Missional Campus Ministry 3 (RJS)

The church I attend has an outstanding youth ministry. No question. And intentionally inter-generational worship. The staff is intent on building relationships. The church is thriving, even growing. The number of families with young children is increasing. And yet …

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My daughter graduated from high school this year.  She has been in this church since we moved here just after her first birthday; she “belongs.”  There was a big graduation luncheon – complete with video and moving remembrances (we had known roughly half the 15-20 seniors since they were in preschool); the whirlwind of graduation ceremonies, family visits, and open houses.  And the next Sunday as we prepared to leave for church she informed me that she was now supposed to attend one of the adult education communities … and as she put it “No Way!” For a time perhaps she no longer belongs.

This leads to the question I would like to address today.

What does your church do to intentionally reach, walk along side, and disciple 18-25 year-olds?

The above incident – while true – also gives a bit of a wrong impression. We are in a University town and have a growing church based campus ministry reaching college students, graduate students, and beyond. June, July and August are slow months for campus ministry (and other ministries). Nonetheless this incident is telling — our 18 to 25 year-olds are entering a strange new world.  They are not children, or even youth – but neither are they full-fledged adults.  The expectation that they will smoothly enter the adult program (even for the summer) is unrealistic. Emerging adulthood is an excellent description.

Church based college ministry – ministry to the college-aged adults is the focus of Chuck Bomar’s new book College Ministry 101: A Guide to Working with 18-25 Year Olds. This book is what “101” implies, an introductory guide and overview. I found it an easy read with a number of excellent insights.  There is little detailed analysis, although he is clearly familiar with much of the literature.  I will highlight a few of his points to start a discussion.

Why College-Age Ministry? This may seem obvious to some, but certainly not to all.  The drift of college-age people from church is a well documented phenomenon.

If our goal is to develop mature believers (and I hope it is!) we can’t afford to watch college-age people detach from the church. Developing ministries that nurture and disciple college-age people isn’t optional for churches. It’s part of our calling as the body of Christ. (p. 21)

Ask Scot if we have a problem and stand back – we’ll get an earful (a well researched and articulated earful). We have a problem.

Identity formation. Many of the reasons for a church to invest in an intentional college-age ministry arise from the specific features of this age, amplified by our modern society where higher education of some form is becoming the norm. Bomar stresses the importance of identity formation for college-age people. They are exploring, taking ownership. and becoming. It is an exciting, challenging, and unsettling time.

I want to say once more that identity formation isn’t just a big issue for this age group.  It is the issue. I know some leaders who wonder why they need to understand identity formation. They believe that if they simply teach the Word of God, then identity will take care of itself. But this search for identity is so all-consuming that it greatly impacts the way a young person understands the Word. Identity is where our concern ought to lie. (p. 37)

A successful college-ministry will emphasize relationships, discipleship, and mentorship, not numbers and programs.  We need to meet people where they are – and college-age people are not, for the most part, settled and suited to our standard church model.

Teaching and Discipleship – one of Bomar’s best sections.

Our traditional approach to spiritual formation isn’t really forming people as much as it is indoctrinating them. The simple articulation of conclusions we’ve come to doesn’t prepare college-age people for the intellectual challenges they’ll face as adult Christians.

Let me put this another way. College-age people who were raised with one perspective on questions of identity and meaning and life eventually become aware that this perspective isn’t the only way of thinking, that the answer might not have been as simple as the church made it seem. They start to wonder why we never told them about these other perspectives. And then they question all the conclusions we’ve taught them, wondering if the church is hiding something. (p. 129)

According to Bomar a good college-age ministry should break away from the educational model. We shouldn’t teach our conclusions, we should teach the method used to reach our conclusions.  A good college-age ministry doesn’t provide answers, it develops people “passionate about thinking correctly, asking questions, and seeking answers for themselves.” (p. 131)

This is a frightening prospect for some.  It seems safer to provide the right answers up front. After all, if we don’t some of their conclusions and answers may differ from ours. But this we must leave in the hands of God, in the humble realization that some of our conclusions, answers, and positions are likely wrong.

Bomar suggests three significant changes:From teaching the law to teaching the faith; from knowing facts to understanding truth; from surface assumptions to deeper connections. We must realize that difficult questions often have ambiguous answers – and become comfortable with this.

Well, this is enough to give a taste – Bomar’s book contains practical wisdom and insight. It is a good start, but only a start to spur deeper conversation and thinking about college-age ministry.

