when missional gets unmissional

This week in Ohio, I’m meeting with various college ministers and church planters, and one topic has come up a few times: how some of the most “missional” American churches and church plants actually take a very UNmissional approach to college ministry. Even if you’re not in church-based college ministry, I think this “classic” post could help you help churches think this through better. Enjoy – and new comments are welcome!

On page 30 of Reaching the Campus Tribes, I broach a subject that I believe is really important for churches to ponder. The interesting dilemma is that some modern-style churches may actually impact students worse while striving to break with tradition. In fact, while trying to be more missional, some churches may end up less missional.

Some churches have opted to go the “non-traditional” route by pointing students directly to their intergenerational structures, “fully assimilating” them into the adult programs of the church. They plug them into small groups, Bible classes, or other activities alongside the church’s adults – without any opportunity for small group discipleship as college students or specialized outreach to local college campuses.

(Certainly, this sometimes takes place by default when churches haven’t taken the time to plan anything for students, leaving collegians to trickle into other areas of the church – and otherwise not stick around. But I’m talking about something slightly different today.)

As I write in Reaching, the full-assimilation method “certainly reflects a clear respect for college students as full members of the local congregation.” So on one hand, I applaud the motivation behind not separating college students and treating them as a distinct congregation (as one leader at a famous Emerging church described).

But for these highly missional churches, the funny thing is that this approach may be LESS missional in regard to those college students. Why? Because this method usually involves yanking them out of their actual community.

Though a college campus is located geographically within a particular area, it rarely has a high degree of sociological similarity to the rest of that area. Especially at residential colleges, many college students have one primary community – and it isn’t the local neighborhood, nor is it particularly similar to the local neighborhood. It’s the campus, and it’s (obviously) a world of its own.

This means that these otherwise “missional” churches are being highly “attractional” (in a sense that’s opposite from their normal efforts). If I’m not mistaken, this format pretty clearly demands that collegians leave “them” to come away with “us” to do church – both in location and in identity.

If we desire to be missional with college students, we have to think through what that means in their special case. Just as reaching our neighborhoods missionally involves connecting with people “on their terms” and “on their turf,” impacting college students missionally involves recognizing their unique terms and turf, too. While it’s good to help college students get out of their small worlds some of the time, reaching them within their home contexts and teaching them to live for Jesus within those worlds is vital, too.

The way I put it in the book was:

At the same time, it must be remembered that many college students’ cultural identity and community are located not in the local neighborhood but specifically within their collegiate experience. Thus any church aiming to reach people “missionally” and contextually should consider the special situation of college students. Unless efforts are made to reach campus tribes on their own terms, we may actually be missing opportunities for relevant impact in this important life stage. And we will be removing students from the very communities in which they presently have the most influence for God’s Kingdom.

There are plenty of church planters and others who need to think these things through, as I continue to do the same! That’s one way we advance college ministry – through debate and rigorous thought. So while I’ll keep thinking, I did want to address this here. And I’d love to hear your thoughts – positive, negative, or illustrative.

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  1. Pingback: this-is-missions monday: manifest destiny « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

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