Why college ministry? What’s there to be excited about when it comes to college ministry in the local church? How does a church actually get after this kind of ministry, given all of the challenges? Two college pastors—from two very different ministry contexts—weigh in on these questions and more.
Jon Nielson: I’m the college pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois—a church of around 1,500 members located right across the street from Wheaton College (a non-denominational, evangelical school of around 2,400 undergraduate students). While there is no formal connection between the church and school, our college ministry is currently composed of mostly Wheaton College students during the school year, and many people from our congregation are involved in the college. We also have several students involved in our ministry from local two-year schools, and some young people who are working and taking “gap” years.
Solomon Rexius: I am the college pastor at University Fellowship Church in Eugene, Oregon (one of the most liberal and unchurched regions of North America). Our church was planted six years ago, and I have been serving there for the last three.
Most of our students attend the University of Oregon (24,000 students and currently #1 in ESPN college football power rankings, but who follows that stuff anyway?), and some attend other local schools or are college-age, working non-students. I grew up here and graduated from the U of O back in 2007, so I feel blessed to do ministry at the place that was so foundational to my spiritual growth.
1. What makes you most excited about college ministry?
JN: The word here would be strategic. There is no other ministry in the context of the local church that can so openly embrace and celebrate a 25 percent turnover rate year after year. When college pastors and ministry leaders look at this turnover with the right perspective, they begin to see it as a strength. They can begin building a Word-saturated and gospel-driven ministry to college-age students that is a “launching pad” into adult life. In our context, we’ve borrowed Phillip Jensen’s language of “gospel self-starters.” We want to be launching out graduates from our ministry who move to new places, join local bodies of believers, and begin doing the work of gospel ministry without ever having to be asked.
SR: I grew up in an evangelical church and made a confession of faith at a young age, but it wasn’t until college that I “got it.” Through a variety of temptations, trials, and failures, I came to see that Jesus demanded and deserved a lot more from me then I had been giving him. I also came to see that, contrary to popular opinion, a life devoted to Jesus is the most exciting and satisfying life one could live. I want to help every college student make that same discovery. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, I want to be the college pastor I wish I had in college.
2. Describe a week in the life of your church’s college ministry.
JN: The “meat and potatoes” of our college ministry, week-to-week, consists of four main elements. First, we have our large meeting, which is driven by expository Bible teaching, and supported by worship through music. Second, we have student-led small group Bible studies, which are hosted by godly couples and families from our wider church body. Third, we have at least two “training” gatherings per week, geared intentionally at providing students with “tools” for doing the work of the ministry on their own. Fourth, there is what we call the “personal work” of gospel ministry—the one-on-one meetings on the college campus or in the coffee shop, during which we seek to encourage students, pray for them, and bring the reality of the gospel to bear on the specificities of their lives and relationships.
SR: Our church’s initials are UFC, so we decided to play with the “fight” theme. Our college ministry night is called The Good Fight (small groups are Fight Clubs, theology class is Boot Camp, and so on). The Good Fight meets every Tuesday night in the second-largest lecture hall on campus for praise, preaching, food, and fellowship. Fight Clubs are led by students and meet by gender at various times throughout the week on campus. Thursday morning is Boot Camp at our church offices (this consists of memorizing Scripture together and reading and discussing Bible Doctrine. On Sunday mornings, our church meets in a local high school gym just a few blocks from campus (rides from campus provided). We also do bi-weekly social events like movie nights, game nights, hikes, or fire and smores at my house. In addition, we do quarterly weekend retreats heading west to the coast or east to the mountains. These weekend getaways are critical for developing deep relationships in the group.
3. What is the biggest challenge in doing college ministry as a local church pastor?
JN: Connecting 18- to 23-year-old men and women with the wider local church body is simultaneously our greatest passion and our greatest frustration. I was delighted when, just the other day, a college student asked me for “permission” to join a multi-generational small group instead of a college-age only small group. I grinned with delight! Still, the week-to-week challenge with the majority of our students is urging them to consider life and ministry, service and relationships, within the wider church body, rather than only within their same-age relationships on the college campus.
SR: One word: graduation. Many of our graduates stay around for local jobs, but the majority of them head back to wherever they came from (or wherever they can find a job). This is simultaneously the hardest and most glorious thing about college ministry: hard because we spend years training and loving these students only to see them leave us; glorious because this is a unique opportunity to participate in global gospel mission work, especially when you consider that many of our students are international. I am thankful that so many Christians go out into the world to preach the gospel, but as a college pastor at a secular/state school, there is a real sense in which the world comes to us. As hard as it is to see people graduate and leave, I want to make the most of this opportunity. The challenge is the blessing.