What do you think? What should we be doing to reach, disciple, and mentor college-age Christians?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • As a previous young adult pastor, the youth minister and I were well aware of the problem: the college freshmen were coming back in the summer and were avoiding the adult classes and lingering around the high school functions. They were coming “home” for the summer and wanted what felt comfortable. At the same time, they did not fit with the youth group anymore. It is really a problem for ex-students who are graduating from college as well.
    As the young adult pastor, I tried to get to know the high school students. I would occasionally participate in activities, especially during the school year, so that they were comfortable with me. We found it best to have an 18-25 age grouping. Anything older than that looks “old” to them.
    Something else that I wish we would have tried was to have an older couple adopt each one and invite them over to their house occasionally so that they get more of an intergenerational feel.
    Those are just a few ideas. Intergenerational problems are not just one way though – plenty of older people who do not want younger people around!

  • No doubt, this is a problem in our area. We’re a part of a church plant that has, from the start, been home to a lot of these 18-25s. And yet, every time we’ve had a full church meeting and asked people to answer the question, “What group of people in our area are being missed by existing ministries?” We always get the young adult/college age …
    This doesn’t explain it away, but something I’ve seen as we’ve tried to reach out to this group, is that they are a flaky bunch! They will plug in and serve and express desire to grow spiritually, and then you don’t see them for a few months … they, some of them, want church on their terms.
    How do you continue to be open to them and provide a place to connect, while not enabling this behavior?

  • This is such an important discussion. Thanks for bringing this up.
    I appreciate the distinction between teaching methodology vs. conclusions. I think that hits on something we sorely need in the church today. In fact, at the risk of sounding too self-promotional, that was exactly my concern when I wrote my book Coffeehouse Theology. I wanted to give Christians a solid method for constructing theology in today’s culture.
    I think it’s worth noting too that our churches rely so heavily on teaching and niche groupings according to age as a result of this. If there was a greater emphasis on service, then perhaps we could mix up the generational pot a bit more. If we can only belong through the educational curriculum, then we limit the bounds of our community and make it that much more difficult for the 18-25 group to find their way. However, if they can belong through service while working out the theology, I think there may be opportunities for greater inclusion.

  • Steve North

    According to Bomar a good college-age ministry should break away from the educational model. We shouldn’t teach our conclusions, we should teach the method used to reach our conclusions. A good college-age ministry doesn’t provide answers, it develops people “passionate about thinking correctly, asking questions, and seeking answers for themselves.” (p. 131)
    This idea should be applied on a much broader scale than just college-age ministry. I’m not even sure this issue is more important for just
    this group. One of the temptations with the educational model we use here is that it assumes – or even dictates – the questions being asked, by the answers for which we test. This is disingenuous at best – and possibly much worse.
    Unchurched and de-churched people readily identify the incongruity of a church that claims to advocate freely given love of God, but sees to it that only questions that lead to the foregone conclusions are allowed to be asked. Our fear, driven by what I think is a deep-seated mistrust of both the scriptures and God, keeps us in the shallow end of the pool of learning, exploration and discovery. And people who really want to swim can and will find a place that will allow them to do so.
    All this is unnecessary, yet it is our current state. The Millenials, for lack of a better collective term, are actively seek dynamic and profoundly dialogical venues within which they can ask their non-sanctioned questions and seek non-scripted answers in the context of a community. The passion for thinking well, asking questions and seeking answers is already in them.
    The question is whether the church can get past its fear-driven educational model to offer a venue for such open spiritual exploration, trusting both God and the scriptures to stand up under whatever level of scrutiny and questioning they may undergo. If we don’t not only will this generation look elsewhere for this openness and authenticity, but we will continue to leave behind our cultural generation, so filled with people who have become convinced the church is no place to find the answers to any questions but the ones prescribed in the curriculum.

  • T

    I agree we need to break away from the educational model and think much more about identity formation. To do that, though, I’d add that we can’t just teach emerging adults how to think better for themselves about the right answers. The current educational approach is significantly due to the fact that we tend to think about the faith way too much in terms of “right answers.”
    I think the plug that gets pulled on Christians going to college is as much (more?) about the internal disconnect that Gandhi observed about Christianity between the doctrine and the actual lives of Christians as it is about overly dogmatic approaches. If the goal is identity formation, you’ve got to get (mentors and) kids living the Truth more deeply and powerfully before they go–having the so-called answers radically shape the lives and practices of the congregation–and not just thinking about things better as if the right answers are an end in themselves.

