This is finals week at Michigan State University. Soon students will be heading home for the summer, starting summer internships, or enrolling in summer classes. Other students will travel overseas for short-term missions, work at a camp, or get ready for a summer project filled with training and ministry opportunities. And then there are the students leaving school for good. Over the next few weeks thousands of Christian students will graduate from college and start the rest of their lives.
Will they be ready?
I’m not talking about being prepared for interviews and applications. That’s not the church’s responsibility. I’m talking about being ready for Christian maturity. What should Christian students know about the Bible, the church, and themselves as they leave the friendly confines of campus ministry? As a church with a strong outreach to students, it’s a question we ask ourselves often. And as a pastor with the privilege of welcoming new graduates from other schools and ministries every year, I know firsthand how important the question can be.
What do I like to see from graduates who land at our church?
Or to ask the question another way: what do I hope our students will be like when they land somewhere else?
Let me give you the ABC’s of a brief response.
Attitude – Our students need good theology, but just as importantly they need a good attitude. If they have the best theological training and the worst ways of relating to people, we’ve created monsters, not mature Christians.
In particular, I think of three key attitudes for our students take with them when they graduate:
- Eager to serve – Does the student show up at church expecting the red carpet or looking to help others?
- Eager to commit – I love new people who visit our church, decide on our church, and then throw themselves in to being a part of our church.
- Eager to learn – This may be the most important point (after the gospel) in this entire post. No matter the other deficiencies, pastors can work with young Christians who are hungry for good preaching, open to correction, and above all, teachable.
Basics – College students need to know the same essential truths that every Christian needs to know. They should know the importance of prayer and daily Bible reading. They should be able to articulate the gospel. They should have some experience with personal evangelism and an exposure to world missions. They should be familiar with the storyline of the Scriptures and basic contours of the Old and New Testaments. Ideally, I want college students who are with us for four years to be rooted in Reformed theology, know the basic categories of systematic theology, and know a few key events and persons from church history. I also think it’s helpful for students to learn about a tradition bigger than themselves. For us this means teaching about the Reformation and exposing students to the Heidelberg Catechism.
Church – This is the hardest element to pass on because it is more easily caught than taught. Some campus ministries which do quite well on A and B struggle with the C because the form and feel of the ministry mitigates against it.
- It’s hard to get students to land in a church when they graduate if they floated among three different churches while in school and committed to none of them.
- It’s hard to get students to accept that church does not revolve around them when for four or five years every song and every style has.
- It’s hard to get students to see that church is not simply plural for Christians when they have been taught almost nothing about ecclesiology and have seen even less of it modeled.
Some churches and ministries need to ask themselves the hard question: are we setting up our students to flounder or to flourish when they leave school and leave us? The goal of campus ministry is not to have a dynamic, growing campus ministry. Everyone working with college students wants that, and God may bless in that way. But our aim must be farther out. We have to work with students with an eye toward their future more than our present. And this means helping students understand the importance of membership and spending lots of time on what to look for in a good church. It means giving them a steady diet of expository preaching so they won’t be as pleased with the taste of anything else. It means teaching them about worship and not tailoring everything in our services to meet the whims of 18-23 year-olds.
I know there is a tension here. On the one hand, it will be (and should be) noticeable that we are ministering to college students and not to retirees. The themes, the tone, and the teaching will take into account the context. But on the other hand, we do our students no favors when we do everything to meet them where they are instead of taking them where they need to go. Again, our goal must be forward looking. It’s great for students to have an amazing college experience with us. Even more important is that they know what to look for (and what to expect) in a church, and they land in a good one, when they graduate.
I’m so thankful for our campus ministry, Spartan Christian Fellowship. Check it out here.