2. How to Start
In the previous article I discussed how college ministry can be a blessing to your church and to the students who participate in the ministry. In this article I will describe a few thoughts for how to get a church-based college ministry started. Although every church and context is different, there are a few general principles that will hopefully be effective anywhere.
1. Seek to gain the active support of key church leadership. Although this is true for the success of any ministry in the church, it is particularly critical for college ministry. On the surface, college students appear to be a drain to the church's resources, so it is important to explain to your leadership that university ministry is an investment. If the elders and other ministry leaders are enthusiastic and vocal about college students, it will likely thrive because they will arrange church resources to accommodate them. If they are opposed to it or even indifferent, the college ministry will likely die an early and painful death. In some exceptional cases, college ministries thrive numerically without the support of key leadership, but the students suffer because they have little interaction with the church as whole. On the other hand, when the elders and key leaders are in support of the ministry, the adults and students develop a nice symbiotic relationship. Students bring energy and passion, and adults bring maturity and wisdom.
2. Do a bit of research. Presumably you already know which colleges and universities are within a few miles of your church. Students are as diverse as adults in their interests, personalities, and needs. Different colleges tend to attract different types of students, and the students tend to group themselves by affinity. Does the college near your church consist primarily of conservative engineering students, free-spirited art students, international students, local commuter students, or a combination of all of these? Knowing this information will help as you determine how to structure your group meetings and what sort of programs will interest the students who attend.
It also helps to talk with other churches and ministries in your area who are engaged in college ministry. In my town there are at least four or five large churches and dozens of parachurch ministries reaching out to college students, so we are careful not to recreate the wheel. Through prayer and counsel, figure out a niche that your church can meet. One church I know of in a major urban area is right across the street from a university that consists largely of international students. Their college ministry will naturally look different from the church across the street from the wealth private school on the other side of town. Developing friendships with other ministry leaders and knowing each one's unique contribution can help prevent the jealousy and competition that often marks church and parachurch relationships.
3. Recognize that you might have to make an initial investment of resources. Most churches develop children and youth ministries by necessity, since families attend the church expecting a ministry to their kids. College ministry is a bit different - most college students will not attend at all unless they already know that a ministry exists for them and their fellow students. Students are highly influenced by word of mouth, so they tend to go to churches that actively communicate that students are valued. Although it happens occasionally, it's rare for a church to be overwhelmed with university students and forced to hire staff to meet the need. In most cases, if you wish to commit to student ministry, you will need to invest in some staff and physical resources up front. This can be as simple as a part-time seminary student who is willing to go to campus several times a week to meet students and share the Gospel. The meeting space can simply be a small classroom or even an on-campus location that you rent once a week for meetings. The point is that student ministry is proactive rather than reactive - it is a wonderful outreach opportunity but it will require some initial investment before seeing obvious results.
4. Get onto campus. Find the most popular dining and meeting places on campus and be visible there. If the college will allow, set up a table with information or allow your Bible studies to operate on campus under the umbrella of a student organization. If your church is starting a brand new college ministry, the leader or adult staff will probably need to be on campus nearly every day meeting students and sharing the Gospel. Doing so will be the most effective way of drawing in new students, and it sets a pattern of evangelism and outreach from the beginning of your ministry. If the ministry is established, the leadership still needs to be visible on campus at least once or twice each week. The campus is your mission field, so it is critical that you spend regular time there. Never allow your more mature students to forget that we are constantly called to invest in reaching out to others for the sake of the Gospel. Remind them to constantly be sharing with their friends on campus and seeking to draw them into discipleship and community with other believers.
5. Emphasize discipleship. This may seem like an obvious point to those in church ministry (based on Matthew 28:18-20), but it is easy to get sidetracked. Although many national parachurch ministries gain attention by focusing on large gatherings of students, the local church is usually more effective with small group and individual discipleship. A large gathering might be a necessary component of your college ministry, but the emphasis should always be on drawing them toward smaller contexts where they can be intentionally discipled. If students attend a wonderful worship service and hear a gifted teacher but are never given an opportunity to grow in a smaller setting, they will flounder once they finish college. The goal is to train them to study the Scripture, share their faith, practice spiritual disciplines, and worship Jesus. None of those goals are most effectively accomplished in a large meeting, although the large meeting might be their first taste of the discipleship process.
6. If you have a large group meeting, make it excellent but not cheesy. High quality music and teaching makes a difference. You don't need to hire a rock star to lead worship or a highly polished conference speaker, but you do want people who take their teaching and music seriously and are gifted in those roles. If you take shortcuts in your preparation or delivery, students will notice and be turned off. On the other hand, if you are over-the-top or condescending, they will be turned off as well. The goal is to aim for a large-group experience that is biblically sound, honest and sincere, and well-executed. For better or worse, students are bombarded with Hollywood-caliber presentations all day long, so their expectations are high. You do not need to cater to their entertainment mindset by being showy, but poor quality will not afford you a hearing with them.
7. Provide opportunities for significant service and leadership. At Grace all of our college small groups and service teams are led by students. The students are trained and directed by one of the pastors, but they have the real opportunity to disciple and influence their fellow students. Although they are young, many students are gifted and able to lead. In addition they have the benefit of participating in a leadership laboratory of sorts - we create a safe environment in which failure is not devastating and is even expected to a degree. When failure happens we have the chance to follow up with students in order to encourage them and help them do better the next time. With proper oversight and evaluation, they can emerge from college confident and ready to lead in their homes, workplaces, and churches. This is one of the most exciting aspects of college ministry. In the first article I mentioned that students are responsible for great movements of God throughout history - we have had the chance here at A&M to see some of those movements begin through faithful and gifted student leaders.
With regard to service, give students the chance to organize and plan service projects and events. It's amazing what they can accomplish if you provide the resources and support they need. For example, students Texas A&M University organized the largest one-day, student-run service project in the country. More than 10,000 students participate each year in more than 1,000 jobs - and it's all student-led. At our church, students organize our retreats, serve as nursery coordinators, plan events, and do a variety of other tasks. Churches that give students real responsibility will have a vibrant community of young men and women seeking to know Jesus and serve His people.
8. Provide missions opportunities. As I mentioned in the previous article, students were at the heart of the early missionary movement in North America. While they are in college, students have the time and energy to go overseas, whether for a few weeks or for a year. At Grace we partner with a parachurch ministry to send students overseas - we recruit and train the students and they provide the structures and leadership that our teams need on the field. However you accomplish it, cast a vision for the Great Commission around the world.
9. Connect students to older and wiser saints. This is a mutually beneficial exercise. Adult men and women benefit from the energy and passion of students, and students benefit from the wisdom and experience of adults. Create a process to connect college students to meaningful discipleship relationships with adults. Train and equip the adults to provide training in the essentials of Christianity, pre-marital counseling, career advice, and broad discipleship. Leverage the benefit of being a local church - you have men and women from across the spectrum of life who can influence the lives of these future leaders.
These are just a few broad ideas for approaching college ministry in your local church. The specifics will vary from place to place, depending upon your church's location and the students you are called to reach. Perhaps it's time to start praying about whether the Lord would have your congregation invest in young men and women during this critical phase of their lives. If you need any Bible study or discipleship resources for college students, check out the Leader Resources section of the Grace Bible Church website: http://www.grace-bible.org/downloads/LeaderResources.aspx.