When it comes to ministry we often start with the question, “What do I do?” But there is a more foundational question that needs to be answered first, “Who should I be?”
I have been able to look at college ministry from an aerial standpoint for several years now and one of the things I have noticed is that it is not necessarily what churches are doing that results in reaching college students, but rather who the collegiate leaders are that determines whether a church is reaching college students.
Every leader leads out of a foundation of who they are. There is a belief system that makes up this foundation and it either sustains them or exposes them. For every believer, the foundation they build their life on is the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:24-27).
How does this play out in the life of a great college leader?
Think of this series of articles like the NBA 2K player create mode. We’re putting together a 99 overall rating for a collegiate leader. We’re going to look at five common values of great collegiate leaders and how that determines what they do. Let me clarify: this list is not all-encompassing and if you don’t match any of the descriptions, that doesn’t make you a bad leader.
Jesus said in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This verse is the epitome of what it means to be gospel-centered. Jesus broke in from heaven to earth. He and his kingdom were now “at hand.” Therefore, mankind’s response is to “repent and believe in the gospel.”
The gospel is the good news that mankind has been separated from a holy God because of their sin, but God in his great love sent his perfect Son Jesus Christ to bridge the separation through his sacrificial life, death, resurrection and ascension. It is through this repentance and belief in this message that a person has the ability to have life today and for eternity.
A leader with a gospel-centered life is someone who has experienced the kingdom of God breaking through in their life through the gospel. They have repented and believed and are consistently witnessing the kingdom of God break through in their life and responding through repentance and belief.
This gospel that provides salvation is also what sustains a great leader. Keeping their life centered on it is essential for fruitful and long-lasting ministry.
If the gospel is not central in a leader’s life, is the ministry they’re leading making eternal and daily impact? It’s likely not. Being a gospel-centered leader is more than just being saved, preaching the gospel and evangelizing the lost. Being a gospel-centered leader motivates a person to go reach the lost, but it is also the sustaining power in them that allows a leader to have lasting impact.
Being a gospel-centered leader impacts a leader’s identity. They find their identity in Jesus Christ, not in their appearance, performance, or lack thereof. Jesus Christ is their satisfaction. He alone provides them with all the need. They put faith before feelings. A great college leader’s ministry is executed out of a confidence in who they are as a secure child of God and not a performer for God or people. A leader that lives this kind of lifestyle preaches the gospel to themselves daily.
Good leaders embody this on a daily basis. They know they are aliens in this world and their home is in heaven. They are here as sent people (John 20:21). The ethos of a great college leader is a person who is going to those who don’t have a relationship with Christ, whether they are students or anyone they meet. This is the ethos of our Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul said, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7).
Jesus stepped out of his ordinary and comfort by going. He emptied himself so that he could reach men and women in need of a Savior. Therefore great leaders make going a natural rhythm of who they are, not just what they do. Good leaders leave their comfort zone to bless those who don’t have a relationship with Jesus.
When most leaders think about starting a college ministry they think about starting a Bible study or a midweek gathering. There is nothing wrong with either of those things. In fact, they are very good things. But if a leader starts there, they short-circuit the system. Great leaders make disciples by first going. One of the first questions a good leader asks is, “How will I go and bless and share the gospel with the people I am trying to reach?” When a leader drifts from executing on this question it will likely bring failure, a state of plateau, or even decline. A leader can have the best Bible studies and the best midweeks, but if they never go and reach people there will never be anyone to experience the Bible studies and midweeks.
For many leaders, it’s at this point that fear sets in. But the reason ministries reach college students is because they try to reach college students. They are willing to give anything a shot. They are willing to fail and learn. They are willing to get to know the students and campus in real, tangible ways. They are willing to empty themselves so they might serve those they are trying to reach with the gospel.
When Jesus left this earth he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). When Jesus said these words, he was affirming to his disciples they have the power and ability to lead through the Holy Spirit. Every person who has placed their faith and trust in Jesus has the Holy Spirit and is empowered for the work of ministry.
A greater leader has faith in this truth and empowers others to lead as well. They know God has made everyone unique with certain gifts to build up the church and advance the gospel (Ephesians 2:10). They empower because they know ministry is a team effort and not a lone ranger endeavor. They are constantly looking at each individual, figuring out their unique gifts and abilities that God wants to use and leveraging those gifts and abilities for the sake of the gospel. A great leader sees that without empowering students to lead they will not realize their purpose in ministry and the ministry will not have its fullest impact.
A great leader is willing to hand over responsibility. They empower college students to learn how to handle the pressure of leadership. They have the patience to allow college students to fail and pick them up when they do. Failure is often the best teacher. They start by giving away small responsibility and as students prove faithful, they give them more. I heard one college leader say, “We don’t give them the keys to the Corvette at first; we give them the keys to the Corolla. It’s less expensive to fix if they wreck it.” His point is they let college students learn how to lead by leading something that if it fails, won’t necessarily be a big deal. With time, they give them more responsibility as they grow in leadership.
One of the major roadblocks to becoming a student-led, leader-supported ministry is most leaders want their energy, ideas, and work to be seen as what makes a ministry succeed. A good college leader dies to this mentality. They empower others to lead and allow others to take the credit. College students don’t want an adult to be the hero; they want a college leader to be their guide. You will be surprised at how well you can lead and influence when you decide to guide your students rather than direct them.
A great college leader’s focus is God’s kingdom, not their own. Their goal is to raise up men and women who make disciples who make disciples. Robert Coleman, author of The Master Plan of Evangelism said, “We must decide where we want our ministry to count—in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we are gone. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.”
A great college leader realizes how strategic this generation is. College students are in the prime of their learning and are being shaped every day by what they experience. These four years will determine their trajectories for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. They realize that time is too short to give in to shallow metrics; people are the focus and making them into disciples is the mission. Great collegiate leaders create simple reproducible ways for students to grow as a disciple.
A great college leader’s goal in ministry is not necessarily large gatherings, community groups, or evangelism outings. Their goal is disciples. They use the programs of the ministry to shape students into disciples of Jesus Christ; working against using programs as isolated and disconnected events that have become a tradition. Everything is on the chopping block unless it fits into the mission of making disciples. They are dogmatic about the mission, but flexible in the methods they use to make disciples.
Great college leaders know it’s paramount to be culturally engaged in order to reach college students. By culturally engaged I don’t mean cool, hip, or any of those buzz words. I mean helping students deal with cultural issues through a biblical worldview. A great college leader does not rely on what they have heard or what they assume to be true, but they dig into God’s Word to determine what the Bible says as it pertains to cultural issues. They become a conduit of grace in a world that needs biblical answers to contemporary issues. They are prophetic voices speaking when culture screams against kingdom values.
Great college leaders are known for listening more than they speak. They hear the voice of culture and listen to the pain. They also love more than they judge, knowing that judgment is God’s alone.
Great leaders don’t shy away from the tough subjects of the day, but instead, they take them head on. They create series, Q&A sessions, Bible studies and other avenues to help students see their world through a biblical worldview. The church can no longer ignore the hot button issues of the day, but must address them in a way that is biblically accurate. If the church doesn’t disciple students on these issues, culture will. Therefore, great college leaders are proactive and not reactive when it comes to helping students develop a biblical worldview. They help students see the relevance of the Bible when it comes to addressing cultural issues.