Have you ever had to navigate someone to your location over a cell phone call? Maybe it was a pizza delivery person trying to find your apartment in a large complex. Maybe a friend was trying to locate you in the exhibitors hall at a large ministry conference. I bet you found yourself asking them, “What do you see in front of you right now?” They reply, “There’s two similar buildings, but the one on the left looks freshly painted.” Or they say, “I’m standing by the Guidestone booth and the band’s merch table is on my left.”
In other words, to get them where they needed to be, you had to first figure out where they were currently.
Likewise, to lead your college ministry where it could be requires you to have an accurate picture of where it is now. Let’s consider four things you should know in order to capture where your ministry is now — the gospel, yourself, the church, and the campus.
Know the Gospel
While I’m sure you “know” the gospel, a thorough assessment of yourself and your ministry should be predicated upon an appropriation of the gospel. If you aren’t first assured that God is pleased with you in Jesus, then there are a couple dangerous paths ahead. One, you may be reluctant to acknowledge weaknesses in yourself or deficiencies in your ministry. Two, you may be crushed under the weight of your or your ministry’s shortcomings.
However, if you know the gospel, you know your identity isn’t dependent upon your performance or your ministry’s output. You are free to acknowledge weakness because your identity is held perfectly by Christ’s strength. In other words, you can face any reality knowing that what is most important about you cannot be changed by your mistakes or ineffectiveness.
My first ministry role was as a BCM director. I was pretty young and quite naive. I didn’t know myself as a leader, so I mimicked the previous director who made a huge impact on my life. He was remarkably charismatic and could comfortably command a gathering behind a microphone. The ministry initially grew numerically, but then took a downward turn. I was exhausted with the weekly demands of teaching at the large group meeting and I know the quality of the gathering declined. I was burning out because I was trying to be something I wasn’t.
It’s a long story for another time, but a pivotal conversation helped me understand who I was and to be okay with that. I shifted the ministry model to better fit my gifts and God gave me some fruitful times, albeit with a significantly smaller footprint.
Understanding where your ministry is requires you to know where you are. You won’t be able to lead the ministry forward without honest assessment of your gifts and capacities. My stage presence worked for a very small number of students, but was going to be a limiter if the mid-week gathering were to remain a centerpiece of the BCM. Likewise, your gifts and capacities will tell you something about where your ministry could go… or whether you should stick around.
Know the Church
Church-based college ministries have many advantages over other models. They are best positioned to connect students with older and younger members of God’s family. They have direct cover and care of pastors. These ministries most easily invite students to the long term discipline of church membership. The list goes on.
However, church-based college ministries are sometimes limited due to overall vision, culture, and methodologies of the their local church. For instance, when college ministry is just one of many things the church tries to do well, there is a pressure to compete for resources like money and platform time. Sometimes the vibe is different, making midweek ministry feel culturally estranged from the Sunday service. The church may care more about youth outreach, so they hire staff to run an Upwards program instead of hiring a college associate. Often, college pastors are required to use methods and language consistent with the rest of the church. As a result, the college ministry must exist within boundaries that reduce contextualization to the campus.
Each church must follow the Lord’s direction for them. Not all will center college ministry the way that we want and that’s okay. If God has called you to the church, he has also called you to those tensions. You must have an objective awareness of your church as a whole in order to determine where and how your college ministry will grow. And in some cases, that awareness may show you that you’ve been called to move on… or to plant a collegiate church!
Know the Campus
I once spoke with a parachurch staffer about the difference between their ministries at the premier state university and the ministry at the directional school where we both served. The chapter at the big school had many student leaders who were high capacity students who excelled in extra-curriculars, maintained good grades, and flourished in ministry. The chapter at the smaller school had students who were just as passionate about Jesus, but were generally less developed and driven as leaders. He realized that the template and scope of the ministries had to look different.
In that scenario, the general capacities of the student body required different trajectories for the ministry. In other places, the layout of the campus and the city will dictate rhythms and approaches. Additionally, the posture of the campus administration to churches will affect your church’s access to students. Sometimes you have to create a new registered student organization. Other times you will have to depend on an existing Christian organization as the bridge. Finally, the existence of other ministries to the campus also should influence how you operate.
Regardless of the particular factors of your target campus, they will certainly affect how you do ministry and where it all could go. You need to be an expert.
God wants to take your ministry somewhere and, as the leader, you are responsible to listen to him and take steps forward. Until you’ve understood and applied these four areas, it will be impossible to step forward with the confidence that will invite students aboard and bolster participation from others in your church. Start with the gospel, remembering what is eternally true and beautiful about Jesus. Then take an honest assessment of yourself, your church, and the campus. Finally, step forward with confidence towards the place God is calling you and your ministry.