10 yrs back and 10 yrs forward

Throughout this past year of research, I had the opportunity to ask church-based college ministers, young adult ministers, and other church people about the history of Collegiate Ministry in their churches. It was fascinating.

(I was so fortunate to connect in some way with most of the nation’s tip-top most influential churches, as well as many other great congregations.)

Sadly, many churches’ recent histories of college ministry are hectic histories, exhibiting pretty dramatic ups-and-downs in a relatively short time frame.

But these aren’t poorly-run churches. Many are rightly admired organizations which seem to succeed in most other areas. Several of these churches are looked up to by Christians throughout the world.

When it comes to college ministry, however, many of them would report that it hasn’t quite clicked yet.

In many churches, the past 10 years of the college ministry looks something like this: 5-7 different ministry heads (some full-time, some part-time, and some volunteer), organized under different departments, named several different names, a few years with large numbers, a few really small years, a few years where the church doesn’t technically have a ministry to this age group at all…

…with diverse reasons for all the “fluctuations” along the way.

This is a very common pattern.

In my own most recent college ministry role, I was college minister number 4 in 4 years. Since then, I know there have been 2 or 3 more main leaders overseeing that area.

This is a very common pattern.

3 things:

  • College ministry is tough.
  • In many ways, church-based college ministry is even tougher.
  • There have got to be strategies to help the next 10 years go better.


  1. Pingback: the normal method for starting a church college ministry « Exploring College Ministry

  2. “In many ways, church-based college ministry is even tougher.”

    Why is that? It seems that with the backing of an established local church, having a sustainable ministry would be EASIER than being an autonomous para-church group.

    Can someone explain to me the differences between the two? And the strengths and weaknesses?

  3. One big issue I’ve seen a lot:

    Campus-based college ministers (which include true parachurch ministries as well as denominational ministries) tend to be evaluated by fellow college ministers.

    So they understand the areas of college ministry that function differently from, say, youth ministry. This includes the way college ministries grow (numerically and otherwise) and the need to be campus-oriented rather than only attractional.

  4. I think that an entire book could be written about this topic and the issues that have lead to a lack of solid ministry in larger churches. I believe that Ben is right when it comes to seeing what is happening in churches. In Texas we have seen this trend. Let me give just a few reasons why these ministries have had so many troubles. My comments come from the church ministry side not the Para-church side.
    I am also biased, focusing on and wanting to develop the church based side, so my comments are going to center around the churches.

    1. The church as a whole may be doing well, but that does not translate into churches putting money into collegiate ministry. I am amazed at the size and ministry of some churches and yet the fact that they do not have a full time collegiate person, and that they have almost no budget. In several instances I know that there has been great turn over because the minister could not survive on what they were paying.

    2. The church does not have a vision for collegiate ministry so when then hire they have no clue what to look for in a collegiate leader. (It is easier to give money to the Para-church and say that is our college ministry than do it themselves)

    Some churches have not really connected well with the generation and so the assumption is they cannot reach them. Their service is to traditional…(This would be assumed to be the biggest issue, but I do not think this is true.)

    That is off the top of my head. Hope this helps add to the discussion

  5. I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while. There are several reasons church-based college ministry is hard. Here are a few:

    1) Churches often think of college ministry as just an extension of youth ministry. This is very understandable, but it obscures an important point. The dynamics that give rise to college ministry are very different than the dynamics that give rise to high school ministry. In fact, I believe that the history of college ministry is independent of the history of youth ministry and, if I am not mistaken, college ministry predates youth ministry considerably (this is an impression I have gained from reading about college and youth ministry over the years, but I haven’t done focused research on this – let me know if I’m wrong).

    2) Residential colleges are their own communities. Exploiting this fact is key to ministering to college students effectively. Churches are rarely able to do this. Almost of necessity, they minister to “young adults” or “college-aged people” rather than “the undergraduates of X State University”. Again, a very understandable dynamic. Nobody wants to kick Johnny out because he didn’t choose to go to college (or didn’t get in). But the greater the percentage of young adults in the ministry from outside the residential college, the harder it will be to really attract a lot of students. This is especially true at universities with a strong sense of school spirit.

    3) The pressure to minister to children and youth comes from tithe-paying parents. College students are usually other-people’s kids, and they don’t tithe enough to pay their own way. This means that a church usually has to have a fairly large budget to be able to staff a full-time college ministry position. When the budget gets tight, college ministry is one of the first victims on the chopping block.

    4) Strategies that succeed in youth ministry often backfire in college ministry. This shouldn’t be a surprise – many youth ministry strategies start to backfire around the 11th grade. Just look at the sharp dropoff in attendance that most youth ministries experience around age 16-17.

    5) Churches are usually prone to host events on their own property rather than on campus (see point 2 above), and this makes their ministry even more difficult.

    6) There are other reasons I’m having a hard time putting into words…

    There are plenty of churches that are overcoming these obstacles, but they seem to me to be recurring factors in churches that are having a hard time sustaining effective college ministry.

    Having said that, churches do have some real advantages.

    1) Even a modestly-sized church has a much greater budget than the typical parachurch college ministry.

    2) Churches have large armies of potential volunteers for big events (such as a campus move-in day or a large free BBQ or serving as international student host families).

    3) Almost everyone has a mental hat peg for “church”, and so an invitation to church makes sense. An invitation to a “campus fellowship” usually requires an explanation.

    4) Churches are actually better-positioned to reach community colleges than parachurch ministries are. And community colleges are definitely on the rise.

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