Creating a Thriving College Ministry

September 13th, 2011

As the school year gets back into full swing, church leaders everywhere breathe a sigh of relief. With camps and VBS and vacations behind them, families settle back into a more normal routine—which includes church! The excitement is almost enough to make us forget a gaping hole in our ministries:

We just can’t seem to get college students in church.

By now, most of us have simply given up on reaching these young adults. We have thrown up our hands in the face of repeated failures, telling ourselves that cultural pressures on young adults are just too great. We just hope we can bring them back into church once they have children of their own.

Unfortunately, the Great Commission offers no mulligans, even when it comes to difficult populations. We know we have an obligation to disciple young adults. But our programs fall flat, our Bible studies fizzle, and our worship services don’t seem to interest them.

So how do we get over the setbacks to develop a thriving college student ministry? Perhaps we don’t, at least not in terms of eliminating those obstacles. But we can learn to be faithful in spite of the frustrations, if we can hold to a few basic commitments.

Be patient.

Young adult ministry is like golf: the only ones who are really good at it are the ones without enough sense to give up.

College students are not youth, but neither are they fully mature adults—particularly as freshmen and sophomores. They will frustrate their leaders with their inconsistency and lack of follow-through, even as they amaze them with their generosity and commitment to one another.

Really discipling these youngest of young adults requires a great deal of investment, and not just in terms of programming. Leaders will spend countless hours listening to students, and occasionally coaching them through things like breakups or fights with roommates. Individual attention—knowing and caring for each student by name—is a must.

For many churches, such an investment seems too costly, particularly considering that most campus ministries start with very low numbers. But flashy programs and big crowds do not equal discipleship, especially for college students.

Support your local or regional campus ministry.


Regrettably, many denominations are pulling out of campus ministry, citing dwindling financial resources and what they consider a poor return on investment. But having a dedicated campus ministry system is vital to the long-term health of the larger church, and can be a vital part of any local church’s short-term picture.

Full-time campus ministries learn to breathe and move within the flow of the campus. They don’t have to switch around their congregational lives to adapt to college students, because they naturally understand the rhythms of college life.

By plugging into college life, campus ministries create a natural environment for young adults to deal with their most important questions about vocation, relationships, ethics, and so on. They can speak the language both of the church and of campus life without having to spend hours translating for either.

Local churches that connect with these campus ministries as extensions of their own mission not only help out a worthy cause, they also build a reputation among students as people that really care about them for more than just their membership or tithing check. Investment in local campus ministries now can pay off big in terms of leadership down the road.

Develop student leadership.

Speaking of leadership, any church that hopes to build a sustainable ministry must first invest in student leadership.

Life in our campus ministry begins and ends with the student ministry team. They make decisions about worship, missions, and even budgets. Most important of all, these upperclassmen are the ones specifically tasked with mentoring younger students through the perils of young adulthood. Nothing we do happens without first consulting our ministry team.

Why such an emphasis on student leadership? For starters, because no one quite understands what it’s like to be a student except another student. When a freshmen fails a midterm or has a tussle with the financial aid office, the upperclassmen can relate and advise in ways that no one else can.

Besides that, college students attract other college students. An invitation from an older adult leader—even one in his thirties—feels like nothing more than a minor obligation, an assignment for a class they are only auditing. But an invitation from a peer feels like an entry into friendship, something of paramount importance to college students.

Plus, the only way for us to develop student leaders is to trust them with real leadership responsibilities. The more ownership of the ministry they have, the better teachers and evangelists they will become. 

Focus on outcomes, not programs.

Our local churches’ addiction to programming runs deep. We start Bible studies, recovery groups, even traditional Sunday school classes. But we’re almost incapable of doing any of these without trained leaders and a packaged study guide.

Programming has its place, no doubt. But programming by definition is an us-them proposition: someone with the material presents that material to the group, whose job is to accept it. These programs happen at fixed times, many of which do not fit the pace of college life. (Who was it that decided Sunday morning is an optimal time for worship, anyway?!)

Real education requires a connection with life beyond a lecture hall or sanctuary. That’s why science classes have labs, or professional degree programs have internships. Discipleship is no different. Young adults have to test and live out their faith in order for it to stick. Good campus ministries find a way to provide those opportunities.

Be patient.

I already said that? Good. It bears repeating.

Strong campus ministries don’t grow overnight. They require continuous disciplined efforts—not to produce big numbers of adherents, but to produce big changes in individual lives at a crucial stage of adult development. And one Christ-formed life can produce an endless number of ripples, now and in the future.

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