In college ministry, it’s no longer enough to attract a crowd. We have to mobilize our students for mission to their campus and beyond. Many current practices of college ministry fail to do this. We need a missional shift, a willingness to change our methods in order to introduce people to Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look at five shifts to missional college ministry that you can start making right now.

Shift #1: From Religion and Relationship to Gospel

It’s common for well-meaning Christians on campus to say, “Being a Christian is not about religion. It’s about a relationship.” But in our post-Christendom era, this line is both tired and discounted by the unchurched and dechurched. Secularists rightfully point out much that is still “religious” about the Christian faith. (If they’re really savvy, they’ll reference verses like 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27.) Neither do they find talk of relationship very persuasive, because non-Christian “spiritual” people already have a crowded buffet of spiritual relationships from which to choose.

Both religion and relationship capture helpful aspects of what Christianity is, but neither word is strong enough to fully encapsulate what Christianity is about. Only gospel can do that. The gospel alone is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16); no amount of our religious observance or relational feeling has the power to save.

Many of us are aware of how religion easily becomes a work, through legalistic observance of rules and rituals, but sometimes we forget that relationship can fall into the same traps. While the legalist chases adherence to the rules, the relationist chases the next feel-good moment. In this sense, relationship can become just another type of salvation by works among pietistic people, going from one passionate mountaintop experience to another.

Christianity is expressed and experienced in both religion and relationship. But it’s not about either. Only the gospel occupies that central place. The gospel is not merely an initiation for new converts but the foundation for everyone. The gospel—in all its depth, riches, and fullness—must be repeatedly proclaimed to believer and unbeliever, churched and unchurched alike.

Shift #2: From Building a Large Group to Reaching a Large Campus

Where do many college ministries spend the greatest amount of time, energy, and resources? Generally, it’s on the weekly large group meetings, complete with polished worship teams, fun activities, and funny emcees—all arranged to attract a good crowd. While this isn’t all bad, such meetings cannot be our sole or even primary focus. We need to shift our priority from attracting a large group to reaching a large campus. We need to invest our time, energy, and resources in comprehensive, campus-saturating strategies. Let’s be honest: there are huge segments of the campus population we will never see at our weekly large group meetings.

What we really need is a perspective shift: “From now on we regard no according to the flesh” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Our missional identity changes how we view the non-Christians around us. It changes how we perceive our gatherings so we view them as the coming together of God’s people on mission, rather than merely a place or event.

Shift #3: From Head Counting to Seed Spreading

The missional approach also changes how we measure success. Traditionally, our metric of success has been pretty simple: “How many people are you getting?” We look at our head counts as the source of our success and legitimacy.

A missional approach knows things aren’t so simple. What are a few hundred people among 40,000? What are 50 people among 5,000? The need is so much bigger, and fruitfulness will need to be measured by things other than weekly attendance. We should be figuring out ways to assess how well we’re doing at discipling people for lifelong fruitfulness. We all measure things, and we all keep score. But are we counting the right things?

Shift #4: From Bible Studies and Small Groups to Missional Communities

For years, we’ve gathered students for Bible studies, small groups, community groups, and the like. It’s no longer okay to gather only Christian students in groups merely to focus on Bible knowledge and prayer requests. These elements should be part of your ministry, but if your group meetings don’t act as a means of equipping students to reach their campus, you’re better off not having them, because you’re not discipling them for a life of mission.

Instead, we need missional communities—groups of students who share a burden for a particular people group. They come together for prayer, study, community, and the shared purpose of reaching that group together.

These groups work best when their students are reaching the people they already live, work, and study with all the time. But we also need students who will engage students who are different from them: the partying kids, the LGBTA community, the atheist-agnostic community, Muslims, and so on. Your campus has no shortage of unreached (or barely reached) people groups. A network of gospel-centered, mission-driven, student-led missional communities is the best way to saturate your campus with the knowledge of God.

Shift #5: From Compartmentalizing Faith to Full-Life Engagement

Many campus ministries believe they are adequately equipping students to live out their faith. However, too many of us focus only on private spiritual disciplines. While we must teach our students these things, missional campus ministry realizes that students must be equipped to think and live Christianly in every sphere of life. As people on mission to the world of higher education, we intentionally and rigorously develop the intellect. This means calling students to whole person transformation—mind, body, and spirit—through the gospel, a transformation that begins through the renewing of their minds (Romans 12:2).

Missional campus ministry constantly helps students make sense of their lives from a deeply Christian perspective. Students are helped to view sex, relationships, work, school, money, entertainment, partying, alcohol, justice—and many other issues—from this Christian perspective.

Missional outreach is familiar with and engages the various “gospels” proclaimed in culture, particularly through movies, music, TV, and the internet. This takes wisdom and discernment, as well as a deep awareness (and appreciation) of both the biblical (meta)narrative and the cultural narratives.

My hope is that you will examine what you’re currently doing (or not doing) and make the shift to a more thoroughly missional ministry. And I hope that churches will place a greater emphasis on intentionally reaching this crucial people group. The future health and vitality of the church in North America will likely depend on it.