The Strategic Importance of Student Ministry: What Are You Living For?

All ministries for the Kingdom of Christ are both strategic and important. Nevertheless, the focus of this article directs attention to the high value of ministry to college and university students.

I knew an old dairy farmer who once told me that when he was starting out he bought young cows that had not yet reached their peak capacity in milk production. A friend of his bought old cows that were at their peak—although their past revealed a glowing record, they were in decline. The old farmer told me his business succeeded where his friend’s had failed.

This illustration will not translate perfectly into ministry, for older Christians can be insightful, having grown wise from years of service; but, this is not always the case. Some grow old and become calloused, jaded, and bitter. Nevertheless, there are things common to nearly all young people—particularly those in universities—that makes ministry among them a valuable use of time. Unique characteristics of the university student underscore why mentoring and deploying laborers for Christ’s vineyard from among this group is a wise use of time.

  1. University students are bright. Some university students may be lazy; however, very, very few are unintelligent. Most, in fact, are highly intelligent. Ministry to university students harnesses this intelligence for kingdom work.
  2. University students are likely to emerge into positions of leadership wherever they go, and are thus strategically placed. Tomorrow’s leaders are studying in universities today. Investing in these men and women is an investment in the future. Furthermore, in countries where international students tend to go and study, an investment in the lives of those students can produce a significant impact on tomorrow’s world. Ministries that reach out to international students are equipping, in the most efficient way, those who will need no language training or cultural preparation. These students will be fully equipped to serve their world.
  3. University students tend to be passionate about their beliefs. There may be exceptions to the rule, but by-in-large students in universities, when directing their energies toward some endeavor, will be enthusiastic about it. Furthermore, they tend to recruit others to become involved in their interests as well. They have a natural proclivity for making disciples.
  4. University students tend to have energy. They can work or play long into the night and still have energy the next day. This seeming tirelessness can also be harnessed and directed toward kingdom service.
  5. University students are mobile and less tied down; therefore, they can go wherever called to serve with little difficulty. The older people are, and the more settled, the more difficult it is to motivate them to move out of their comfort zone into places where the needs may be greatest. University students, upon graduation, are more easily deployed to do kingdom work.
  6. University students have fewer bad habits engrained in them than older adults; consequently, they are more flexible and able to adjust to new challenges. Anyone can pick up a habit that, given time, can become a bad one. University students have not lived long enough to have their habits so engrained. Consequently, the university student is more likely to have fewer bad habits to unlearn and will adjust to a new ministry more quickly.
  7. University students are more open to new ways of solving problems. They may figure out how to accomplish tasks in ways others, who are more set in their ways, could not conceive.

These, and more qualities besides, reveal why ministry to university students is so strategic. It was Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian, who once observed that a person is beginning to understand the meaning of life when he or she can plant a tree under the shade of which he or she knows he or she will never sit. What Trueblood had in mind was to challenge others to invest in future generations.

Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. God has always been committed to building up believers to invest in the next generation. Elijah the prophet once thought he was the only faithful one left still serving God. In essence, God told him, “Are you kidding me! I have thousands you do not even know about.” God was at work in the world building into the next generation of leaders who would serve him. Therefore, a commitment to ministry among young people generally, and collegians specifically, is getting in step with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Essentials in a Healthy Ministry to University Students
There are several essentials to developing a healthy ministry to university students:

1. A ministry to university students should concentrate on building infrastructure. A ministry cannot grow larger than the number it can serve logistically; therefore, a work with university students must identify potential leaders and cultivate their skills. Let your leaders develop their capacities for nurturing, caring, and training others younger than themselves. This development of leaders must be ongoing, for students come to university campuses for a short time and the turnover is high.

Significant energy must always be directed toward leadership development and expansion of the infrastructure of the ministry. Furthermore, students who learn to serve in the enlarging ministry are then able to go out into their world and take the skills they have developed in order to serve the Church wherever they go. Moses developed a one in ten infrastructure when he led Israel in the wilderness. There is much to suggest that the early Church operated similarly through house churches and small groups led by its emerging leadership. A university model of ministry can follow these examples and those committed to this kind of ministry can study these biblical examples for further insight and application.

2. A ministry to university students should be biblically centered. In the brief time university students are within your sphere of influence teach them to know the Word of God and to study it for themselves. Young birds still in the nest must be fed by older birds. But, eventually it is time for the young birds to fly out of the nest. They will not survive if they have not learned to feed themselves. Teach students how to dig into God’s word to find answers to the fresh challenges they are likely to face in the years ahead. Let them gain confidence in the wisdom they can find on the pages of scripture. University ministries thrive when they learn to love and value the scriptures. Furthermore, students nurtured in these ministries survive and thrive wherever they go.

When Ephesians 4:12 instructs the pastor-teacher to “equip the saints” for the work of ministry it becomes necessary to develop along these lines within student ministry. The Greek word for equip had many uses, but most frequently it was employed in two contexts:

  1. As the term used in medicine. It referred to the mending and resetting of broken bones in the hopes that these limbs would become useful again. University students will come to Christ with their own forms of brokenness. Teach them how they might mend in the context of that perfect love of Christ which casts out fear and insecurity. The result will increase the student’s confidence in the love of God to transform. He or she will also be better equipped to help others mend as well.
  2. As a nautical term which spoke of rigging a new built ship for full sail. In this way, the ship could go out of the harbor and fulfill the purposes for which it was intended. Students may go into any number of vocations, but each is called to serve the Church and fulfill its Great Commission purpose in the world. University ministries must help students discover their God-given purpose. Help them to get out of the harbor of your ministry and launch them into the larger world. Ministry to university students must direct these students toward a lifetime of service. Deploy them.

3. A student ministry should cultivate an evangelistic passion in the lives of those who associate with it. This is relatively easy to do as universities are communities where students live among other students twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Teach the students in your ministry to pray for those around them. Teach them to share the gospel with those in their world in a manner that reveals authenticity and integrity.

As your students see others come to Christ, teach them to nurture and follow up with these new believers, folding them into the fellowship where they can also grow and flourish. This capacity to care for the souls of others will testify to the growing maturity of the students and prepare them to go out into the world to serve Christ and his kingdom.

Getting Started in a Ministry with Students
If ministry to university students is strategic, then this is a ministry worth developing wherever there are students. It is also worth beginning such a ministry as soon as possible. None of us is very life-skilled. Throughout life, we are likely to discover ourselves entering awkwardly into any new endeavor. A toddler learning to walk falls down and gets bruised. A 6-year-old taking the training wheels off the 2-wheel bike will fall and gets abrasions. An adolescent taking up a skateboard and trying to ride it for the first time is likely to fall down and maybe even break a wrist or sprain an ankle. Every new endeavor is characterized by some degree of awkwardness.

In fact, if you are not awkward at some place in your life, you are just not growing. It is common to hear someone say, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” On the other hand, G. K. Chesterton wrote that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly. If a job is worth doing and nobody is doing it, better someone do it poorly and awkwardly than not do it at all. Strategic ministries, such as this, need to be done if the Church is going to be equipped with leaders for tomorrow. It all gets down to this: which generation are you living for?

Dr. Jerry Root is associate director of the Institute for Strategic Evangelism at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, USA. He has taught in the evangelism masters program for the past eleven years. Root has invested nineteen years in student ministry, evangelism, and discipleship.