4 Reasons You Should Invest in College-Age Christians

About six months ago I made the transition from high school pastor to college pastor. When our senior pastor first invited me to consider this change, I was leading a vibrant, Word-centered high school ministry and loving it. However, after prayer, careful thought, conversations with mentors, and, of course, conversations with my wife, we decided to embrace this new role. I’m amazed at God’s kindness in leading our ministry thus far, and I’m excited about all that’s to come.

I’ve also become more convinced than ever that the local church must intentionally disciple, lead, invest in, and train college-age Christians. I’ll offer several reasons. But as I do, let me say I fully acknowledge that having a college pastor is a luxury few churches can afford. Still, I believe the following points apply to churches with formal college ministries (or staff leaders) as well as to churches led by one pastor with a team of lay leaders.

So why must we in the local church focus intently on gospel ministry to 18- to 23-year-olds?

First, these young people are setting the spiritual trajectory for their entire lives.

Think for a moment about your own spiritual journey. Surely some of you enjoyed dramatic conversion experiences later in life—perhaps even during your college years. Such stories remind us conversion is a miracle, the work of the Holy Spirit invading and convincing lost hearts of gospel truth. But I imagine many of you have a different story. It’s a story of coming to faith in Christ at a fairly young age—a conversion followed by small choices, adjustments in direction, rebukes from trusted mentors, and steady growth in holiness over the course of years.

Now, for how many of us did several of those vital direction adjustments occur during college? For better or worse, between the ages of 18 and 23 we often become the people we’re going to be for the rest of our lives. College students are making huge choices: where they’ll work, whom they’ll marry, how they’ll engage in the church, and with whom they’ll associate. For the sake of these dear young people’s souls, let me implore you, pastors and lay leaders, invest yourselves in this “trajectory-setting” process for the glory of God.

Second, these young people will overwhelmingly make their choice for or against investment in the local church during these years.

It’s during the college years, away from home and parents for the first time, that many they face a significant (and often new) question: Will I commit to a church? Numerous young people from Christian families have never answered that question on their own. And tragically, many answer it negatively. Is that entirely the fault of the Christian parents or surrounding churches? Of course not. Sometimes new independence merely exposes a heart that’s never been given in repentant faith to Christ. For college students who do know the Lord, however, this season of life is crucially important for setting patterns of local church commitment, involvement, and ministry. Learning to serve as men and women—not just “tagalong” kids of longtime members—is a lesson of incalculable value. I certainly found new joy in local church investment during my college years because of this dynamic.

Third, these young people bring life, vibrancy, service, wisdom, and energy to our church bodies now.

I’m speaking again to those of us older than 23. We need these young people in the everyday life and ministry of our local churches. They need us, yes, but we need them, too. Our church has welcomed the great benefit of seeing many Wheaton College students teach our young children in Sunday school classes. My heart is encouraged each Sunday as I run into a member of the college basketball team—there at 8 a.m.—faithfully helping lead our first- and second-grade Bible classes.

Friends, we should look for opportunities to put these young people to work in vital gospel ministry now. Ask them to read Scripture publicly. Use their musical gifts in corporate worship. Invite them to disciple younger students and children. If our 18- to 23-year-olds aren’t joining, serving, and even leading (in some fashion) in our churches, they’re not the only ones missing out.

Fourth, college students will for the most part leave our churches and pursue jobs and professional callings around the world.

I’m already dreading May 11, 2013, when we’ll see dozens of godly men and women graduate, leave our town and church, and possibly never return. But as a college pastor I need to embrace the transient nature of my ministry, recognizing this transience makes it such strategic gospel work. What a privilege I have to teach God’s Word, train students to study it, disciple young men, foster maturing faith in Jesus Christ . . . and then say “goodbye” as these young soldiers fan out across the globe to work, marry, join and lead churches, and declare the beauty of the gospel in all of it. I’m not exaggerating when I tell my colleagues I have the best job in the church.

So take note of the 18- to 23-year-olds in your midst. Meet them. Love them. Disciple them. Train them. Involve them in ministry. Then rejoice as they’re launched out to bear witness to Christ in their various callings around the world.

* * * * * * *

Learn more about college ministry from Jon Nielson at the The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference in Orlando. He’ll be joined by J. D. Greear and Rupert Leary for a workshop on “College Ministry: Because Real Life Starts Now!” And if you attend the missions pre-conference on April 6 and 7, you can sign up for Leary’s other workshop, “Mobilized for Missions: A Strategy for Launching College Graduates Around the World.”

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Yes! Thank you. I don’t just work with college kids because that’s what I got hired for. There is no more crucial age being missed right now in the church. Every ministry is important, to be sure, but this is one of those hinge ages we really need to start stepping up our game in. Also, ironically, it needs less high-intensity volunteering–just a willingness to love and connect with a student.

