I’ve been asked a few times – and by “a few” I mean “every time I tell someone I’m going to be working for RUF” – why I want to be involved in college ministry. I even wrote a paragraph or two about it when I applied for the internship, but my thoughts came out all jumbled.
When I think about what attracts me to college ministry, there are two paths I can take to answer the question. The first is a subjective route, examining the place that the college ministry I’ve been part of – in both leadership and participant roles – has played in my life. That could be a useful story if I wanted you to understand a little about who I am, but the problem with subjective experiences is that we can only describe them to other people. We can’t really share them.
But there is another path to explaining why I am attracted to college ministry. To use a romantic metaphor, describing the subjective experiences that brought me to where I am would be like answering the question “How did the two of you meet?” – but here I would rather answer the question “Why is she beautiful?” The first can only be seen and experienced by one; the second can be appreciated by anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. The first is mine; the second is ours, whether you are a campus minister or simply someone praying “Thy kingdom come.”
There are a number of different facets of college ministry to investigate. What is the work itself? Who are the people we minister to? Who are the ministers? What is the foundation of ministry itself? As we examine each of these questions, I hope to shed a little light on what makes college ministry a necessary and beautiful gift from Jesus to his Bride.
What Is College Ministry?
The first question we need to tackle seems obvious enough – “Well, it’s ministry to college students. Duh!” But, of course, that isn’t a very satisfying answer because most of us have preconceived notions about what ‘ministry’ is and who ‘college students’ are that will lead us astray. To many people, college ministry is a step above ‘youth ministry’ but a step below ‘being a real pastor.’ “College ministry,” they say, “is all the fun of college with no exams.”
This, of course, is overly simplistic. There is nothing “fun” about walking with men and women through their addictions and depression, through the unique ways they have been cut by their families and relationships, which Satan uses to blind them to the real love of their Father. Nothing fun – oh, but so much beauty. For the Holy Spirit has seen fit, for so many of His children, to use the college years to reveal the face of Christ more clearly and personally than He ever has before, and He has appointed broken and crooked sticks like campus ministers and interns to point the narrow way that leads to him.
So the first thing that draws us to college ministry is its vital necessity to the Church. College students, by and large, exist in a virtual island from the rest of society. Sometimes this is literally geographical (Auburn, my alma mater, is at least 20 minutes away from “where all the adults live”), often it is culturally enforced (as generations have an increasing tendency not to mix; more on this later), and is further complicated by the difference in schedule (for the college student, waking up at eight is like an “adult” waking up at six). Therefore, for practical reasons, college ministry is an absolute necessity; if the Church (the majority of which is not currently in college) does not make special efforts to reach out and establish relationships with them, they will at best have fellowship only with other college-age believers, and at worst will slip through the cracks altogether.
But college ministry is not just vital to reaching a single class of people who would otherwise be neglected; in America college ministry is actually the front line of the mission field. This can be seen through a number of avenues. Obviously, American universities are ripe with foreign students who have never been exposed to the gospel before. The opportunity to tell these people about Jesus only exists on these campuses, and the rate at which we see foreign students come to know Christ and become our brothers and sisters is over-joying!
To challenge the traditional Evangelical model of missions, however, I want to point out that we have all too often thought of missions as out there, pointing to some space outside America’s borders. In here (pointing to the good ‘ole USA) is home base – we live for and tell people about Jesus if we’re out there and we (occasionally) write checks and pray for people out there while we’re in here. We even posture politically to try and keep other people who might be different from – or even dangerous to – us from getting inside our bubble. This is to our shame. We have been found guilty of “fearing the one who has the power to kill the body” instead of “Him who can destroy both the body and soul in Hell.”
This “in here, out there” model has never been a right way of thinking, and God – by His grace – is making that fact unavoidable. As mainline and liberal denominations collapse, and as American culture aligns itself more and more with beliefs that are obviously antithetical to Christianity, fewer young people come to college professing any personal relationship with Christ. So from both a local and foreign standpoint, college ministry becomes the first real point of contact with the nonbeliever.
