For the past seven years I have been the college pastor at Grace Bible Church in College Station. Over the years our church has been blessed with thousands of students from both Texas A&M University and Blinn College. Roughly half of our congregation consists of university students, and our year ebbs and flows according to the school calendar. While Easter Sunday is the biggest week for many churches, our biggest week is the first Sunday of a new fall semester. It's a unique and wonderful ministry environment.
When I speak with other pastors and church leaders, they often express a reluctance to invest ministry resources in college students. Some feel that parachurch ministries are adequately caring for college students, making church-based college ministry redundant. Others worry that college students will create a strain on their facilities and staff without giving much in return. The rationale is that students are notoriously poor givers, since they don't have steady incomes. Finally, others agree that college ministry would be productive, but they simply can't find the time and energy to reach out to the campus when there are so many other needy people right on their doorstep.
While not every church is in a position to minister to university students (especially those in very rural areas), there are a number of compelling reasons that churches ought to at least consider reaching the campus:
Most major missionary movements and revivals in history began on campus. Martin Luther's college education in Wittenburg was critical to the start of the Reformation. In the United States, the earliest missionary movements were driven by college students. If you want to know more about the influence of students on the spiritual life of our nation, read about the Haystack Prayer Meeting and the Student Volunteer Movement. College students are passionate and excited about knowing Jesus, and they tend to produce positive change. They often create messes, and they can cause headaches for churches that are set in their ways, but they can also bring a dying congregation to life again. By investing in students, you might just be a part of the next great movement of God in the world.
2. Students are in the midst of major life decisions. We have the opportunity to help them make these decisions in God-honoring ways! During college many of them will choose a career, a spouse, and a worldview. They will decide if walking with Christ is going to be their main priority or not. The Church is often absent from the lives of students during these critical four years. As a result, many students emerge from college with the mindset of the world around them. We can challenge them to pursue Jesus instead of pleasure, money, or personal glory.
3. College students are willing and able to learn. They sit in classes all day long absorbing information, so students are already pre-programmed to listen and to learn. Have you had a hard time getting your congregation interested in studying the Bible? Sprinkle in some college students and see what happens. You can usually spot a college student in church because he or she is avidly taking notes and rushing to ask the pastor theological questions after church. They create a climate of learning in a church that can be infectious.
4. College students are eager to serve. While students do not always give a great deal of money to the church, they more than make up for it through service. The nursery at our church is almost entirely staffed by college students. When we opened a second church site a few years ago, students did the bulk of the heavy lifting and manual labor. If you make opportunities available to them, students will nearly always rise to the occasion.
5. Students are not only the leaders of the future- they can be leaders right now! Gone are the days in which the leadership of our culture was over 40 years old. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was only 19 when he started the company. His concept has changed (for better or for worse) the way we communicate and relate to another. In many ways he is an anomaly, but the concept of youthful leadership is not an unusual one right now. Men and women between 18 and 25 may not be political leaders, but they are the cultural leaders of our country. Do we want them to lead people toward Jesus or away from Him?
6. Parachurch ministries are valuable, but do not provide everything. University parachurch ministries teach students to share their faith, make disciples, and they even serve many functions traditionally performed by the church. However, they do not usually provide students with a full picture of the body of Christ, since their attendance is relatively homogenous in terms of age, socioeconomic status, and stage of life. Students benefit greatly from interaction with saints from across the spectrum of life, and the local church is able to provide that. In addition, when students graduate from college, their transition to walking the Lord in the "real world" is usually much easier if they have been involved in a local church during the college years. For most students, parachurch opportunities fade after college, and local churches are the way for them to find Christian community. We can help them develop a healthy understanding of church during their time in college.
So do you think your church would benefit from university ministry? Are there students in your area who would benefit from involvement in a healthy church? In the past few years, more and more churches have begun to hire college pastors and to add university ministry to their list of priorities. It's exciting to see churches begin to take an interest in this vital segment of the community. In a future post, I hope to share a bit about how to get the process started for those who might be interested in starting a church-based college ministry.