This is a question I’ve been thinking about for over 10 years. Ever since we’ve been in Florida, I’ve been involved with a college ministry at UCF called SHIFT. I’ve also been a high school teacher at a small private school about 20 minutes away.
As far as teaching, I’ve taught 3 classes now from freshmen to seniors. I’ve also seen two cycles of UCF students come in as freshmen, graduate, and adjust to life outside of the school schedule. I’ve seen students in both cycles flourish as well as flounder. And I’ve mostly wondered what could promote the former while diminishing the latter.
Generationally, I’m a millennial, but I prefer the label Generation Y. That’s probably because I like “why” as a question, and I actually think that’s a reason people don’t like millennials (sorry for the hot take there). Part of it is also my analytic personality type (INTJ) that leads me to question traditional methods, especially when they don’t seem effective.
So let’s ask some why questions.
First off, why do college ministry to begin with? Probably because college is a pivotal time in most people’s lives as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. Your identity tends to solidify in the 18-25 range, and for many people, a big chunk of that time is in college (or all of that time if you’re me). College is when teenagers become adults, for better or for worse.
I would like to see college ministry done in a way that helps young adults move through the sink of swim stage of their early 20’s. It can either be done through the local church, or through a parachurch. But, those two venues should have different aims.
So, with that in mind, how should you pursue college ministry?
This is where the different part comes in. The college ministry we are working with, SHIFT, is a parachurch organization. That means that what we do needs to be done alongside the local church (para means beside in Greek).
Too often, college ministries inadvertently replace the local church. If they create their own discipleship structure and have a weekly meeting that includes worship music and preaching, that’s effectively replacing the local church rather than working alongside it. We don’t want to do that.
A big part of that stems from taking a centralized approach, rather than a de-centralized one. In the former, it is about coming to a central location for a meeting that involves everyone in the ministry. It is a “come and see” sort of thing. The weekly meeting is the primary vehicle of engagement and all the activities flow from that central event.
In a de-centralized approach, you may never have a big meeting. SHIFT took this approach last year and rather than relying on a weekly meeting, had three small groups that met in various locations on campus. One was more apologetics based and dug into why Christianity is true. Another wrestled with the dynamics of integrating your faith into your work. And the other was a more traditional girls discipleship Bible study. Here and there all the groups would converge, but the primary avenue of engagement was the small group.
This is what we anticipate continuing into this coming school year. Not those exact groups per se, but the basic commitment to go small and mobile rather than large and inert.
We also want to work to get students plugged into local churches as their primary outlet for growing and serving. In other words, if students have time to volunteer for outreach and mission, we want them doing that in a local church, not through SHIFT.
As far as discipleship goes, I think that is something that takes multiple mentors to accomplish. For that reason, we still see Bible study as something should happen through a college ministry. But, we would see it as not just teaching about the Bible but as about learning to study it for yourself. While this can be caught through quality preaching, sometimes it is better to hash it out in a discussion based format.
As an example, for our summer Bible study in Ruth, it is part teaching Ruth and part learning to ask good questions when you’re reading the Old Testament. It is also a good test case for reading the Old Testament in light of the New since Boaz is literally called a redeemer. Learning to read the Bible well is both science and art, and college is a great time to start the journey.
A last, but not least question is, “what’s the target?”
Imagine a basketball team that used practices exclusively for conditioning drills. Everyone would be in really good shape, but wouldn’t know what to do in an actual game. On the other hand, if you had a team that only did shooting drills all practice, they might all be the next Steph Curry, but they wouldn’t have the endurance to get through a real game. And what if a team just did defensive drills all practice, without any explanation of how they fit into the flow of a game?
College ministries, and even local churches, can make similar mistakes. All the activities that take place as part of a college ministry need to have an end goal in mind. College ministry can’t just be youth group 2.0 (and no offense if your youth group is solid). It can’t feel like its church for your college years. And it can’t waste a bunch of time keeping people busy doing all kinds of “ministry” activities that don’t really lead to seeing people grow in Christ.
So what’s the target?
I’ll tell you tomorrow.