I’ve never felt “called” to ministering to university students, but for the better part of 15 years they have been the one age demographic that I have found myself around the most. As a Student Minister at a church, working in the Residence Life Departments of two Baptist universities, and as a lay leader and now a pastor of a congregation that was planted in order to reach out to students, I have experienced my fair share of move-in days, first church services of the academic year when my fellow 30-and-40-something friends calculate how old we were when the incoming freshmen were born, and the early autumn “church hopping” season that inevitably occurs, creating a “revolving door” effect of new faces every week for several months.
I am no expert on student ministry. I’ve never taken a course in young adult spiritual development or attended a conference for university ministers. Frankly, college students kind of scare me a little because because they change so quickly, right in front of your eyes, which is a shock to my stability-obsessed psyche. But I love them and I love the Church. If you want to know how to run a great Student Ministry, I have friends who are much more capable of helping you out. I have, however, observed a few things that may be of help.
- Connect, Connect, Connect. As quickly as you can, get new students involved with each other and with the people in your church. If you don’t have a “small group” or “home group” ministry at your church, it is likely that they will find a place that does. Remember that many students live in the most unnatural (and oftentimes scary) environment known to humanity– A college dormitory. Giving them a place during the week to meet in someone’s home to eat a meal and to pull away from campus for just a short while will go a long way in helping students feel like they belong.
- Put students to work. Nothing will make a college student feel more connected to your church than giving them a responsibility. Many churches hesitate to do this because college students can seem very unreliable. The reality is that students are pulled in many different directions but need to know that their church is counting on them to fulfill a role. This is your opportunity to provide students a time of formation, teaching them what it means to live life in a faith community.
- Don’t force transformation, facilitate it. This is very difficult for me. When a freshmen comes to me and says something about faith, life, politics or God’s will, and I know that they will come out on the other end of a certain class believing the exact opposite thing, I want to tell them that immediately. Once a person is a student they are (typically) an adult, and it is my temptation to want them to become FULLY adult immediately. Many times I have had to practice the spiritual discipline of nodding my head when hearing a student speak about something they clearly have little actual knowledge of, knowing that it is more important that I walk with that student through important life stages than teaching them all they should know. There is a time to teach, but that will only come once a student feels cared for, which rarely happens when they feel you are trying to correct them.
- Finally, at the end of their college career, don’t recognize graduates, SEND them. Several years ago we began to notice that while we give lip-service to the idea that teachers, lawyers and business people are just as important in Christ’s Kingdom as pastors and missionaries, our actions say something different when we hold ordination and commissioning services for ministers but not for anyone else. What we communicate by doing this isn’t that teachers, lawyers and business people can be God’s agents in the world by virtue of their vocation, but that they can God’s agents in the world IN SPITE OF their vocation. To remedy this we hold a commissioning service in which we send our students into vocations to be the presence of Christ in whatever place or vocation they find themselves in. Part of this service includes watching a documentary about Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister who sent by his church into the field of children’s television programming. In the video clip Mr. Rogers expresses that the ground on which he works is holy ground. In commissioning our students we send them out onto holy ground as ministers, extensions of our congregation into the world.