In just a few short weeks, students will be flooding campuses for another school year. For some, it will be their first. Others hope it will be their last. For me, it was 22 years ago that I packed my red Chevy truck and drove down Highway 49 to the University of Southern Mississippi to begin my freshman year. Now, I’m beginning my 18th school year ministering to students at UMASS Lowell.
Over the last 20 years, much has changed on America’s college campuses. Today’s students might talk a little different, listen to different music, watch different movies, and play different games. Sociological factors and ministry trends shift on almost a yearly basis. However, the need of the human heart remains the same, and the ultimate provision of that need is still Jesus.
After more than two decades of being a part of campus-based ministry to college students (both as a student and campus minister), there are core ministry realities I believe are still foundational in making disciples of students. Here are five things to think about as we begin another school year.
- The Bible is still the best tool for evangelism and discipleship. This does not discredit current books and resources. We have a library full of them at our church and use them often. But, prolonged exposure to and in-depth study of the Bible cannot be equaled in impact. Whether meeting with a non-believer or a growing Christian, nothing compares to a table, two chairs, and an open Bible. It was true when I was a student, and it’s still the reality today as I pastor students on campus.
- Content still trumps an event. I made the decision a long time ago to drive our ministry with an in-depth focus on the Word. A deep study of the Bible is what our weekly gathering is known by. I often ask new students, “What keeps you coming back?” Most often, students reply, “The Bible. I’ve never experienced Bible study like this before.” Surprisingly, a watered-down message does not attract. Sure, they still love a good event, but they want to be challenged first and foremost.
- Getting away still changes lives. At first glance, retreats don’t sound that appealing. Think about it: We cram a lot of people into a small space, and there’s little to no sleep. Then, we pray and study the Bible for hours! As unappealing and tiring as some of our retreat conditions may be, I still look forward to every one of them—even twenty-two years later! I’m amazed at how much God continues to use these weekends away to eternally change students’ lives. There is something about getting away from your normal environment and routine that fosters life-change and forges Christian community.
- Mission trips still produce mature disciples. Whether a spring break mission trip, Christmas in China, or summer missions, short-term mission opportunities probably do more to grow mature disciples than any other aspect of campus ministry life. Sharing the gospel and serving others alongside fellow Christians in a cross-cultural setting meshes so many Christian disciplines into one. Generally, the students who serve on multiple teams during their college tenure have a different perspective on the globe, the Great Commission, money, and the church.
- Personal investment still trumps being “hip.” This may surprise you, but the “coolest” guy doesn’t always make the best campus minister in the eyes of students. They generally don’t measure relevance by the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, or the car you drive. If you want to win their hearts, then give them your time. Show them a godly example. Share with them your wisdom. Demonstrate that you care. Entrust to them a task, and help them achieve it. It’s not a bad thing to be able to “speak their language” through cultural awareness, but your personal investment will trump any deficiency on your coolness factor.
There’s more to effective ministry to college students and young adults than these five things alone, but there’s certainly not less. Blessings on your fall semester, and as I always tell my staff, “Go change the world.”
Chris James serves as Boston Collegiate Coordinator for the Baptist Convention of New England where he serves as Pastor of Mill City Church & Christian Student Fellowship, a multi-site ministry reaching students at UMASS Lowell. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).