After more than a dozen years in college ministry, I’ve had legions of conversations with students about the typical “stuff” of college life: trying to faithfully navigate things like sex and romantic relationships, the party scene, schoolwork, getting a job, calling, and more.
Many of these topics are most pronounced during the college years, or relevant to the college environment. But it would be a mistake to think that’s all that college ministry is about. What we’re really after, in all these events and all these conversations, is making disciples.
Over time, I’ve realized that college ministry has trained me to more effectively make disciples of all types of people—even those whose college days are well behind them! Here are five things college ministry can teach you about discipling anyone:
1. Disciple in the short run for the long term
One of the challenges of discipleship in our culture is how mobile everyone is. Making disciples among such transient people can be difficult. It used to be that we could plan on investing years in someone. These days, we probably don’t have that. Many college ministry systems are predicated on getting a student during their freshman year, and spending four years with them. Elaborate, intensive curriculums have been developed to fill out these four years.
But fewer and fewer students fit this profile. This hyper-mobility is intensified by the college experience. In my own ministry, I’ve realized I need to disciple on a year-by-year or even a semester-by-semester basis. The average time I’ll have with them is about two years, and even that may be chopped up by studying abroad, withdrawing from school, or other interruptions. The point is this: I may have only 15 weeks to disciple someone—and we have to make each week count! I can’t be overly casual with them, because this may be the only chance I get.
Paradoxically, our short time together makes it even more imperative that we focus on the long-term. It’s easy to focus on the presenting issues and the stuff we need to do THIS WEEK in our ministry. But we don’t have the luxury of waiting to get to the big picture later on. Whether we have 15 weeks, or the approximately 150 that Jesus had with the Twelve, that time together needs to equip our disciples for faithfulness over a lifetime.
2. Expect big things through lots of little steps
Allow me a baseball analogy: we’re out their trying to hit home runs, because home runs are exciting. They get people buzzing. An amazing event or breakthrough is fun to write about in your update. It’s often what we remember years later. But the thing about home run hitters is that they also strike out a lot. Which isn’t all bad, but it’s not the only way to play the game.
You don’t need to hit a home run when a single will do. And if you put enough balls in play, you’ll generate some wins. Regardless, you can’t neglect the little things. Because when we look back on even the home run moments, they’re nearly always the outcome of lots of small things. It’s the routine conversations and the regular investment of your time and attention in another person.
Remember that verse that warns people against despising “the day of small things” (Zech. 4:10)? It’s about Zerubbabel and the building of the 2nd Temple. In other words, when we set out to build something glorious, the beginnings may seem small and insignificant. But God is using them as a foundation, as the setting for his work and his presence.
That’s what we’re doing in every meeting, every conversation, text, email, and message. We’re seeking to lay the foundation for something big and significant—through lots of small things.Don’t despise or neglect them!
3. Don’t just talk the talk—walk it out
When discipling someone, we can’t assume that sitting across from that person and talking for an hour will do the job. No, we have to show them as well. Information is easy to come by these days. It’s knowing how to live it out that matters. It’s knowing how to put knowledge into practice.
Now, I’ve noticed that despite the wealth of information available to us, that many people (students in particular) are less knowledgeable about the Scriptures and theology (see #5 below). But our instruction must be through doing as well. It must be “as you go” and “along the way” (see instructions in Deuteronomy).
To teach people how to share their faith, for example, go out and do it with them! Model the behaviors we want to see in them by letting them see it in us. Don’t just talk about serving those in need—do it with them. People need to see what we believe lived out and put into practice in order to “get it.” This takes time and intentionality. But it pays off far more than just talking.
4. Be selective—don’t try to disciple just anyone or everyone
You can’t meet with everyone. You can’t help everyone. You can’t fix all their problems, offer them all the counsel they need, be there for everyone. Superman Syndrome might make you feel really important, but its a recipe guaranteed to produce burnout. Prolonged exposure to Superman Syndrome will undermine everything you’ve worked so hard to accomplish in your ministry.
So embrace the limitation of not trying to save or fix or even meet with everyone. You have to be selective. This is an obvious and liberating truth. If Jesus himself focused on 12 men, and wasn’t afraid to spend less time with others, then so should we. Bob Coleman’s book The Master Plan of Evangelism is still the best summary of Jesus’ method of discipleship:
It all started by Jesus calling a few men to follow him. This revealed immediately the direction his evangelistic strategy would take. His concern was not with programs to reach the multitudes, but with men whom the multitudes would follow. Remarkable as it may seem, Jesus started to gather these men before he ever organized an evangelistic campaign or even preached a sermon in public. Men were to be his method of winning the world to God.
(The Master Plan of Evangelism,
5. Form the head along with the heart
When speaking about effective ministry to millennials, pastor and author Dan Kimball made this observation: “What is working is non-compromised Biblical doctrine and Biblical theology, and not being afraid to boldly teach these truths. You may say, ‘of course,’ but what you’re dealing with is a generation that has never even heard of systematic theology.”
As I mentioned earlier, we live in an age of easily accessible information that hasn’t been accessed. That’s led to an unformed generation of would-be disciples. They’ve heard a lot about love and peace, but not much about holiness and putting sin to death. They’ve been encouraged and comforted with felt needs, but their intellect hasn’t been stretched. They’ve absorbed the tenets of what Christian Smith called “moral therapeutic deism,” but haven’t wrestled with many of the great teachings of Scripture or great Christian thinkers.
We can’t only speak to feelings or or how to make life work better. We’ve done that, and it produces nominal Christians who treat essential beliefs and practices of the faith like its a buffet line. Instead, we must ground those we disciple in the deeper, richer, fuller bedrock of the faith. Moving on from elementary teachings (Hebrews 6:1) to stronger stuff.
These are just some of the things that working with college students has taught me about discipleship in general. How about you? What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!