regularly throughout the semester instead of just during the week before finals. The following fall we decided to test it out doing the same thing each Wednesday afternoon–setting up food and coffee, opening the door, and talking to whoever wandered in. God definitely showed up and so did the students. This type of ministry continues to this day as we start our fourth semester of what is now known as UB Common Ground.
UNPROGRAMED TIME IS A KEY ELEMENT.
What we do on campus may not work for others; every context is different and the audience you might be trying to reach could be very different than ours. One key element that we think could be beneficial to more ministries though is the concept of unprogrammed time. Bible studies, discipleship, and programs are all very helpful in outreach and discipleship. However, students are also looking for a space and a place to belong more than they’re looking for an event to attend, especially those who don’t yet know Jesus. UB Common Ground is attractive to college students for many reasons, one of which is that there isn’t guilt if they can only come for a few minutes or have to skip a week. They don’t feel like they’re “missing out” if they can only stop in, grab coffee, and run off to class. They still show up even if it’s for a short amount of time. The other beautiful thing we noticed in that first experimental week was that unprogrammed time allowed us to interact with students about the things that matter most to THEM. Instead of coming in with an agenda of a specific topic, we can listen to the student (and God’s Spirit) and watch for places where we can speak truth of God’s love and grace into parts of their lives that matter most.
HAVE IDEAS OF NEXT STEPS.
The “come and hang out and chat” time is great but anybody can do that. Our ultimate goals revolve around life change, discipleship, and people knowing Jesus. Students are looking and longing for next steps and we need to be prepared to walk with them or connect them to opportunities to take those steps. Whether it’s the non-Christian Chinese International Student studying literary history who would like to look at the Bible from a literary stand point or the all-their-life Christian struggling to make sense of their faith on a public university campus, we have to have ideas of how to help students take their next step. This is where the next point is crucial.
DON’T DO IT ALONE!
I realized from the beginning that if I wanted to truly make an impact on a campus of over 30,000 students, I wouldn’t be able to do it alone. I need other people, churches, and ministries to catch the vision and join in. Within our ministry itself this includes a team of over 30 people who serve in some way. Whether it’s donating cookies once a semester, showing up to spend time with the students each week, or being a faithful member of our prayer team, all work together and that’s when we are most effective in our ministry. We also have found it useful to connect with other campus ministries. We are meeting a need in a different way than they are on campus. For example, a student may not feel comfortable inviting their Buddhist roommate to their campus ministry’s worship night, but a good first step might be inviting them to stop and get free coffee from a group of Christians. On the flip side, our ministry leaders and volunteers are less prepared to disciple a group of international students than another Christian ministry who focuses on that demographic and pairs students with local Christians who speak their native language. Find the people who share common beliefs and vision and stick together. The Body of Christ is most effective when each part can own our own strengths and weaknesses and work together for the glory of God!
SHARE THE STORIES
I mentioned earlier that we have a prayer team. Each week we collect prayer requests from students in three ways: general conversations, a prayer box where they can write a request and leave it, or texting a phone number. We take the students’ requests along with any other prayers we have for the ministry that week and send it out to our prayer team. We also include stories of how God was at work that week, the first names of students who came by, and a thank you to the volunteers who served or donated. Sharing these stories and inviting others to pray over what God is doing in the lives of the students we interact with is exciting and reminds us why we do what we do. As more people hear of what God is doing in a ministry area, it starts to grow in ways you couldn’t even imagine. This year, before I even started asking for donations, a woman sent me a message that simply said, “I want to buy all the coffee you need for the year. Just tell me how many K-cups you think you’ll go through each semester and I’ll bring them by church.” This desire to join in carries over to students as well. Some of our “regulars” often show up early to help set up or refill the water pitchers when they see one empty. They’ve seen lives changed and are delighted to be part of it.
I end by coming back to what I started with: If God is calling you to reach out to college students, He will show you how! Keep your eyes on Him. Keep praying and inviting others to pray. Walk faithfully into whatever comes next. Every week I’m on campus I am reminded of this truth: these students need Jesus. The students in your communities do too. It’s a big task, but our God is already at work. We just get the joy of joining in!