surprises from the journey(s)

I have been asked on occasion what has surprised me as I’ve trekked around the country researching college ministry. So though I’ve mentioned things along the way, I figured I’d post a better list of some such surprises. Maybe these things will surprise you; maybe they won’t! But my hope is that more and more, we’d all become further familiar with our field – beyond just our own portions, areas, and organizations.

The existence of major college ministries I was unfamiliar with.

Remember, I had been involved in doing college ministry for 8 years and had attended maybe a dozen college ministry conferences before starting my cross-country research. So I was pleasantly surprised to find college ministries I’d never heard of.

The most prominent of those were probably Coalition for Christian Outreach, which I first heard about from Greg Carmer, the Dean of the Chapel at Gordon College, and Campus Outreach, which I first heard about from College Church Wheaton’s College Pastor, Jay Thomas. Funny how you remember that stuff. I’m not sure when I first heard about Great Commission Ministries and their network of collegiate churches, but that’s another prominent one I discovered.

The missional activity taking place in college ministries all over.

Though I wouldn’t necessarily have used the word “missional” at the time, I was encouraged by how often I did indeed run into missional activity taking place through college ministries and/or their students. As I wrote last week, there are indeed ministries out there that seemed to have reached a sort of “culture” that encourages such things, and it was always exciting to find.

The “turbulent ten years” and churches’ perennial difficulties.

I wasn’t surprised that churches struggle to build successful, long-lasting college ministries, since I myself had been involved in church-based college ministry for those 8 years. (In my last gig, I was hired as the fourth college minister in – you guessed it – four years.)

Don’t get me wrong – there are quite a few really strong church-based college ministries out there. But I have been a little surprised by the number of churches that have perpetual difficulties. And even while making few changes, many just hope that this time is going to work. As I’ve argued a’plenty, there has to be a better route for churches to develop successful College Student Plans, because the track record for our present attempts isn’t so hot.

(The pic of the George Mason University fountain at the top symbolizes the ups-and-downs of churches’ experiences in college ministry. It’s what I used for this point in my recent seminar at the EV Free churches’ annual conference.)

The preponderance of collegiate churches.

Though they compose the smallest branch of college ministry, collegiate churches are by no means rare. I mentioned GCM above, but there are plenty of other campus churches, as well, dotted all over the landscape but not all that obvious unless you’re looking for them… or unless you’re on that campus. In fact, several collegiate churches draw hundreds of students.

Our (incorrect) extrapolations about college ministries.

I was surprised to realize how much I’d innocently presumed based on my own semi-limited experience. And then I ran into this same sort of extrapolating throughout my visits. College ministers regularly mentioned things like, “Nobody’s doing X” (but I knew of several ministries that were, in fact, doing X); “That’s probably the biggest ministry of its kind” (but I’d seen several larger); “This is really unique” (but I knew how common it was); and so on.

I can’t really blame those guys and gals; I was the same way, even after 8 years of college ministry work. But it’s healthy to realize how often we extrapolate based on our own region, or what we’ve heard, or what we’ve seen.

Here’s the key principle for all of us: In an ultra-diverse field like ours, our broad statements only have validity if we’ve observed an enormous number of ministries. So even after I’ve gotten to see hundreds of ministries, I’ve learned to be very careful about what I “declare.” Honesty requires it.

There are more surprises, but that’s good for now. Questions? Comments?

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