Most college ministry leaders have their own paraphrase of Bill Bright’s famous quote, “If we can win the university today, we will win the world tomorrow.” It’s the slogan that convinced many of us to give the best years of our ministries to making disciples on college campuses. It’s a weighty claim that serves as a ballast when we are tossed about by constant turnover, support-raising struggles, non-discrimination clauses, and, yes, pandemics.

While “Win the campus, win the world” answers the why of college ministry, it doesn’t answer the how. That is our work to do. On our individual campuses and in our unique local churches, we must determine how a student won to Christ will contribute to God’s reconciliation of all things everywhere. How will participating in our ministry help students to make a missional difference among the nations?

The impudent skeptic might ask crudely, “How does your glorified youth group with root beer keggers and Bible studies help the kids starving in the Third World?” She could have a point.

While “Win the campus, win the world” answers the why of college ministry, it doesn’t answer the how.

Enter the pandemic

This spring I hosted a series of video meetings for leaders trying to figure out what college ministry looked like in the pandemic. For most, all ministry had gone virtual. Discipleship groups? Zoom. Worship gatherings? Livestream. Mission trips? Aw, nah. Students left campus for spring break and were now hunkered in their childhood bedrooms streaming calculus lectures under the watchful eyes of their Justin Beiber poster or stuffed Pikachus.

But had the mission paused? Sure, many leaders pivoted and found new ways to deliver content to those in their ministries, but how were we “winning” new people to Jesus?

In that meeting, Josh Martin of Resonate Church in Pullman, WA, made some searing observations about how the pandemic had exposed the weaknesses of our discipleship models. Josh noted that we deputize students as leaders because they can run the playbook for our disciple-making systems, but are they able to make disciples when the system is taken away?

Woof.

Josh’s question takes us right back to the matter at hand.

Does our campus playbook actually produce people who will “win the world tomorrow”?

We must regularly remind ourselves that while college ministry is vastly important, those years are still a brief window in a life. We hope to give students opportunities to have a vibrant experience as a Christian in college, but we have to keep a longer game in mind. We have to foster the character, convictions, and competencies that will bear fruit for a lifetime and wherever God may take them.

The natural tendency is for us to define character, convictions, and competencies in ways that best serve lesser aims than winning the world–good aims, but not ultimate aims.

Common campus playbook failures

For me, early on, I thought success was having graduates who went to Southern Seminary or applied to serve with the International Mission Board. Neither of those are bad things, but it led me to have a narrow imagination for what it would look like for students to have a kingdom impact post-college. My campus playbook left those called otherwise to figure it out on their own.

I’ve talked to some parachurch leaders who feel pressure to produce staff members for their organization. In other words, the campus playbook succeeds when it produces people who want to keep running the campus playbook. The campus playbook is not so meaningful for the students who go on to become farmers, social workers, and stay-at-home dads.

I believe discipleship is helping people become who Jesus wants them to be–not who I want them to be. Not who our church wants them to be. Not who will best advance our organization goals. Who Jesus wants them to be. I believe he wants them to be followers who are able to listen to his voice and pursue others with his gospel wherever he takes them.

The pandemic offers a sneak peak into what happens when students lose our ministry structures. The day is coming for all of them when they’ll graduate from college ministry and they’ll be the ministry structure for reaching their neighborhood, their coworkers, or a village somewhere oceans away. Have we prepared them?

I believe discipleship is helping people become who Jesus wants them to be–not who I want them to be.

Truly, if we are to win the world tomorrow by winning the campus today, let us win the campus in a way that makes Jesus, not our playbooks, the hero.

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