A few years ago, I had the chance to “present” at Guy Chmieleski’s collegiate ministry blogathon – with this round’s theme being “The Future of College Ministry.” Before jumping into more discussion of contextualization in college ministry (after posting some new thoughts on the topic yesterday), I wanted to re-post those thoughts, which still get me fired up!

Further In: A Future of Deeper

The brightest future for any individual college ministry might be found in going deeper, not simply wider. And coincidentally, this could just be one of the most exciting paths forward for our field as a whole, too.

After exploring the wide world of American college ministry over the last four years, I’m occasionally asked about anything that I’ve found disappointing. One of my common responses: “It all seems too similar.” I’ve seen hundreds of ministries in action (in all four branches of college ministry), and while I’m quite excited about what they’re doing, it’s still rare to find ones that seem, well, all that different.

Of course, I’m not saying ministries are identical. But it’s far too rare to find college ministries (or even aspects of ministries) that don’t pretty closely fit a common mold (whether their leaders realize it or not).

the difference is real

College campuses differ in plenty of ways. Sure, we can paint schools with broad strokes: “big state universities,” “private Christian schools,” “liberal northeastern schools,” etc.. But only a moment of reflection reveals that those generalizations work about as well as “African tribes” or “North American neighborhoods.”

And if we approach them in generalized ways, we’ll get “generally good” results! I want more.

It’s no secret that I view college ministry through the lens of Missions, and this is perhaps the biggest reason: College campuses differ. Widely. They’ve been structured that way, with all sorts of factors affecting demographics and sociology: a school’s region, its size, what kinds of students it chooses, what kinds of students choose it, its academic foci, its history, its religious climate, its faculty and administration, and on and on.

If the four colleges (of any kind) nearest to you vary as much as they do (and I bet they do!), then isn’t it possible that we’re better off approaching every campus on its own terms?

the difference should make a difference

So that takes me back to the point of this post. If colleges truly are different – at least past the thinnest of surface impressions – then shouldn’t there be pervasive “different-ness” within our field, too?

But the questions might make us cringe: How contextualized have I made my mission to this campus? What are we doing only because this campus is the way it is? What are we doing that would be unlikely to work at most other campuses?

When I impact another person, my greatest effectiveness comes when I know his needs, know his wants, and otherwise know him – and tailor my approach to reaching him as a person…

The same is true for an entire campus. We should be learning these places, falling in love with these places, and begging God for approaches that will fit them best. As we do, deep contextualization may lead to adjustments to present forms, entirely new initiatives, or even entirely new ministries.

  • A future of contextualization would mean refusing any sense of “manifest destiny,” instead diligently exegeting each context before I, my national organization, or my church decides to reach it.
  • For places we are called to reach, this means digging down into what makes each campus unique – and only determining our methods afterward.
  • This could very likely lead to many additional niche ministries (efforts that reach specific groups of people) and complementary ministries (efforts that focus on one piece of students’ discipleship). Some of these forms will come from within present college ministries, some will spin off from present ministries, and some will start from scratch.
  • And when it comes to training each other, we must leave behind senseless extrapolation. What has worked well in one or two places is rarely the prescription for most. We should definitely be sharing what we’ve learned, but much more often as theories and possibilities than as blueprints or patterns.

I genuinely love what God and His people are doing in college ministry. It’s exciting and impactful. But when I think about the future, I’m hopeful we’ll get to know our campuses, come to love our campuses, and reach our campuses on an even deeper level – both in individual campus missions and in regional and national efforts.

I really do envision a day when we see a wide variety of college ministry efforts and practices – many that would be unrecognizable to us today!