This does not mean that college ministry is exclusively evangelism. On the contrary, college ministry is deeply pastoral and discipleship oriented. As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of college ministry is not reveling in the fun of college, but administering gospel medicine to wounded, hurting, angry Christians – many of whom have only just realized that there is anything wrong at all. Sometimes this medicine is given through preaching, other times through a bible study or a conversation – more often than not, it can only be applied by sitting wordlessly and crying with someone. No single campus minister or intern is equipped to handle every case. The body has been given all kinds of different gifts so that none of us can be lured into thinking we are just fine on our own! This means that it is crucial that college ministry never replace the local church body, but rather becomes an aggressive pipeline running both ways from church to campus, calling men and women into contexts they would never have conceived of so that Christ may care for His Bride.
This is especially necessary in a culture like ours, where different generations rarely interact. This is a place where a college ministry must be extremely careful – it is both necessary for them to exist for the spiritual good of college students, and it is also necessary that they always keep in view the fact that they are not sufficient for the spiritual good of college students. Christ does not have many different bodies. He does not equip each part of the church in such a way that she does not need any other part. Rather, “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor 12:21)
A bad college ministry forgets this fact, and the end result is a generationally stratified community. The members of the body feel they have no real need for each other – that comfort is more valuable than growth – and the local church suffers because of it. A good college ministry always remembers its own inability and the result is a multi-generational community, one where the energy and vigor of college students is shaped and informed by the wisdom and experience of the older generations, and the older generations are likewise energized and empowered by the passion of college students. Covenant children are given an example of what it looks like to love and be loved by Christ even after they have left the nest – college students, likewise, are able to see firsthand what being a Christian looks like in the “real world.”
College ministry, then, is the vehicle for ensuring that “making disciples of all nations” and “bearing one another’s burdens” really reaches everywhere that Christ intends. It is not icing on the cupcake of the church; it is part of the skeletal system that holds the whole Body together.
Who Are College Students?
As necessary as college ministry is, it is not merely necessary. Doing one’s taxes is necessary – it is not, however, particularly interesting. Thankfully, college ministry is (usually) nothing like taxes. College ministry, while often difficult, is also endlessly fascinating because of who college students are.
First, of course, is the fact that each and every one is made in the image of God. Oh, but what a shame it is that I say “of course”, as if it were a commonplace truth! As if it is not a wonder and a mystery that the Eternal beauty should make creatures from the dust in such a way that anyone who truly looks at them does not at once see Him! This, I think, is one of the main sources of dryness in our ministry, our failure to love others, our discontent with our families: we think that it is a matter “of course” that they bear the image of God. It is not. “The dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to,” Lewis writes, “may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship; or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” Spirit, press down on our hearts the tangible truth of these things!
Further, the college campus, like no other place, offers a deep diversity of experiences, backgrounds, races, and cultures. A person – minister or not – who cannot find variety on campus must be trying very hard to stay at all times in his apartment. And in this too we see Christ’s kingdom realized: rich and poor, black and white, southern and northern, worshiping the same Christ who has freed us from slavery to sin, side by side. Not that this diversity is impossible to find in other places, but it is beautifully impossible to avoid on the college campus.
Additionally, the American college student is in a totally unique place in life. She has, until that moment, spent all of her time and made all of her decisions in the context of a family. The ideas that challenge her are familiar, expected – the decisions she has been faced with are, for the most part, seemingly inconsequential.
All this changes overnight. As soon as her parents pull away, the student finds herself for the first time outside of the family context. Life begins to twist and turn in unexpected ways, choices of majors and internships suddenly seem life-wrecking or career-making, relationships feel more real than they ever have (for good or ill) – and above all, the question that was once ignored in the busyness or drowned out by the chaos of family life, relentlessly rings in the deafening silence of the dorm room:
“Why am I here?”
