The American university system is a life experience unlike many others. Granted, college life stands out as unique for both positive and negative reasons. On the one hand, higher education can be a deeply enriching and fulfilling period in life. On the other, “getting kicked out of the nest” can be equally traumatic for many.
The Challenges of College Life
Just think about what a college student faces, often for the first time, in this springboard to adulthood:
Diversity. For many students, their years in higher education are the first substantive exposure to alternate (or even competing) philosophies of life. Yes, these can present themselves as formal, expressed religious affinities and culturally broad backgrounds, but they can also be as mundane as interacting with someone who grew up with a different version of “family” than what they are used to. Add to that the numbers of foreign-born students and scholars studying in the United States, and you quickly realize that a mission field has moved in right next door on the college campus.
Life choices. You would be hard pressed to think of another season in life when the choices you make have such far-reaching effect on the sum of your lifetime. Think of all that often happens during this time: choosing your career, finding your spouse, developing political commitments, and evaluating your belief system. Much of adult life hinges on the choices made during this crucial time.
Crisis. The late teens and early twenties of a student’s life are often the first time they encounter life-crushing crises. Some of these are self-inflicted, emerging as the sad result of assuming that God’s laws are mere suggestions and not life-directing truth. Others come for no other reason than that our grandparents typically reach dying age while in college, while still others taste the bitterness of depression and suicide.
For these reasons and many more, the church that has an eye for a university community can rest assured that the need for their intervention is paramount. College students are tomorrow’s church, and any church that cares about the future advance of the kingdom of God must look to this people group with a ministry mind-set.
What Can the Church Do?
How can the church meet this challenge? It begins with demystifying outreach to college students. For two millennia, Jesus’ church has been marching through history powered by the ministry of Word and sacrament. Local churches are not ill-equipped to carry out ministry to our young people. The patient, faithful, week-in, week-out preaching and teaching of God’s Word still reaches and equips God’s people regardless of the uniqueness of their social setting. Likewise, as the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” the church provides the historical connectedness and the institutional structure that students need during this season of personal formation.
Practically speaking, consider the provision a local church can bring to ministry to college students:
Provide welcome. If it has been a while since you have looked on the inside of a college dorm, you might have forgotten that the cinder-block cell and tight living spaces with (often) a stranger are not so conducive to human flourishing. Campus can be a cold place where amenities of life are scarce. Chances to be in a home that is welcoming can be regular medicine for a college student.
Provide structure. Your average college student likely entered school assuming that things like regular sleep and balanced diet are optional. They are not. They likely have no idea the abuse they are in inflicting on themselves by ignoring them. A local church that loves college students encourages them to respect these schedules and even provides them with a thoughtfully prepared meal on occasion.
Provide rescue. If there is a life-ruining bad decision to be made, chances are it will be made in college. Churches that love college students well are not surprised that these things happen. Nor are they put off by the rampant immaturity that often marks their lives. Rather, these churches love to go in “where angels fear to tread” and enter the messiness that is ministry to students.
Provide campus ministry. Many churches provide what could be called “at” ministry. They are “at” the campus, waiting for students to show up at their doors. Campus ministry, however, is a “to” ministry. Churches must go “to” campus, living life with students in the day to day. Imagine the power of a ministry with ordained, seminary-trained ministers of the gospel whose stated purpose it is to reach students at this unique moment in their lives with the proclaimed Word of God and introduce them to the body of Christ in the church. That is what you support when you get behind campus ministers.
Think of campus ministry as an hourglass. At the top, students from every corner of the world flow into this intense historical moment called “college.” Once reached there with the power of the gospel, they then go out into every area of life to bring the kingdom of God to bear on every tribe, every tongue, every nation. What greater vision can Jesus’ bride embrace?