Why I Wrote a Book on College Ministry (Part 1)

College Ministry in a Post-Christian CultureThis week, I’ll be speaking at the Sentralized gathering in Kansas City. In preparation for the conference the House Studio (my publisher, helping to put on the conference) asked me to respond to a few questions about the writing of College Ministry. The interview originally appeared here.

What prompted you to write this book?

The book came out of a period of frustration and even disillusionment with college ministry business-as-usual. Ironically, this was at the peak of our “success.” In three years, we had grown the ministry from a small core of students that was barely hanging on, to a large, vibrant ministry. We were the largest student organization on campus. We were the largest Christian gathering of college students in the city. We had seen some students come to faith. We had a great weekly meeting, a solid worship team, some new interns joining our team, and a solid, growing church backing us up.  In many ways, I felt we had reached a mountaintop of ministry success.

But as I looked deeper, I had causes for concern. Many of our students—as much as half, I estimated—were not very engaged in our mission. Sure, they came out regularly to our meeting, but in terms of plugging into community, serving in the church, and blessing the campus, they were no-shows.  They were seemingly content to be consumers of the ministry we produced, as long as we didn’t ask them to do more.  In short, our “success” was not what all it was cracked up to be.

This realization led to some soul searching on my part, and ultimately to some deep changes in how we led our ministry. No longer content to build a ministry that simply waited for students to come to us, we built a “go structure” that emphasized students owning the mission—God’s mission—to their campus. We did away with some consumeristic aspects. We challenged and changed our traditional metrics of success.

I kept looking for a book that would be a bridge between missional theology and the unique practices of college ministry. I wanted a book that would describe a more compelling, Kingdom-vision for what college life, and college ministry, can be. Eventually, I got so tired of looking for it that I wrote it! I knew that there must be other people out there like me who were observing the exciting things happening in the missional church world,  and wanted to translate to the field of college ministry. The book has done well, and really found an audience with people who aren’t simply interested in college ministry as care-taking students for 4 years, but in equipping them for a lifelong mission.

What makes it different from other books on college ministry?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many of them out there, period. Not when you compare it to other “niche” ministries, like youth ministry. This is tragic, since I believe that college ministry is arguably the most strategic people group in the world today, for several reasons. 1) They’re the ones blessed to get an education, equipping them to be future leaders in every sphere; 2) They’re young, with a great deal of openness during one of the key formative windows of their lives; 3) quite often the nations of the world are represented on our campuses.

But I don’t find that many of the books out there are all that concerned with advancing the missio Dei. They tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is what I would call the “Personal Piety” club. They’re very concerned with things like spiritual disciplines, and avoiding stereotypically “college” activities. So they emphasize reading the Bible, prayer, that kind of thing; while avoiding drinking and sex. That’s important, but it’s not the sum total of our piety, is it? The Kingdom of God is so much more vast than what I do for 30-60 minutes a day in my quiet time, and whether I avoid the party scene. In fact, this mentality which is common in college ministry, can easily create Pharisees–self-righteous, holy-huddled clumps of Christians who might be faithful in a handful of areas, but aren’t engaged in meaningful, transformative mission on their campus. And if we’re not equipping them to do that now, it’s that much harder to teach them to do it later on.

The second group is the “Doing It Better” club. They take all the staples of college ministry which have been tested over the last couple generations, like the large group meeting, the fun/social events, the spring break trip, the evangelistic outreach initiative, the small group strategy, and give tips and principles on how to do it better. But they don’t really acknowledge how much the ground has shifted under our feet, culturally and spiritually. I’ve seen far too many ministry groups running yesterday’s playbook, and they run it really well, but they’re playing the wrong game.

Ministry isn’t about becoming more tactically efficient in what we’re doing. We need to change our approach and expectations in light of the post-Christian situation that we find ourselves in. So I wasn’t interested so much in a book that helps us do things marginally better; I tried to write something that called us to do things differently, namely, a more intentionally missional, incarnational approach.

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