Laura Jane Kilgore
The traditional college ministry in the United States tends to promote student leadership, have little emphasis on accountability, and keep students within the university circle. While such ministries can provide a great service, they are not the equivalent of a local church.
Instead of establishing this type of college ministry, OP churches around the country are treating college ministry as a bridge to connect students who are living and working inside the academic bubble to the larger, soul-feeding church family.
“I resist the idea that we have a college ministry,” explained Everett Henes, pastor of Hillsdale OPC in Hillsdale, Michigan, although 30 percent of the congregation are students at nearby Hillsdale College. In fact, the church was started in part by college students, and it will always have a college-student focus. Yet the students at Hillsdale OPC are not separated from the congregation for their fellowship or growth. Instead, Henes said, they are an integral part of the church itself.
At Hillsdale and other OP churches, integrating college and university students is done through outreach, hospitality, service, and discipleship.
With few resources for dynamic college outreach methods, many OP pastors are creating a type of college evangelism that’s both creative and simple.
Located near Oregon State University, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Corvallis, Oregon, hosts a weekly on-campus international student luncheon along with several area churches. Because of the limited resources of their church, “it was clear to us that, if we wanted to have a presence on the campus, it would be best to partner with other churches or existing ministries,” Pastor Martin Emmrich said.
Charles Williams, associate pastor of Bethel Presbyterian in Wheaton, Illinois, noted that outreach to college students can be motivated by a “desire just to get fresh blood so that there’s a little more liveliness at the church,” but that true growth is marked by the individual relationships with students, not numeric success.
That’s why some pastors make themselves physically available for one-on-one conversations and outreach on campus. Some simply create a campus presence through weekly lunch gatherings or by just setting up shop at the central campus coffee shop.
Others take advantage of university-sponsored events, like church days or rush week, to set up a table on campus and pass out literature to students. These books, brochures, and pamphlets may come with free lunch if students are willing to meet with the pastor to discuss their readings.
College students are certainly notorious for hunting down free food. But they’re often hungry for something more: community. “We live in a disconnected world, and students need connection,” Henes said. For freshmen, college can be unexpectedly lonely, and an open door can mean the world. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, stressed Henes. “We give them food, because that’s what college students love, and they might wrestle with my kids…We have a lot of fond memories of students hanging out in our house.”
At Covenant OPC, which is just across Wolf Creek from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, individual families “adopt” student attendees for monthly dinners, Sunday lunch, or whenever the wind blows them in. Multiple families can also team up to care for groups of students at Covenant. The practice is so unifying, Pastor Jeremy Jones said, because “everyone loves to sit at table together.”
Hospitality can also be practiced on Sunday morning. Students are constantly surrounded by their peers and probably don’t need more of the same exclusive environment when they come to church. At Covenant, the students are integrated with the young adults, families, and elderly members of the congregation.
Churches may be tempted to expect little from college students, hovering as they are at the brink of adulthood and often absent from the church during summers and holidays. However, no group is so closely knit together as when they’re serving together, said Daniel Doleys, pastor of Living Water OPC in Springfield, Ohio. If college students are feeling disconnected from the body of Christ, then they should be involved in service.
Students from nearby Cedarville University assist in Sunday school classes and the nursery at Living Water. When the Doleys family moved into a new house, students helped with renovations. For his part, Doleys holds “Theology Nights” and one-on-one discipleship.
Student service opportunities can look different for each church. Pastor Jones said that Covenant OPC is blessed and served by their college students’ “robust congregational singing” on Sunday mornings.
With an emphasis on scriptural teaching and preaching, OP churches are usually strong on congregational exhortation. But college students also desperately need personal, one-on-one discipleship. They may be far away from family members and other solid, long-term relationships as well as being unwilling or uncertain about seeking new mentors. Whether they realize it or not, each student is looking for something that will answer the big questions of life. That’s where the church comes in.
With a background in ministry at both Wheaton College and Calvin College, Williams teaches the Bible to students as something that engages both the mind and the heart instead of a mere academic discipline. Students need a fruitful understanding of the law of God as “something that drives us to Christ and serves as a guide for Christian living,” he said. Prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance are the three spiritual disciplines that Williams encourages his students to develop in their formative college years—as well as accepting the hospitality offered to them by members of the church.
Universities are often hotspots of cultural change, which can pose significant challenges to local church ministry. Emmrich, a native of Germany, noted firsthand in Europe an increased hostility toward Christians, and believes the same thing is happening in the United States. “The general mood in this country is changing and the winds are blowing,” he said.
In response, Westminster Presbyterian is seeking to demonstrate to students that “Christianity is a thinking religion and not just a naive worldview.” At Wheaton College, Williams similarly believes that modern and postmodern philosophy is reshaping evangelical norms. “Rather than saying the moral law of God, the Decalogue, is the grid through which we view ethics,” he said, “the trifocal lens of race, class, and gender is becoming the new grid.”
These challenges are coupled with the transient nature of college ministry: even when students are receptive, they usually move away in a few months or years.
Yet, the rewards of college ministry are vast and relationships sweet. “They’re really wonderful,” Emmrich said about the students at his church. “It’s just beautiful to see how they live out their faith.”
The author is a writer, editor, and member of Trinity Presbyterian OPC in Waco, Texas. New Horizons, July 2018.