poles #2: integration vs. incubation


Tuesday’s first post in the College Ministry Poles series produced some great commentary from readers. Thanks, friends. (Besides that post, you can read the intro to the series here.)

Today’s entry touches on a big question: How much should students be used / ministered to within their own collegiate context, and how much should we point them toward and bring them into the greater world apart from their campus?

Any ministry has to choose how – and how much – they’ll point students to activity, relationships, and learning that go beyond their collegiate environment. But they also have to decide how specifically they should disciple students within their actual, very distinct collegiate lives – as lived out in dorms and classrooms and organizations and friend-circles.

[This just in: DON’T miss J.D. Greear’s analysis of this issue from students’ point of view, that he blogged just today! He’s the pastor of Summit Church, a large church in a very collegiate environment – the North Carolina Triangle. And he arrives at a unique model that certainly falls between these poles. (Hat tip: Phillip Bethancourt)]


On the one hand, many college ministries want to encourage students to plug into local churches, to participate in off-campus service, and to live Christianly among their families, workplaces, and others who don’t attend school with them. Each of these areas is outside the “collegiate community.” Further, one of our major jobs as college ministers has to be preparing students for successful transition to their young adult years.

So, to accomplish any of these aims, ministries have to “drag students out of their collegiate setting” – either bodily or at least in the discussions they pursue.

The most polarized ministries in this direction don’t segregate collegiate impact at all, instead assimilating students into a larger ministry – with youth or young adults, or even an entirely intergenerational group. Yes, it’s usually churches that do this. But other kinds of ministries can come close to this pole, when their ministry pulls students out of their collegiate lives into a “Christian enclave” – even if that “enclave” is on campus!


On the other hand, college campuses often look very different than even the neighborhoods in which they’re found, and students’ lives are often lived very differently than even the non-students who live next door. Whether we personally like that setup or not, this situation could indicate a need to serve students primarily on their own terms and on their own turf.

Those who fall on the Incubation side of this spectrum might argue something like this: The main goal is helping students grow in Christ, and an incubation approach maximizes that opportunity. By teaching students to live for Jesus within their own world, we’re setting them up to do the same thing in every “world” in which they find themselves. This is a hinge moment, when the stakes are high and spiritual growth (or decline) can be rapid. So it makes sense to limit ourselves to the training ground of their collegiate environments – especially since students, as citizens of these communities, are therefore “outsiders” anywhere else.

The most polar in this camp include the many ministries that do very little to point students off-campus, including to local churches. Likewise, even some church-based ministries may function in ways that keep students entirely in collegiate environments, even if they do happen to drive (or walk) to the church once a week.

notes & questions

  1. If you want more on this, I encourage you to read “The Surprisingly Unmissional Approach to College Ministry,” where I point back to this discussion in Reaching the Campus Tribes. The comments on that post really illustrated these issues – and struggling with the tension – well.
  2. Which pole do you lean toward? Or do you fall somewhere in between? Why?
  3. What if we just tried to do both sides really well? Is that even possible?
  4. Do any issues here “trump” others? For instance, is a successful post-college transition more important to aim for than helping students be academically faithful now? Is it more vital to let students learn ministry by leading each other, or to learn intergenerationality through being led by adults? Tricky stuff!


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  1. This topic has got to be one of the biggest struggles for me as a campus minister. One of the biggest difficulties and problems I see with an incubation technique is missing out on the importance of older godly men and women. Titus 1 and 2 makes it very clear what the older men and women are to do with younger men and women. This would seem to be almost impossible without a church base of older godly men and wisdom. There is so much wisdom, experience, failure and faith in the lives of these older godly men and women that is being missed out on. Ultimately I believe there can be a balance of a mission which operates more like the college group of church(es) and are preaching and encouraging students to connect with these women while older godly men and women while churches are also preaching to their older godly men and women to reach out to the college age that attend their churches.

  2. On our campus, we try to build ourselves as a full-service ministry. We are firmly rooted in our local church, and see our college ministry as being our church’s missional endeavor to our universities. As such, everything we do points back toward assimilation into church life so that our students leave college prepared to live in Christian community for the rest of their lives.

    We also run our operations with as many campus-based elements as possible. We have a network on small groups that meet on campus in dorms and public spaces. We hold events on campus, and do active evangelism in the places where people live and go to school. Essentially, we try to encompass both ends of the pole.

    But as luck would have it, Christian unity is not prevalent on our campuses. Most Christian groups operate in a silo – unaware of the other people doing similar things right next to them.

  3. collegeleader

    Benson, thanks for the email alerting me of this post. I’m assuming you would put me in the “integration” area. I wouldn’t entirely disagree, but I would add some things here. First, in no way shape or form would I say this end of the spectrum’s goal or idea is to “drag students out of their collegiate setting.” I know you are likely stating the far extreme here. Instead, I believe it’s the local churches job to equip all people for reaching the context in which they live, work, go to school, etc. This obviously includes college-age people. I do believe that campus ministries can surely assist in this, but if churches were engaged the way they ought to be those campus ministries wouldn’t be needed. In addition, I would say the connection with a local church body is important because of the life on a campus ends at some point. I would argue, as you might assume, that the mentality of the incubator (By teaching students to live for Jesus within their own world, we’re setting them up to do the same thing in every “world”), if it excludes an intimate connection with a local body, will inevitably do little more than extend detachment – instead of it happening once they graduate high school, it will just happen after the 4-6 years after they’ve been disconnected from a local church during college. Once someone is disconnected this long it’s extremely difficult for them to reconnect – just spend time talking to those individuals. I’ve spent 10 years doing so, and have personally talked with hundreds and hundreds of them who are lost when it comes to figuring out how to truly connect intimately with people again in a local church context. That to say, I don’t believe it’s an either/or issue here at all. My take is it HAS to be both.

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