  • Well, Bomar is dead-on with his comments on identity formation including choice – sounds like you’re right to highlight this RJS.
    Every freshman that shows up on campus is in a massive Identity Flux. Who Are Their Friends? is a huge question. A new location is an opportunity to remake themselves from their high school identity. The plurality of campus is huge (and exciting). And they are struggling where to put their family (rejection, toleration, cling to, etc).
    In some ways, I think every freshman that arrived and we successfully welcomed and plugged-in to a vibrant, discipleship-oriented small group went through a CONVERSION experience. Whether or not we theologically saw them as Christians prior to their coming.

  • Joey

    We do nothing. But as the youth pastor I tend to be pretty lenient in allowing them to continue to participate in our ministry but I usually give them a function of some sort. Trip leader, Master of PowerPoint, Ice Cream Scooper Extraordinare. I don’t know how to solve this problem because we are in a small church. We have only a handful of college students and they are all a bit more mature than the seniors who graduate. As a 26 year old I have to find aspects of community and even spiritual formation from places other than my church but not a lot of people are willing or able to do that.

  • This is such a big issue… thanks for raising it RJS.
    I think we need to start by re-envisioning the spiritual life of a believer… from adolescence to adulthood (in the physical sense as much as the spiritual sense). We need to re-think how we’re doing youth ministry such that we are better preparing our young believers for college and ongoing spiritual development in a new environment. We need to see the work that happens with youth, college-age, young adults and older adults as a collective missional effort that we (as ministers of varying kinds) are all playing different roles in. We approach ministry uniquely to the different st/ages because they are in need of different things… but it’s with the mindset that we are helping them to “move along” on the journey and that we will eventually “pass them along” to another minister/ministry.
    The college years are some of the most formational of life! It’s the season that young people are asking a lot of questions, while getting “trained and equipped” for work in the world. They are the future leaders of the world and the Church. The significance of our attention to this key demographic at this critical time in their lives cannot be under estimated.
    Churches, para-church ministries and campus-based ministries need to cease to see each other as competition and start working as allies in the ongoing development of young people. We need to do our part to reclaim the opportunities that are supposed to accompany the collegiate experience: taking on new levels of ownership, responsibility, accountability, commitment, etc., in regards to their faith, character, identity and overall development and formation.
    Thanks for creating space for this conversation to happen… we need more conversations… but moreover, we need more action… at all levels, from all places… for the sake of assisting young people to “grow-up” in the faith.

  • Rick

    Chris Ridgeway-
    What are you finding that is working, or not working, to get them plugged-in to those small groups?

  • I think part of the problem is the segmenting of the church into neatly formed groups. As you grow larger you try to become smaller and we often divide into age groups. The sad thing is that this leaves many people in the cold. An 18 year old is suddenly out of place because they become a freshman in college. I am 34, married, without children and that is like being on another planet. Where does the 28 and single person fit in?
    I think part of the solution is to integrate ages more so we are not told when you hit this stage in life you have to leave everything you knew and join a new group. I am all for small groups by season of life but there needs to be larger groups that are more integrated so when you no longer fit the model demographic you still have a place to go where you don’t feel odd or awkward for being there.

  • Rusty, I think you are on to something there. Maybe your own passion and experience could help create an alternative way of reflecting toward change in this area.

  • What about non-college bound young adults, especially in a college town? Living in a college town myself I have seen them get skipped over. I would like to see a model focused on creating intergenerational relationships & discipleships. I think would fix a lot of problems.
    One of the best most eye opening humbling things for me in college was to hangout with some non-college educated men. College students need off campus experiences like that, often; or they get lost in the univeristy bu bubble.

  • Barb

    Jonathon @12
    This is my question too. What about ANYONE in this age demographic?
    Our church in not in a college town but most in the church just assume that our youth are going on to college–but it’s not fact.
    Many of our local youth go to the community college and some just don’t do much of anything.

  • Don

    Another question is – If this time is so formative for identity, then how do you make an 18 – 25 yo who isn’t attending college feel welcomed and equal to peers in a “College Ministry”?

