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Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ once said, “If we can win the campus today, we will win the world tomorrow.” Without question, university campuses are one of the most strategic mission fields in the world. Not only do they contain our country’s future leaders, but college students are also more committed today than at any other time in recent history to making a global impact with their lives.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with many pastors of local churches who have a great desire to reach college students but for different reasons have not seen the success they’d hoped for.

As I’ve worked with college students for more than 20 years as apart of the local church, I would like to suggest five key components or best practices we have seen great returns on.

1. Adopt an intentional prayer plan.

It would be easy to bypass the obvious first step of adopting a prayer plan to effectively reach students with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout history and in movements all around the world, every time there has been a significant movement of the Spirit, the Lord seems to first prepare the soil by prompting the prayers of his people.

Practical tips:

  1. Enlist a prayer team to join with you by praying specifically for your university campus.
  2. Consider using social media. We have a system using Twitter that sends out weekly requests to several thousand followers, asking them for random moments throughout their week to pause and pray with us.
  3. Few things encourage participation like celebration. Keep the encouraging updates coming and remember that success is determined by faithfulness, not necessarily fruitfulness.

2. Use a relational approach.

One of the most common mistakes I see churches make with their approach to reaching students stems from a misunderstanding of what today’s students need most. On today’s university campuses, there is a growing need for a pre-evangelism strategy before we can get into a healthy gospel conversation with an unbeliever. Not only has the come-and-get-it approach passed us by, but so has the cold-turkey, door-to-door, sharing the Four Spiritual Laws approach of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In short, winning students to Christ is much more of a process than a one-time event. This process cannot be microwaved. Obviously God can do whatever he pleases, and people come to Christ every day through a cold-turkey gospel presentation, but I would propose a more relational approach, particularly for the college campus context.

Practical tips:

  1. Spending 20 to 30 hours a week is ideal for meeting students and getting multiple touches on their turf. Obviously, a 40-year-old man wouldn’t be welcomed walking the halls of a dorm, so discretion and common sense should be regarded.
  2. Hanging out in common areas and participating in campus life, such as intramurals or other campus events, is essential. Relationships and rapport are built in the informal settings on their turf.
  3. Make friendship the first priority and be slow to initiate spiritual discussion. Like every expert fisherman understands, patience is often a prerequisite to success. For a multitude of reasons, we are experiencing a high level of skepticism on college campuses today, so building trust is imperative. Many well-intended pastors make are too quick to initiate a spiritual conversation.

3. Hire a team.  

Before bypassing this suggestion due to a lack of resources, consider offering internships to qualified college graduates with leadership experience in a campus ministry as an undergraduate student. These full-time interns would be responsible for raising 100 percent of their salary, benefit package, as well as a ministry budget. MANY college seniors would love the opportunity to serve the local church by reaching out to college students as an intern of a local church staff team. Hiring one college pastor to lead and shepherd a team of one or two men and one or two women creates momentum and multiplies on-campus hours.

Practical tips:

  1. Internships would ideally be an initial two-year commitment. Anything more than two years may increase the difficulty of hiring quality candidates, while less than two years may not be enough time to reach and disciple students effectively.
  2. Internships should have attractive incentives in order to recruit quality teams, such as a shepherding structure, one or two seminary classes (online or hybrid), invitation to participate in the weekly church staff meeting, and so on.
  3. Do not expect an intern to make an effective contribution on campus if he or she has not received training as a student leader.

4. Win the many by focusing on a few.  

Many churches tend to place a greater emphasis on the larger group gatherings rather than on a smaller one-on-one or group approaches. We learn from the model of Jesus that while he did invest in the masses through preaching and teaching, he spent his most extended quality time with his 12 disciples. This life-on-life approach with a few men was Jesus’ strategy for reaching the world. Further, a discipleship model mostly geared around classroom teaching will likely never reproduce, as much more is caught than taught.

Practical tips:

  1. Become an expert of the university you are trying to reach. There are many important questions that must be answered before determining a strategy for effective ministry. Consider issues such as the spiritual climate of the campus, student demographics, accessibility of buildings, and the strengths of existing ministries.
  2. Have a plan for meeting freshmen and helping them get settled into their dorm on move-in day. The first week of school is the easiest to greet and welcome new students to campus.
  3. Consistent relational touches are absolutely critical, and students tend to get into a routine fairly quickly with favorite eating places, times for working out, meeting for pick-up basketball games, aerobics schedules, and study hours. Observe and ask questions. Find a way to get into their routine on campus, prayerfully seeking to be part of a small community.
  4. Prayerfully consider a good opportunity to verbalize the gospel as the relationship is established. They must hear the gospel before they can believe the gospel, and the greatest context for sharing the gospel comes after they have observed the effects of the gospel. Because the gospel calls for a decision, every evangelistic conversation should end with an invitation to receive Christ. Those not ready to receive Christ should be invited to explore the claims of Christ one-on-one or as apart of a small group study.
  5. Model evangelism in front on new converts as often as possible. For new converts, the cement is wet. They are daily drawing conclusions about what it means to follow Christ by watching your life.
  6. Keep the gospel primary with grace-motivated training and teaching. Longevity and health depend on focusing on what Jesus has done for us, not what we do for Jesus.

5. Aggressively develop summer projects and overseas trips.  

These are great tools for training students in mission for the four or so years they are with you. We have seen tremendous returns from our summer project investments into the lives and leadership development of our students. These are especially good for on-the-job training and discipling Christians who obey the Great Commission. Students today not only want to their lives to make a difference; they also want to make a difference together.

Practical tips:

  1. Sit down with campus ministry leaders from as many different organizations as possible to learn about their summer projects. Every campus ministry has unique strengths, and most have been doing summer projects for more than 40 years. Take the best of what each has to offer and develop your own summer project initiative.
  2. Use spring breaks and summers for overseas exposure trips and team building. Few things bring a group together like a shared experience in mission.
  3. Make the most of your summer training, particularly with developing ecclesiological convictions. Many campus ministries teach students the value of the local church, while others unintentionally do not.

To learn more about effective college ministry, listen to Rupert Leary’s workshop with Jon Nielson and J. D. Greear: College Ministry: Because Real Life Begins Now!