In a previous article, I identified “5 Necessary Shifts for Missional College Ministry.” Here are five more that you can start implementing today.
Shift #6: From Reaching Vague ‘Everyones’ to Specific ‘Someones’
Missional college ministry works hard to understand the people we seek to reach. If you have never spent hours on your school’s website viewing all the demographic data that is publicly available, you have more work to do.
Statistics aren’t sufficient though. We must work hard to engage the legions of students who will never walk through the doors of our large group meetings. If you have never struck up random conversations in the student union building with your agenda being to listen and learn, stop reading and get to work. Your campus is not only unique but always changing. Jesus became a human being in order to save human beings. He “dwelt among us” (John 1:14). We need to “dwell” among those we serve. We need to spend the time listening to and learning about the people we seek to reach.
Ministry that tries to reach a vague, generalized “everyone” often fails to reach anyone. We must continually ask, “What does it look like to communicate the gospel in this particular place, at this particular time, to this particular people?”
Shift #7: From Students-Only to Institutional Effect
Missional college ministry works hard to understand our context of higher education/academia. This is arguably both more difficult and also more important than knowing our students. Most campus ministers are very relational people, so getting to know students comes relatively easy to us. Institutions? Not so much. But particular students come and go; universities remain.
Location is not an irrelevant or extraneous detail. Each campus, and each city or community in which it is placed, is unique. Ministry to, and by, these campus communities must be shaped by context. We should be asking, “What is it about higher education—and this institution—that makes it a particularly challenging, strategic, and exciting mission field? What are the institutional, social, and cultural obstacles to the gospel here? What would this place look like if it were increasingly renewed by the gospel?”
Campus ministers should not only pursue relationships with students, but also the faculty, staff, administration, and others who make up a university. It is tragic and shortsighted to work on a campus for many years with only a narrow focus on students. Rather, missional campus ministry believes that God has brought us to this institution so we can be part of his work in reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20).
Shift #8: From Talking at People to Talking with Them
Too much of campus ministry is spent talking about the unchurched/dechurched, rather than talking with them. Instead of arguing or retreating, we must be ready to respectfully engage people with the questions they are asking (1 Peter 3:15-17). We must be willing to discuss and respond to the common objections to the gospel.
Listen well, and you should start piecing together the objections that regularly combine to make Christianity seem unbelievable to non-Christians. On many campuses, these include several common charges: Christians are intolerant, Jesus can’t be the only way, the Bible is historically unreliable, choosing a religion isn’t necessary, Christianity is just a proxy for political power, and others.
Missional ministry takes these objections seriously and humbly interacts with those who hold them. These objections will not be addressed through shrill debates but respectful dialogue. My ministry has featured a weekly forum for skeptics of all types to question faith and doubt. It has given me a relational context for engaging with any and all questions that non-Christians may bring. This lets me simultaneously engage both Christians and non-Christians. Doing so communicates to unbelievers that we are listening and models to believers how to engage in these conversations in informed, winsome, courageous, and most of all, loving ways.
Shift #9: From Evangelism as Occasional Activity to a Way of Life
In the campus setting, many students regard canned, impersonal evangelistic campaigns as ineffective, reinforcing the objections they hold against Christianity. As a result, many Christians on campus (even ministers) rarely, if ever, share the gospel.
To many students, talk is cheap, but actions speak loudly. Missional evangelism reunites deeds of mercy and justice with the verbal proclamation of the gospel as signs of the kingdom. An excellent example can be seen in the many unbelieving students who joined Christian ministries for Katrina relief. The context of mercy and justice becomes an appropriate and authentic arena for sharing the faith.
But sharing the faith verbally remains absolutely essential. Actions without words are unintelligible. If you do good deeds silently, people will think you are a good person. If you do them for Jesus and in his name (Mark 10:42), they will (at least) think Jesus is good and want to find out more. Talk is cheap, and actions alone are incomplete; but (gospel) talk with (gospel-shaped) action is incredibly powerful.
Shift #10: From Insider Clique to Comprehensible Community
Missional ministries must not hide our lamp under a basket (Matthew 5:15). Unfortunately, our insider lingo can have this veiling effect. In our communications, we can’t assume people are fluent in “Christianese.” Terms must constantly be explained. This doesn’t mean watering down the gospel. Rather, great effort and care are taken to speak faithfully about spiritual things in ways non-churched people can understand.
Missional speakers do not assume we are reminding people of what they already know, but that we are explaining new things to them. In every meeting, every event, every setting, we always assume that unbelievers are present, people who are likely biblically illiterate and whose own faith comprises a hodgepodge of spiritual ideas.
This is important in setting the tone for Christian students as well, because it models to them how to speak with unbelievers while also encouraging them to invite their friends, roommates, and classmates into Christian community.
The motive for working hard at changing our language is not marketing but love for our neighbor. In expressing our willingness to do anything and change anything—even dearly loved traditions or practices—so that some would be saved (1 Corinthians 9:22).