  • Patrick Oden

    When I was 17, and graduated from high school, I had the benefit of going to a church that was then a cutting edge “Gen-X” church (I’m 34 now). Now this sounds too trendy or awkward or whatever, but it was amazing because instead of having a college group, almost the whole church was a college-age group.
    The front lines of the military are often made up of these same 18-25 year olds, being trained and pushed to greater responsibility and leadership. Yet, in the church far too often this age are treated like advanced high school groups.
    At the church I went to because it was 70% or more this age, the ministries were being led and developed by such people. And, to this day, the best small group I have ever attended was led by two college age people. About 20 people in that group, and it really was a model for what a church could be–emerging before that word had come into play.
    So, a big problem in the college age ministries is a big problem at a lot of ages. If there’s no room to grow and flex leadership, instead of being talked to, or ministered to, or bundled up together for amusement, then college age students especially will settle into being entertained–but at the same time a growing dissatisfaction will develop that will absolutely affect future participation.
    This is an age when not only personal identity is formed but also church identity. Only there is so often such a narrow range of ways to participate and an even narrower range of ways in which a person can be pressed into more responsibility and leadership, that a malaise sinks in that continues to harden. Especially with men. Which keeps up until there are babies born, and couples want to go to church for the kids programs–which are designed almost exactly like a whole lot of other ministries, but in this case this kind of ministry approach is actually suitable to kids.
    College age men and women aren’t kids, but they’re not adults. Only there’s so little pathway to Christian “adulthood” other than seminary that we juvenilize those in college or starting careers and stunt spiritual maturing, maybe permanently.

  • Danimal

    I go to a big church in a college town that is right across the street from the university so college ministry is a big focus of the church as a whole. I think the church actually does a pretty good job of integrating the college students in with the church body as a whole. One particular thing I like is that the small groups are mixed by age/place in life. I have had college freshmen to 70+ seniors in the small groups I’ve been in and I think it’s great to get the prespectives of Christians who are in a different place in life. From what I can tell, the college students like hearing from older and (sometimes) more mature Christians too.

  • I SO appreciate Chuck calling attention to the humongous gap that so awkwardly exists in many churches – even big, otherwise quite successful ones.
    And a lot of the comments illustrate powerfully how filling the “gap” in our churches has to be accomplished on a case-by-case basis. There is no standard fix here – because not only is every collegiate (and young adult) setting different, but every church is different, too. So a best solution for one church may be different from a church down the street, let alone a church in a bigger city or a church closer to a large campus.
    For instance, for Chuck’s ministry – in suburban Southern California, drawing lots of students from community colleges – focusing on the 18-25 age-range made perfect sense. In most settings, college-age doesn’t seem to go that high. For other settings, all the church can do is have a joint college & young adults (so 18-30ish) experience, and then maybe point college people to other ministry opportunities on their campus (fitting with what Guy said in the comments). And those are just three of the possibilities. It’s absolutely imperative (and incredibly rare) that we discern our church’s best plan based on its context and people, instead of some diagnosed plan – no matter how structured OR organic the diagnosis happens to be.
    Personally, I think a key that we don’t look at enough is where individuals’ focus of community is, especially because truly “collegiate” life can be so distinct from both what comes before it and what comes after it. Many non-college-attending 19- year-olds still function surprisingly “collegiately,” including spending a lot of time with college students they knew from high school. On the other hand, there are plenty of 20- or 21-year-olds who fit far better into a true Young Adult Ministry, because their lives have never been “collegiate.” (An example on the other end: I’ve noticed that many churches now include married Young Adults (no kids) WITH unmarried Young Adults – because both groups continue to maintain similar lifestyles… until baby makes three. Or so I hear.)
    So though I’m in the minority, I actually think we should give deference to non-college-attenders by helping them find community that fits them best – regardless of their actual age – instead of leaning on the traditional “College and Career” model. But again, that’s only if discerning our particular settings and people shows that’s the best route to take.

  • beckyr

    I think teenagers do need a group of their own but after that I think there shouldn’t be the dividing up of the community by age. Have topical classes that all ages can attend. For instance, we need to learn from those more mature in the faith. And we need to find that the young people have an enthusiasm we could share. I am against dividing up people by age, single, married, with kids etc