So it is that we find college students in a special state: orphans with living parents. Each and every one – Christian or not – can no longer be satisfied with an answer for that question that is simply true for “us,” the family unit. So the covenant child and agnostic alike, at this special stage, both ask the same question when they hear his name: “Who is Jesus?” The beauty of college ministry is that we may answer that question in many different ways about the same Jesus. One student longs to find a Jesus who really lived and died, another longs for one who wasn’t indifferent while he was being sexually abused, another imagines that there is no way that Jesus could love her but is desperate to find that He does. We offer the same tangible, sword-wielding, grace-soaked Jesus to them all, because He provides for them all.
But if no one is preaching Christ on the campus, how will they hear? If no one pastors, how will they be healed? If no one disciples, from whom will they learn to grow in grace? So again, this ministry is necessary; more than that, it is beautiful.
So the work of college ministry is wonderful by virtue of the multiplicity of image-bearing people who come to know Christ not simply as a name, but as “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”
What Gifts are Required for College Ministry?
One of the exciting – and daunting – things about college ministry is the wealth of gifts it requires from campus ministers and interns. Every ministry position has its own special difficulties, but in an often-understaffed, ever-changing environment like college ministry, the number of different hats a single person must wear – and shuffle between – is sometimes overwhelming.
First, in college ministry you cannot be satisfied with simply being an academic. It is vital to know your theology, and if Jesus didn’t think he could make it through his ministry without knowing his bible backwards and forwards, how do you think you can? Philosophy will help you learn to think and theology will teach you who God is. But if your knowledge of Jesus never leaves the chalkboard, you will be worse than useless to the people you are ministering to.
Jesus promised us that “In this world, you will have troubles” – which means that the college students you are ministering to are going to go through suffering, guaranteed. Moreover, since they are now separated physically from their family, they no longer have their old network of support immediately available when any kind of hardship arises. More often than not, when a college student gets plugged in to a campus ministry, that ministry assumes the role that the family used to play – which means that students bring their problems to you, looking for biblical counsel and advice, or maybe just looking for someone to listen.
But as the bible very often shows us, people who think they know all the right answers typically make very, very bad counselors. Job’s friends immediately come to mind – the beginning of the book is filled with Job’s friends (mistakenly) telling him what the right answer is (“Repent! Bad things only happen because of a specific sin”) while Job keeps telling them, “You don’t understand, that isn’t what’s happening here!” Job’s friends, instead of relieving his pain or supporting him, actually become an additional source of suffering.
A more positive example is found in Christ himself. When Lazarus dies, he answers Martha’s questions to him with theological truth (“I am the resurrection and the life”) and he answers Mary with wordless weeping. This same wisdom is required of us when college orphans come having experienced for the first time a broken heart, the shattering of their parent’s marriage, the loss of a loved one. Some need the objective truth that God’s love is “greater than their hearts” – their feelings that Jesus can’t really love them. Some can never hear this truth unless we first silently cry with them.
At the same time, campus ministries cannot be content with simply having a staff of great counselors. Counseling is wonderful and necessary for every single person who has been touched by the Curse. We all bear sin and shame – we have all at one time or another believed that we are “the only one” who could do something like that, that there is no way Jesus could really love me. We are called to seek out wisdom and – if the Holy Spirit has provided it to us – give wisdom to those who seek it from us. But campus ministry demands more than just an insightful and calm demeanor.
Especially in our current generation, students are fundamentally skeptics. Even people who have been raised in the church ask “why? How do you know?” every time someone makes an assertion. College ministry requires the same – if not greater – understanding of theology, philosophy, and the cultural religion that an academic profession would. In a world where the predominant narrative has shifted from “the future is utopia” to “the future is distopia”, the requirements for being “always ready to give a reason for the hope that is within” become much steeper. College ministry needs teachers – men and women gifted by God with the ability to point out flaws in the cultural narrative, to show the ways it has tried to hijack the gospel, but in fact makes no sense without the cross, empty tomb, and heavenly throne at its center.
