Mobilizing the Church To Evangelize the College Campus
While the college campus provides an amazing opportunity for evangelism, it can also be challenging to bridge the gap between a local church and the campus.
College campuses often feel like “a city within a city.” They have their own culture, their own schedules, their own (narrow) demographic. When many people are at home brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed, college students may be thinking it’s time to order a pizza and start working on a ten-page research paper. When I started out in campus ministry at age 22, I blended in with the students on campus. Now, at 36, I stand out in a college dorm. For these and many other reasons, there is a gap to bridge.
Still, we want churches to have an impact on campus, and for the campus to be present in the local church. But how?
The short answer is, churches should seek to establish a dynamic of ministry that cycles between church to campus. As the church impacts the college campus, the campus is enfolded into the life of the local church, and then that church equips those students to walk with God and labor for the gospel back on campus.
The critical first step is from the church to the campus. We must send laborers to campus to preach the gospel. At the very least this means equipping college students who are members of your church. This also might include using church staff (college pastors, paid interns, etc.), lay leaders, or a faithful parachurch ministry (but never as a replacement for equipping a church’s students). The goal is to reach the campus with the gospel by sending laborers to focused ministry there. Rather than simply trying to attract college students with in-house programming, churches should focus on reaching campuses by sending laborers to campus.
The second step is to integrate whatever happens on the campus back into the local church. As churches spread the gospel and students come to Christ, they should then be enfolded into that local church where they’re taught the importance of baptism, church membership, and communion. They should be discipled as members of the local church.
Then the cycle repeats itself: as students are plugged into the life of the church, they are equipped to return to the campus to serve and make an impact. All of the ministry that is “kicked up” is then enfolded back into the local church.
WHAT CAMPUS MINISTRIES OFTEN END UP BEING
In my experience, college ministries struggle to develop a dynamic that cycles back and forth between church and campus. The two get separated, and college ministry works as an isolated sub-culture. Let me give you two examples.
Disconnected From the Church: Missing the Mark
Far too often theologically reliable campus ministries—parachurch, denominational ,or even a church-based ones—spread the gospel and do good things, but they are not integrated into the life of the local church. They have a thriving ministry on campus, a variety of small groups, and opportunities for training, but the students themselves don’t meaningfully connect to local churches. Maybe they are not involved in churches at all, maybe they church hop, or maybe they just see church as a place to go on Sunday morning.
These types of campus ministries end up establishing a dynamic that functions in isolation from the church. They have good intentions, but leave out a critical aspect of following Jesus: living inside the structure and accountability of a local congregation and its leaders. They do good things, but they’re not setting those students up for a lifetime of following Jesus. Rather than partnering with local churches, these ministries end up as accidental substitutes for the local church in the lives of Christian students.
Disconnected From the Campus: Missing an Opportunity
On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have students present, maybe even as members. These students may participate in ministry activities and programs in the church. The problem is, they aren’t really integrated on campus; they aren’t seeking to focus ministry there.
As a disclaimer, I don’t believe all college students must direct their personal ministries on campus. However, if most college students in your church don’t seek a personal ministry on campus, I think you and they are missing an incredible opportunity. College students who are members of your church are the most positioned members of your church to spread the gospel on campus. This type of ministry might do good work by enfolding students from the campus into the life of the local church, but it misses the mark insofar as it doesn’t seek to disciple and equip them to intentionally impact their campus.
START WITH A FEW PEOPLE, NOT A FEW PROGRAMS
Many college ministries are challenged to develop this cyclical dynamic. Rather than asking “How do we attract college students to our church?” we should ask, “How does our church impact the campus with the gospel?”
Far too often, college ministries gathers lots students for big meetings and programs. But what the campus needs most is not more programs, but people who will spread the gospel to unbelieving students, who will reach out to the Christian students around them and help enfold them into the church and disciple them.
The question now becomes . . . “How?”
Start with a few people. Whether it’s a few students, a few lay leaders, or even some church staff or interns, begin by brainstorming how your church can evangelize and disciple on campus. If targeted commitment from a handful of people isn’t yet a possibility, here are several practical things to do in the meantime.
- Regularly pray for the gospel to go forth on local campuses at your church’s weekly gathering.
- Consider hiring interns (recent college graduates would be ideal) to focus on evangelism on campus. These interns could raise partial or full support.
- Teach the importance of church membership to college students and encourage them to join early in their college years. Help students see that four years is plenty of time to commit to a local church and that this shouldn’t be viewed as an “in between” time.
- Rather than having age-based education hours (traditional Sunday School), integrate the college students with the adult classes.
- Focus more on training and discipling students than on cool, attractive programs. Train students to use evangelistic tools like “Two Ways to Live,” “Christianity Explored,” and “One to One Bible Reading.”
- Help position students for impact on campus. Rather than living in an off-campus apartment, encourage them to live in a freshman dorm or somewhere they can build lots of relationships.
- Encourage members of your church to invite students into their homes and for students to invite members on campus.