“We’d like to do more for college students, but we just don’t have the resources.”
When I listen for the reasons people give for not investing in college ministry, that’s usually #1.
Everyone eventually faces the limits of what they can allocate in terms of staff, time, funding, and space. But when I hear people say they can’t do anything for college ministry, I’ll sometimes ask what these same churches are doing for youth ministry, children’s ministry, women’s ministry, men’s ministry, etc. It’s nearly always more than what they’re doing for college.
Why is this?
Oftentimes, college ministry does a poor job of addressing the “value-added” question. Churches want to know what the outcome of their efforts are, and that’s much easier to see in other areas of ministry. For example, the explosion of youth ministry in the past 25 years was partially fueled by the realization that youth ministry helps the bottom line. Youth ministry attracts and retains families–families that attend faithfully, serve on teams and committees, and tithe. I’m not saying a desire to serve our youth is wrong–far from it–but any pastor/elder who’s made those tough, number-crunching budget decisions knows that the value-added factor is part of the equation.
By traditional metrics, it’s much harder to gauge what value college ministry adds. It brings in individuals, not families. Their attendance is tied into the academic calendar, and then only sporadically. It’s much harder to get them to serve in the church, and by the time they’re trained and involved, they’re already moving on. And the tithing? Well, it’s best to not even bring that up.
Advocates for college ministry (like myself) can marshal all the theological and inspirational reasons in the world to work with college students. But we know that in many churches, we’re not going to pass muster when it comes to comparing value-added.
That’s why I want to highlight five neglected, overlooked, and perhaps forgotten values of college ministry. Our field is crucial and vital laboratory for working with the church of the future. It is a fertile petri dish of ministry experimentation. It’s a place to understand who the church of tomorrow will be, and a place to develop the shepherds who will lead them.
Here are five ways in which college ministry adds value to our current and future ministries. If you’re dealing with some skeptics, or making your proposal to the budget committee sometime soon, try some or all of these arguments out on them!
1. College ministry helps us get an accurate read on the issues and trends of tomorrow
In college ministry, we are dealing with the church of the future…today. Whatever issues will arise, we can start addressing them now, instead of 10 years from now. So, “Love Jesus, but hate the church?” Deal with it now. Changing views on gender and sexuality? We have to address that now. How does the church help people make sense of the greater connectedness we have through social media, but combined with the loneliness and isolation many young people experience? Better deal with that now. There is no shortage of issues we can and should be addressing. The trends that will hit the whole church tomorrow are often more pronounced with college-age people today, and more readily seen.
2. College ministry allows us to experiment with effective ministry with and to the next generation
The message remains the same, but how we communicate it is always changing. At one time, worshiping with a guitar and an overhead projector was a breathtaking innovation—perhaps even blasphemous! Who did that originate with? Probably some college students! At one time, college ministry was a seedbed of innovation, a place to experiment with effective ministry to reach the next generation. We need to return to those risky, innovative times again. The beautiful thing about college ministry is that it’s very forgiving. We can get away with making more mistakes, because institutional memory is short. If we screw up, those mistakes graduate. This is the upside to rapid change and high turnover: quick iterations of new innovations are seen as normal. Are you taking advantage of that?
3. Train up leaders
A ministry to, for, and by college students is indispensable to their development as leaders, and to the leadership development pipeline of the Church. Instead of being told to sit on the bench until they grow up a bit more, college ministry allows students to use their gifts to serve the Body. We know that many 20somethings are changing the world in tech, the social sectors, and entertainment. Let’s unlock that in the church as well!
4. Generational Cohesion
Think about this: the Church (universal) is meant to be a picture of the Body of Christ across time and space. There should be no holes or gaps in that. But in a local church expression, if we see children and youth, then jump to young marrieds and older generations, we are missing a crucial part of the body. Youth need to see college students among them. They need to see that you can love and follow Jesus in college. College students need to serve the rest of the Body, and be trained/mentored/coached/raised up by older generations. If we have a giant hole in our generational melting pot, we’ll be missing a crucial part of the Body, and that will hurt the whole Body!
5. Preventive Care
It’s much easier to save a marriage by teaching people about healthy and loving relationships now, than dealing with 20+ years of brokenness and betrayal later. Just as the medical field knows that prevention is far better and more cost-effective than after-the-fact surgery and invasive procedures, so the church should be prioritizing preventive care that saves people from all kinds of spiritual and relational pathologies before they strike. Invest in college ministry now, and you’ll save the Church a world of hurt later on. Your future self thanks you in advance!
- Which of these arguments do you find most persuasive?
- What would you add to these points?
- Will you use any of these to persuade a skeptic of the value of college ministry?
Let me know what you think in the comments!