Additionally, it is more likely that you will have to seek than that you will be sought out. College ministry requires great shepherds especially because college is one of the easiest places to hide. In the hustle and bustle of class, work, and life, when problems arise many people find it easiest to withdraw from the community they really need. Shame makes us try to hide our problems, but we can never muster anything better than fig leaves – they don’t help the problem, and they don’t even hide it that well. College ministry requires a gentle and careful pastorship to pursue men and women trying to hide behind broken leaves and bring them back to the pure robes Christ has purchased for us with his blood.
But by the same token, a campus ministry cannot simply consist of great preaching. Preaching is a beautiful, necessary way that God feeds the souls of his children. When the Scriptures are faithfully explained, Christ comes alive on every page, waging war against the sin of his people and bringing them to a fuller understanding of his love. The Holy Spirit promises specially to move as the gospel is preached, and of course there can be no faith without preaching – for “if no one preaches, how will they hear?” Even so, being a powerful, passionate, wise speaker will fall far short of your students’ needs.
Preaching is not a substitute for relationship. Evangelicalism has, in recent years, begun to resemble something like a club meeting. People gather together to hear a (hopefully) good and (possibly, for the very devout) interesting message once a week, then return to their normal lives until it’s time for the next meeting. The messages themselves are evaluated by asking things like “Was it entertaining? Did I feel it? Did it do something for me?” Ministries that never extend beyond preaching fail to meet the call of the great commission – especially in the “Christian” South, where religious attendance is rarely coupled with changed hearts.
Ministry must consist of intimate, personal, two-sided relationships, where we “exhort each other every day – as long as it is called ‘today’ – that no one may be hardened by the power of sin,’ where we ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ where we ‘in humility consider others better than [ourselves].’ You may be a powerful, passionate, quick thinking speaker – but if you cannot also gently listen and understand others, you will not be able to minister.
Who is Jesus?
If you finished reading the last section and thought to yourself “There’s no way anyone could ever do college ministry,” then I wrote it the way I wanted it to come across. In his little book Called to the Ministry, Ed Clowney, after laying out all the things a minister must be and do, concludes the section by saying, “If this survey of the function of the minister has not given you pause, please abandon all thought of becoming a minister.” Children, students, and adults alike need someone who is kind, gentle, compassionate, slow to anger yet truly hating sin, quick to listen yet powerfully persistent in counsel, willing to weep over brokenness yet always ready with gospel medicine, consistent, sacrificial, loving.
But if you think that sentence describes you, then you have never seen your own heart.
The greatest beauty of all ministry is this: that Christ uses broken and shattered stones to build his perfect house. The very greatest of his workers cries out about the requirements of simply preaching the gospel, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Our God works contrary to the way that we would expect, because he is one who “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to put to shame the things that are, that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
What we need is Jesus himself, robed in his gospel. There and only there can we find the fullness of unalterable truth united with perfect compassion and healing, a sword unsheathed against sin but also boundless grace for the sinner, a lover who will weep with us while still ruling over all his and our enemies. The role of the minister – and every Christian is a minister of the gospel of reconciliation, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” – is to play the part of pointing to and presenting the real Christ.
If it were not so, then ministry really would be impossible. But, because it is not on our own abilities, but rather on the Lordship of Christ that ministry stands or falls, as weak and stuttering children we may say with the Apostle “I will boast all the more of my weakness, that the power of Christ might rest upon me.” And as we do, our own eyes and the eyes that might have been directed towards us are drawn up to the one of whom John writes:
“Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! And the one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothes in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’”
“The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desire to take the water of life without price.”
This is the motivation, the goal, and the method of ministry: the power and beauty and glory of Christ himself.
(Special thanks to Ginny Sherrod for turning this grammatical mess into something readable)