“college student plans” vs. classic college ministry approaches in churches – and why you should care, even if you’re in campus-based college ministry

I mentioned yesterday that I have the chance to speak at the national EV Free church leaders’ convention this week. Today, why my topic matters to everyone in college ministry, not just churches.

I care – deeply – about college ministry in all its branches, including certainly campus-based ministry, collegiate churches, and institutional college ministry. But I personally spent lots of years in church-based college ministry. I’ve also had the chance to examine the college ministries (or lack thereof) in most of the country’s best-known churches, along with plenty of churches that aren’t as well known.

And it’s a tough scene.

The toughest (or at least most under-developed) of all the branches.

And the difficulties don’t just affect those churches. They affect all of us who hope to minister to students.

I believe one BIG solution to the difficulties – and one with BIG ramifications for other kinds of college ministry, too – is an approach that emphasizes forming the College Student Plan over the building a “classic” church college ministry.

I first mentioned College Student Plans in my book (pp. 98-103), including:

Perhaps some churches feel they must either have a full college ministry program or nothing at all. But this is simply not the case. In fact, if I began my trip with the faint illusion that every church should build a full-fledged college ministry program, my research quickly cured me of that notion. Not every church needs a standard, holistic college ministry, and obviously not every church will be able to support that level of investment. In fact, our Christian cause among campus tribes would actually be damaged if every local church began competing for the students on the campus.But every church that encounters college students must plan for that encounter.

The College Student Plan Approach to church-based college ministry begins with the assumption that every campus climate is an individual ecosystem, a culture, a “tribe.” It also recognizes that every church is different, too, including (of course) the nature of the collegians actually under its care or in its vicinity.

For a church to begin with any sort of pre-packaged “checklist” for starting its ministry is, at best, foolish. And this includes assuming that the church needs to aim for a stand-alone, full-discipling, classic “college ministry.” Nor should any church assume that its ministry to students needs to look a certain way (like the church down the street or across the state), needs to draw a certain size to be viable, or even needs to look the same season-to-season.

Instead, the College Student Plan Approach begins with “exegeting” or “decoding” the entire context. The point is exegeting before building. Sadly, most churches seem to either jump forward with lots of gusto in an “if we build it, they will come” mentality… OR they take the organic approach and just “see if we can get something going.”

As I’ve seen in churches throughout the country, these two approaches seem to have terrible overall track records.

The College Student Plan Approach urges churches to put all possibilities on the table, and carefully evaluate what’s needed where they are. Their eventual result could include one or more of the following ingredients:

  • particularly focusing on their “home-grown” students, both locally and away at school, including helping them plug into college ministries that will impact them well
  • pointing attending students to campus-based ministries to receive their specialized collegiate impact
  • offering a really solid intergenerational experience for students who attend
  • offering ministry to students that complements the work being done by other college ministries
  • cooperating with like-minded churches to establish a single ministry for college students
  • cooperating in direct partnership with campus-based ministries (or institutional ministries, in the case of Christian colleges)
  • and yes, perhaps creating a full-fledged college ministry to impact the local campus(es)

Should some churches start “classic” college ministries? Absolutely! But one reason we should ALL care about the College Student Plan Approach is that it only implements that option when it’s best. In that way, it encourages health throughout our local campus tribes.

[Later, I reprinted an article I wrote outlining a possible process to discern a church’s College Student Plan. You can find that here.]

But there’s another way the College Student Plan approach encourages health. Because it slows down the church’s process, emphasizing exegeting before proceeding, the resulting college ministry – even if it does ultimately involve a “full-fledged” college ministry – will be far healthier, a better fit within the campus community, and longer-lasting. The entire tribe is weakened when a local church’s college ministry undulates in strength over a decade, restarts constantly, or turns out to be unhealthy.

So we should all rally here, encouraging churches to weigh their attempts wisely, exegete fully, and (as needed) build strongly!

Any thoughts on this – from the church-based among us, or from ministers in the other branches?

For more info on my opportunity this week – and how you can pray, check it out here!

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4 Comments

  1. Great post Benson!

    Getting ministers, and ministries, in every context to think through “their” role with the college students in their midst is huge. I the we all too quickly jump to the conclusion that we are the best option – hand down – and therefore attempt to be all things to all people. 99% cannot be all things to all people. We simply do not have the resources to do so.

    Thanks for helping us to look, with intention, at why we do what we do – or don’t do.

  2. As a campus based, denominationally tied BSM Director, I quite likes this. I do want to help all of our churches connect with and care for collegiates in and around the city, but many of them don’t need a full college ministry in the traditional sense. Also, having them all work independently on campus defeats the purpose of my being there, & would be detrimental to the overall Christian work on campus. This is really helpful to me as I consider what I can do to best help our churches impact the several post-secondary schools in Calgary. I’ve been working with individual churches who are interested in reaching a particular campus, but this gives me a more concrete way to frame what it is we’re working on together. Thanks.

  3. Thanks, Nick! That’s honestly really encouraging, since so many campus-based ministries are in the same boat – even if they’re not denominational, they’re trying to connect churches with what they’re doing.

    Later that week, I reprinted what I wrote for Building Church Leaders about the actual process. One of these days I’ll try to update that article, but you might find it helpful. I’m going to add the link to this post, too, but since I haven’t yet, here it is:

    https://exploringcollegeministry.com/2010/06/16/the-lowdown-on-developing-a-college-student-plan/

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