How Can My Church Reach College Students On Campus?
By Manny Silva
In my new office on Friday morning, a pastor sits across from me. A veteran in ministry, the empty space in the office is filled with echoes of Paul and Timothy. As the conversation comes to a close he asks me, “How can my church reach college students on campus?” The church is small, and the congregation has more in common with the grandparents of the students than the students themselves. However, I tell this pastor, who is a veteran in college ministry himself (serving in collegiate ministries in both Tennessee and Arkansas), that he only needs two things to be a church that reaches college students well. 1. From the pulpit, say “We want college students here, so let’s go get them.” 2. Create an opportunity for college students to lead in the church.
19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in the fall of 2020.¹ 19.4 million views on how the world works and why we are here. Universities have a long history of being a place full of new ideas and different thoughts. It is likely that every majority of beliefs or opinions on one side of campus is a minority on the other side. This is not God’s holy land. This is a place where faith goes to die; or that is the belief of many people sitting in our pews and foldable chairs. Many may view going off to college as a death sentence to the faith for young men and women. In reality, it may be the very thing that brings life and ownership to their faith.
This is the first time that many college students will not have the support of parents or loved ones, who have in the past been the ones to lift them up or be their voice of reason. They are the people of Israel in the book of Deuteronomy, hearing the speech of someone who has guided them all these years but who will not be entering into the new land with them. At the borders of the promised land, every college student who has grown up in the church has to make the decision, to follow the commands of God or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)
Whether a person walks onto a campus as a believer or not, they face many of the same challenges. College students, like any other adult person, have motivations that determine what they do. A young family’s motivation — safety; Recent graduate – opportunity; Retiree – purpose. The motivation for every college student the first 10 days on campus – belonging. The two greatest questions of a college student are, “Where do I belong,” and “Who do I want to become?” We as the church need to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see if we can help fill their needs.
How does a place that many view as the death of faith become the place where faith blooms? We treat college students like missionaries and not children in Sunday School. The college campus is the greatest mission field in the U.S., with every nation and belief calling it home for 4-5 years. Today, most missionaries and church planters must have spiritual, relational, and professional maturity. We need to look at college ministry as a mission field where we get to spend 4-5 years coming alongside college students; training them up before we send them out into the world. College students are the most “send-able” people of any age group. This means our churches must become hubs of community and equipping if we are to see a change.
People will often belong before they believe. If that is the case, how are we to make our churches a place for college students to belong?
- We have OPEN LIVES – Just as Jesus left the right hand of the father to dwell with humanity, we need to leave our 9-5 mentality and come alongside college students. This means opening up our lives and homes to them. When a college student comes into your home, they are getting two things: free laundry, and a free lesson in adulthood. The way you talk to your spouse, how you raise your kids, and how you react to the reality of life. These are what a college student wants. They want to learn how to become adults and the only way that happens is through watching you do it in your home.
- We give OWNERSHIP – A college student will invite their friends to a church that they feel like belongs to them. If college students are not allowed any form of ownership in a church, they are not family members, they are a guest. No one invites someone into a home that is not theirs. Ownership does not mean that the church is shaped around college students or any age group, it means we are giving college students something to steward and bring to life on their own.
The church is to be a place of belonging for college students but also a place that helps them become who they will be afterwards. As the church we must:
- SPIRITUALLY EQUIP – It is highly unlikely that a student who gave their life to Christ before college leaves it behind overnight. Most college students are not leaving the faith, they’re doing nothing with it. College students have 4-5 years of having less life demand and more free time than the average adult. That time should be used to be training college students how to develop disciplines that will strengthen their faith. Reading the Word daily, praying, and practicing spiritual disciplines will not fall into the lap of a college student magically after they graduate. It will happen when we coach them in those things during their college life.
- DEVELOP LEADERS – College students will be the leaders of our workplaces and churches overnight. However, they will not embody the character or maturity of good leadership just because they step into leadership roles. One of a college ministry’s top priorities needs to be developing the communication skills and maturity of everyone who walks through our doors. Working alongside students and helping them set goals that you will hold them accountable to is what will help them become young professionals. Leadership skills and maturity are developed through time and effort, not gifts of the few.
- SEE COLLEGE STUDENTS AS MULTIPLIERS – It is far more likely that it will be a college student who leads another college student to faith. We need to see college students as the ones who will disciple the next generation of disciple makers. We cannot depend on chance to raise up strong leaders.
In Acts 17, Paul and Silas entered Thessalonica preaching the gospel. When an angry mob comes looking for them, the way they describe Paul and Silas in verse 6 is as “these men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.” College students are the greatest blessing to the church. Their lives on campus have given them an amazing opportunity to grow in faith and make disciples of Christ. It’s our role as ministers and the church to come alongside them and give them a place to call home and equip them to be sent out. The hope is that we would get to say, “the college students who have turned the world upside down for the gospel have come to here to our church also.”
¹The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Retrieved August 25, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common