4. Describe the student leadership structure you have in place, particularly qualifications and responsibilities.
JN: We jokingly talk about our “pyramid scheme” for leadership and discipleship. In a college ministry of around 300 students, we need to distribute the responsibility for the “personal work” of the gospel that I mentioned before. So I have committed to disciple, mentor, lead, and train a team of 12 ministry interns. Those interns, in turn, each mentors, disciples, and encourages two or three undergraduate small group leaders. The 30 or so small group leaders, then, are responsible for intentionally shepherding the students in their small groups, in partnership with their assigned interns and the families from the church. This structure gives us the best shot at providing every student in our ministry with a good relational connection outside of our big gatherings.
SR: Our leadership team is not by application, but by appointment. When young men or women demonstrate holy character, relational skills, and local church commitment, we seek them out and ask them to consider serving as a leader. Being a leader primarily consists of shepherding a small group of five or ten peers. We currently have fifteen leaders who meet together twice a month for prayer, fellowship, and ministry updates (the day-to-day administrative tasks are done by a smaller group of three paid interns). My wife regularly meets one-on-one with the female leaders, and I do the same with the guys.
5. How does your local church partner with the parachurch ministries?
JN: In many ways, the main parachurch organization we partner with is Wheaton College, since so many of our students (during the school year) are undergraduates there. We have few formal partnerships with Wheaton, but absolutely tons of informal partnerships. I’m personally on campus multiple times a week—meeting with students, speaking to athletics teams, attending events, and connecting with professors and employees. Many of our best student leaders have prominent leadership roles on campus as well. Our basic goal is to call our students to prioritize the local church in their spiritual lives and service, but to maximize their involvement and potential for influence for Christ on their campus. Recently, too, we’ve taken a step in partnership with Cru, which has a small presence on the campus of the local two-year junior college. With 30,000 commuting students attending there, we see it as a major mission field for the students in our ministry. We’re excited that several of our young men and women have committed to spend a day a week on this campus, participating with and promoting Cru's presence and ministry.
We believe the parachurch ministries exist to support and affirm the local church. This can look very different depending on one’s ministry context. Each ministry has its own vision and personality, so I don’t think partnering means we have to host events together or act like we’re all doing the exact same thing, because we’re not. For us, our partnership consists of offering prayer support, financial assistance, and office space and supplies to many of the local parachurch leaders. In return, we hope they seek to transition their students into the life of the church at large. On a personal level, I try to meet with each local church and parachurch college ministry leader at least once per year for encouragement and accountability. Thus far, this has been a mutually beneficial and low-friction setup.
6. In your opinion, what does today’s church need to “get” about college ministry?
JN: Pastors, elders, lay leaders, I would simply put it this way: We need college students, and they need us! Our local churches can be so blessed when we invite the university-aged students in our midst into the life, ministry, and service of our communities. They challenge us, push us, and . . . yes, sometimes frustrate us. But we will benefit from their presence with us. And they need us as well. Many of our undergraduate students are reaching a stage of life at which they begin craving a mentor—an older, godly person who can simply share biblical wisdom with them as they consider careers, relationships, and life decisions. Let’s step up to disciple, mentor, train, and send the young people in our midst.
SR: Church members need to know that college ministry isn’t just for people in their 20s. Older church members can offer a crucial ministry to college students through avenues like one-on-one mentoring, hosting exchange students, offering career and financial advice, or opening their house as a “home away from home.” On the flip side, the college-age population has a lot to offer the church in return, like passion, vitality, diversity, youth leadership, volunteer service, and, of course, cheap babysitting.
7. What one piece of advice would you give to someone just getting started in ministry to college students?
JN: We have a phrase that we repeat often to ourselves in the context of our ministry . . . especially when we feel like we’re floundering a bit: “The Word does the work.” We're convicted that God’s Word is able to make us “wise for salvation,” and to provide “training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3). It’s sharper than a double-edged sword, and can get inside the hearts and thoughts of people (Heb. 4). If you want to get started in college ministry, keep the Word central. The Word does the work in the lives and hearts of God’s people, as we speak it, read it, and proclaim Christ by it. We sometimes, though, tack on a second phrase to that statement of Word-centered core conviction: “The Word does the work best in the context of deep relationships. It’s not that God needs deep relationships to break into a person’s life with the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But particularly with college ministry, deep and authentic relationships are almost always the way “in” for gospel ministers and leaders. So if you’re starting out in college ministry, stick close to the Word—in teaching and study and discipleship. Then start getting to know some students by investing in them relationally. You might be surprised by how God works.
SR: Be ruthlessly committed to expository preaching, intercessory prayer, and leadership development. Don’t assume that unbelievers don’t want to hear what the Bible actually says. Don’t convince yourself you’re too busy to pray. Don’t decrease your leadership standards in order to increase your ministry ego.