by Derek Rishmawy
I work with college students at a local church. I’m the college guy. Aside from Bible studies and coffee shop conversations with local students, my job is prepping those who head off to college for a life of faith of their own. Can I say just how much I appreciate upon their return, hearing about the wonderful campus ministries they’ve gotten involved in? I love the great parachurch ministries like Campus Crusade, or FCA, or Navigators that shepherd and disciple our students while they’re away. I love the campus life ministries on Christian campuses that get our students involved in studies and missions. I love the summers of deep growth that happen when a student goes off to work at a Christian camp.
But if I’m honest, I have one significant issue with these ministries: all too often they are unintentionally setting our students up to fail in the local church.
See, in a lot of ways, ministries like this are better than church in their eyes. I mean, here, you have a lot of people your same age, asking all the same questions, and struggling with all the same issues. They’re all worshipping to the same G, C, D chord anthems, sold out for the same causes, excited, ready to go, full of life, and earnest. Special speakers who specialize in dynamically communicating to their niche segment are brought in for chapels or special events. The leaders’ sole interest is the spiritual life and vitality of 18-20-somethings and the meeting hours are designed around college students’ schedules. It’s beautiful. It’s what I call Christian Wonderland. It’s a magical place to visit, but doesn’t entirely reflect the reality of commitment to the church.
You know, church, that place with old people? The place with bad coffee and kids running around squealing? Stressed out parents who aren’t quite ‘sold out for the Kingdom’ and leaders that may or may not see the value of updating the hymnal with the latest conference worship offering? The place where the pastor faithfully preaches the gospel, but maybe has some cheese around the edges of his sermons? The place with denominational struggles and internal politics? The one that meets too early in the morning? The place where college students’ ideas and opinions aren’t always center-stage, even when the staff does care about them? You know, that place?
Students will often go away to Christian Wonderland, fall in love with Jesus, get excited about ministry, community, and the people of God, and then return to their local church and get hit with culture-shock of doing ministry in a real church with real people. Cynicism and disappointment quickly follow. Adding to this is the fact that some ministries are designed precisely as lowest-common denominator, intra-denominational organizations to play down ecclesiastical distinctives for the sake of practical unity. Unintentionally, the end-result message is that the local church as the Church doesn’t really matter since ‘ministry’ can happen elsewhere.
But if the church really is the place where “the manifold wisdom of God” is to “be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10), the body of which Christ is the head (Col. 1:18), his bride (Eph. 5), the goal and end-result of the gospel (Calvin, Geneva Catechism), and an article of faith in the Creed (“I believe in the holy, catholic church”), can we really say we’re doing gospel ministry if we’re not setting our students up to be functioning members of the body?
Because I know most parachurch organizations care about the continued growth of their students in solid church bodies, I’d like to offer some tips for those running camps, campus ministries, or campus life coordinators at Christian colleges for fostering a love for the local church and preparing them for—and encouraging them in—the life in the local body:
1. Teach Regularly about the Church
In some ways this is kind of obvious, but honestly, hearing solid, sustained, rich teaching on the nature and importance of the church in the purposes of God isn’t that common. Present the truth of the Scriptures on the importance of the local gathering of the body as part of the core content of the faith. Don’t be afraid to point out all the ways that your own ministry simply isn’t a substitute for a body organized with lawfully-called officers who preach the Word, administer the Sacraments, and can exercise care and discipline a way that you can’t. As a para-church ministry, emphasize the “alongside” nature of what you’re doing.
2. Form Relationships with Local Churches
I’d really encourage campus ministry types who aren’t already connected with a local body to reach out and form a relationship with at least one or two local churches. Cruise the area, find out which churches preach the Gospel and have a list of recommendations ready to go for your kids. Encourage or organize carpools and ride-sharing options. Also, pester local churches to take an interest in your ministry. Get involved and then steal their legit older people to serve with you. A lot of churches, God bless them, simply don’t get it yet. You do. You need to be that voice awakening them to their pastoral role in the lives of college students around them.
3. Teach Them to Be Shock Troops
Normal churches, often-times, aren’t as lively, excited, or mobilized for Gospel-initiatives and vibrant devotion. Or, at least not as lively as college kids. Parachurch ministries are greatest when they train people to be blessings to the church after their time with them. Given them an understanding that, just as they are setting aside time to be trained in college for their years in their career, so also, you are training them to be vital members of the churches they go into. Give them a missionary mindset that prepares them for the less than ‘ideal’ situations they might find themselves in. They need to know that they have to be open to learning the wisdom of the churches they go to, but they also need to be given a vision of the ways their time spent with you in college is aimed at the blessing of the churches they’re called to in the future.
Of course, you could basically invert or re-apply these steps to the local church, especially number 3. I just sat down with a local Campus Crusade rep who talked about how difficult it is for campus ministers to know which churches are legit, or which pastors they should try and contact to get involved. Pastors, especially those of churches nearby colleges, if you have any sort of heart for college students, you need to reach out towards these campus ministers and show them your support, build relationships, create ride-shares, or send your people to be involved in this ministries. We cannot be short-sighted or begrudging with the Lord’s workers when the harvest is so plentiful or so urgently in need.
Our students will only grow to have a vital faith connected to the body, if the body itself is functioning together to lead them there. The challenge before us to work together to give our students a vision of life beyond Christian Wonderland. A life in the Church that is honest, compelling, hopeful, and life-giving so that the whole of Christ’s body grows to maturity in him.
Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine, and his M.A. in Theological Studies at Azusa Pacific University. Derek writes at Reformedish, Christ and Pop Culture, and The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.