  • Great post, with some great thoughts. I have a couple thoughts on why most churches have a hard time reaching college aged students and maybe some thoughts on how to do it.
    Reasons churches don’t:
    1. It is really hard. Most other demographics have a “reason” to come to church. Either they have kids they want to get involved in a church, or their parents are making them go. 18-25 years old do not fit either of those categories, so you have to work a lot harder.
    2. There is no financial pay off. 18-25 year olds do not give and they have little potential to bring their parents to church (as a high school student would). Little giving potential often equals little budget.
    Some thoughts on the how:
    I help pastor h2o church in Bowling Green, Ohio. 90 percent of our church is college students. We don’t know how to do a lot of things, but reaching college aged students is our focus. Here is what we have learned.
    1. Relationships are central. I know this point is talked about everywhere but, it can not be understated. There is fine line between being a social club and being a relationally driven church, but with good systems, prayer, and council it can happen in a Biblical model. Relationships are essential to reaching 18-25 year olds.
    2. We are missionaries. Most 18-25 year olds are not Christians, even the ones who grew up in church (research tells you that). We have to study the culture, use what we can for the gospel and speak lovingly yet boldly against the rest of it.
    3. Partnerships with others. Back to the money thing, you can’t reach 18-25 year olds with out money, let’s just admit it. But, they don’t have any money (or at least they don’t give any money). So we have to form strategic partnerships with churches and individuals who want to reach college but can’t or aren’t for whatever reason.
    4. Becoming experts in producing leaders. In many churches you develop a leader and he or she may be with you for the next 20 years. In college focuses churches or ministries that is a luxury that is seldom experienced. We have to be experts in making young men and women faithful servant leaders quickly so that they can serve their peers. Then after a few years they are usually sent out into the work force, to minister at another church in another city. It is the built-in sending component of college churches that we love and hate at the same time!
    There are many other things we have learned, but these are just the top four in my mind. Hope some of it is helpful!

  • RJS

    Many great comments. I wish I had more time to interact with the comments on this post – but I am traveling to help her move in at college tomorrow and a new stage really begins.
    #12-14 (Barb, Don, Jonathan)
    Bomar takes care to use the term “college-age” because much of the same is true of those who do not go to college, although some of the concerns are different.
    #19, Bryan,
    One of the major points here is the mission – many in this age group can appear to be “flaky” – I was at that age I know. But relationship is the key – relationship with them as people. I would say that I am where I am today because a few people in particular related to me as a valuable individual, not because of what I could do for the “church,” and with patience, not judgment – even when I was flaky and unreliable.

  • Mike

    Blessings on your move: I just returned from depositing my daughter for Year 3…
    Re: Identity Formation. Yes…and …No. I realize, without having read Chuck’s book, that this matter begs for better attention, methodologies, and certainly time and space (lots and leisurely, respectively) with which to cultivate trust and intimacy.
    My dissent here gets located among some general grouchiness and a more than a little bit of “let’s not miss the forest for the trees.” If Identity Formation deserves the attention that Chuck asserts- and let me repeat, I largely agree- then it cannot be distinct from our participation in the larger biblical narrative with the students…
    To wit: like the post in #6 by Chris, rather than take a student’s confession at face value, what would it look and sound like to explicitly develop relationships of trust and service, share methods and take risks together, as well as tether ourselves to a historic understanding of Christ, the Trinity, and the Atonement? Well, I’ll suggest that the students will observe us being converted as well as themselves!
    In other words, to engage in a ministry of Identity Formation needs to be tenuous and humble enough to admit in tangible practice that we’re just as much part of the same development, albeit with different experiences, as the students we aim to mentor into maturing followers of Jesus.

  • #9 – Rick – What things are successful in getting students plugged in?
    Stage 1: social opportunity with high hospitality and proximity (e.g. relational small groups that meet in or near dorms with with older small group members taking high initiative to stop by rooms and personally invite, etc).
    Stage 2: Instant ownership. Inviting people to help serve/play a part/lead/impact very quickly. This doesn’t mean an immature person leading a formation group. This does mean anyone can help cook, move sound equipment, put up posters, plan a fun Friday night. Leadership development stepping stones (shout out to #19 Bryan Wiles there who is my campus network: he is dead-on when he says “becoming experts at producing leaders.” This is not a separate goal from members. We view all that “belong” as potential influencers/leaders.
    Stage 3: discipleship challenge. Don’t set a low bar, set a high one. Take up the Cross: let’s do it. Passionate commitment.
    Stage 4: Training by multiplication. Teaching those who have sold out the tools to repeat with others Stages 1-3.

    #21 Mike –
    Completely with you that large doses of humility are necessary to successfully walk alongside (I think of parakletos) identity formation.
    But if you might be saying that we’re all going through identity formation, I’d agree, but suggest that for most there is a uniqueness
    to the early-college formative years in American culture that isn’t experienced elsewhere.