This post is part of the College Ministry: Conversations and Context series. For more information, click here.
Be bold. I know, how cliché.
Be bold by being focused.
A few years ago, our ministry, The Abbey, made the decision to focus on ministry to students in the fine arts: music, visual art, and theatre. This was a very unpopular decision among many of our stakeholders, primarily because the fine arts students are a small percentage of the total student body. Focusing on such a small segment did seem an illogical choice.
But as we looked at who was already involved in our ministry and what students were located closest to our property, it became clear to us that these students were the ones to whom we were primarily called. Our ministry also decided to focus on ministering to those who are de-churched. This too seemed an illogical choice. Supporting churches want to see college students showing up on Sunday mornings en masse with Bibles in hand and de-churched folk are not likely to fill this role well. As Christian Smith and Patricia Snell have so soberingly described in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults there are powerful societal forces at work in the lives of nearly all emerging adults that countervail religious involvement even among those who are highly spiritual. These include dramatic life transitions, identity differentiation, the drive for self-sufficiency, a broad decline in civic engagement, and others.
Because of these forces, few emerging adults, even those who are highly spiritual, are regularly actively involved in a religious institution. The likelihood of de-churched folk flocking to Sunday morning worship is even more paltry. This decision continues to trouble some of our stakeholders (including some students who wish The Abbey were different), but it is a choice which we believe to be faithful to our calling. Moreover, as we looked at other ministries working on our campus, it became clear to us that this was an overlooked population and a niche that fit us well.
Be bold by being creative and failing along the way.
Since our focus is on de-churched fine arts students, the old faithful large group worship and small group Bible study model does not work. Our board has come up with some great and creative ideas about how to engage college students through hospitality and outreach. Some have been successful and many have flopped. One of my favorite creative ideas is the concept of a campus ministry food cart. Yes, an aluminum-sided-ice-cream-truck-like thing that could be driven onto campus to hand out food. (The idea has been tabled for now, but has some promise.) The most impactful program we have is a ministry of hospitality where we give students a weekly free lunch. We do not have a Bible study at the lunch. We do not facilitate discussions of faith over lunch. The ministry that happens is done through the offering of food, friendship and conversation with nothing expected in return. In a culture where the focus is often on the return on investment and where 62 percent of millennials believe Christians to be judgmental, the idea of no-strings-attached generosity and non-judgmental acceptance is radical, creative and very impactful.
Be bold in building relationships.
This is most obvious and most fundamental: impactful ministry happens through relationships that are developed between students, staff, church members and volunteers. Stakeholders love to see programs. They are measurable, visible and understandable. Yet, in my experience, significant ministry happens more frequently in the parking lot after the discussion group, in the conversation after a music performance, in the chitchat before Sunday school. A program’s value often lies in the fact that it is an excuse to get together and talk with people about things that have nothing to do with the program.
If nothing else, campus ministry is highly contextual. I am pastor at The Abbey, a campus ministry in Columbus, GA and my wife is ministry director at Pres House, a campus ministry in Americus, GA. Though the two ministries share much in common, the contexts are completely different. What has worked splendidly at Pres House has flopped marvelously at The Abbey and vice versa.
What has worked splendidly or flopped marvelously for you? I would love to hear about it in the comments.
Jason Micheli is the Pastor of The Abbey. He and his beautiful family live in Georgia. You can contact him here.