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  • Martin

    I am forever thankful for my involvement with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship when I was a student at the U of Illinois – Chicago. I am also thankful for the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ on that campus. In fact, IVCF and CCC worked very well together (with just a few bumps) to spread the gospel and disciple students when I was there. It was a commuter campus of 20,000 students at the time. Commuter campuses have unique challenges.

    We participated in each other’s Bible studies, social justice outreaches and fellowship meals. We met regularly at a multi-demomination campus church called Agape House which was sponsored by both liberal and moderately conservative clergy. I have never seen that replicated since.

    College student ministries are vital today.

    • http://donate.intervarsity.org Susan

      Martin, as a product of InterVarsity (and now a staff member) I agree wholeheartedly! College is such a crucial time and on-campus ministries are so vital. I encourage anyone wanting to make a difference in the lives of students to support InterVarsity’s mission through prayer and finances.

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  • Nicole

    What about graduate students (who are mostly older than 23)? There are *plenty* of college student ministries, but there are virtually *no* graduate student ministries. For instance, I am 25 (i.e., not that many years older than 23!) and am pursuing a MA. It is also worth noting that graduate school is quite a unique experience on its own, for the ones who have gone through such an experience, and is *unlike* college in pretty much all aspects.

    • Steven

      Maybe you can check these guys out and see if they have any contacts in your area, or discuss this potential sub-group for ministry options. http://www.emergingscholars.org

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  • Tom

    Do you think college ministry (or grad student ministry) needs to be a segregated ministry of the church, or should a church seek to integrate them into other adult ministries / discipleship? In other words, should a church have a separate “college & career class” or should a church seek to integrate these college and career singles into other adult classes?

  • Charles

    Thanks so much for this piece. As one of those college age Christians, I have been tremendously blessed over the last few years by ministries specifically geared towards my unique situation.
    As an older student, I am now being sent into student halls to lead a weekly bible study, and it is so easy to become discouraged. Great to once again see highlighted the importance of this ministry. I especially love the point about students dispersing all over the world, it’s something that my local Christian Union emphasises.

    I highly recommend this book – http://www.ivpbooks.com/9781844741670
    Shining Like Stars, it’s a book about student ministries around the world.

    Jon, I’m wondering what sort of advice you would give to people in a church who recognise the importance of this sort of ministry and long to serve in some ways (making tea, financially, offering transport/hospitality perhaps) but who shy away from actively engaging with students/young people because they fear a “generation gap” or are worried that they won’t be able to lead well because they don’t “talk the same talk” or wear the same clothes, etc.

  • http://www.thinkpoint.wordpress.com Steve Cornell

    I am glad to see this emphasis! For more than 28 years of ministry, I’ve worked with those in the life phase of emerging adulthood (or, adultolescence). Over the last decade or so, I’ve observed some significant changes in this group. These changes align with many of the conclusions reached by sociologist Christian Smith in his book, “Souls In Transition, The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults,” (Oxford University Press). Smith’s work focused on Americans ages 18-29 and consistent with his research, I’ve observed significant changes in the way young people think about moral, political and religious opinion.

    A little while ago I wrote a piece suggesting “Ten guidelines for ministry to 18-29 year olds” You might find it interesting (http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/ten-dos-and-don’ts-for-effective-ministry-to-18-29-year-olds/)

    • Caleb W

      For every 18-29 year old Christian who connects with Mark Driscoll, there are at least 3 who do not and are pretty repulsed by him. If anything he has tapped into violent male resentment, but please don’t think he speaks for any kind of young Christian majority. At least I hope he doesn’t.

      Tired jabs at public education and political correctness plus generalizations about how 18-29 year olds think and what they want equals counterproductive and faddish. 18-29 is an arbitrary ‘generation’ anyway. As a 28 year old graduate student, I can tell you that I do not feel much generational solidarity with the 19 year old undergraduates that I teach.

      You recommend avoiding overgeneralizations and cliches, but your premise doesn’t seemm to meet these principles. It sounds too much like an advertising executive trying to break down the market into easily digestible segments – college age, 18-29, the ‘whatever generation’, etc. Once we understand ‘them’ then we will understand how to appeal to ‘them’. It is telling when we have to remind people to “keep it real”.

      My undergraduate experience of university ministries (Campus for Christ aka “Cru” and Intervarsity)? Well, it felt like they had an idea of what I, as an undergraduate, was like. And they put all of their eggs in that demographic basket. The result? A condescending, infantilizing, and artificial atmosphere of fake smiles, silly songs, and superficial teaching.

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  • http://age.proverbs.tel Age

    Action from youth, advice from middle age, prayers from the aged.

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