The College Student’s Dilemma: Should I Get Involved in my Church or a Campus Ministry?

The below is an article I’m working on in response to a question a lot of our college students have… we have several campus ministries represented at our church: Campus Outreach, Intervarsity, Baptist Campus Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc…we love and support them all… Many students live with a dilemma as I explain below. I’d love your response to this. This is a work in progress:

I want to try and answer the question of what role the church ought to play in a college student’s life during the 4+ years they are in college. Students often find themselves in a dilemma: both a campus ministry and the church vie for their time. But both appear to be doing the same basic things. Both ask for participation as something one should do in order to please God and fulfill His purposes for their lives. While students often find both appealing, they have limited time and don’t know exactly what to do.

So, let me lay all my cards on the table right up front. I think there is a way to be meaningfully involved in both your church and a campus ministry while you are in school. At the Summit Church we do not see ourselves as in competition with, but complementary to, the work of campus ministries. We actively and enthusiastically support the work of several local campus ministries.

I believe that the exact form that takes will shift during your college years (as I will explain below), and I think it will look different for different people. But before I get to the conclusions, let me lay out a few presuppositions about the church and campus ministry, showing what is specifically advantageous about each.

The local church’s advantages

A. The church is God’s only official “institution” of the New Testament. The only real institution of the New Testament is the local church. The first thing the Holy Spirit did after giving the Great Commission in Acts 1:8 is plant the church in Acts 2:42-47. A church is not simply a group of Christians who hang out together, they are an organized body of believers bound together in a covenant community. It is “through the church that God’s manifold wisdom was to be made known to the world” (Eph 3:10). It was when the church was being the church, in all its diversity, that “a great sense of awe was upon every soul… and God added to their numbers daily those that were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The Apostles had one basic strategy throughout the book of Acts: go to strategic cities and plant churches therein. Only the church can administer Jesus’ 2 great symbols of His death and resurrection: Baptism and the Lord’s Table. 1 Cor 11 says that communion should be a regular part of a Christian’s life, and it is only to be done when believers’ “assemble” as a church. Finally, it is primarily through the church (Ephesians 4:11­-17) that God does his work in the lives of believers.The church is God’s gift to every believer at every stage of her life.

B. The church is intergenerational. In numerous places the Bible speaks about the advantage of younger believers learning from older believers. Paul instructs the older women to mentor the younger women in 1 Timothy and says the same to older men in 2 Timothy. Proverbs says that… A campus ministry cannot, of course, be an intergenerational community. The tragedy for many students is that during that stage of life where they are making some of the most important and irrevocable decisions, they are surrounded only by people their age. This is not Ephesians 4 community, this is Lord of the Flies. The church is God’s gift to every believer, and a student forsakes it during these crucial years only at her peril.

C. Campus ministry is only for 4 years; church is for life. Studies have shown that a number of students who were involved in campus ministries graduate from college and do not go on to get involved, significantly, in a church or other Christian body. When they graduate from college, suddenly their Christian support structure is gone and they do not know quite where to go. They pine away for the days of their college experience, but were unprepared to make the transition.

D. Campus ministries specialize in only one type of ministry; churches are multi-faceted. Many college students will be gifted by God to work with children, high school students, inner-city poor, or the like. A campus ministry usually cannot offer the training and opportunity to engage in these types of ministries, at least with the expertise they do in college ministry. Some students will experience passions and giftings the campus ministries cannot effectively steward.

The campus ministry’s advantages

I will list only 2, but they are quite significant:

A. Campus ministries meet on campus, allowing students to grow and minister where they live. This is advantageous for two reasons: One, it is better from a time management perspective. Students do not have to travel somewhere else for fellowship, exhortation, and teaching. Second, it is much easier to minister to and reach people on your campus when you do your ministry right on the campus. Campus ministries keep students in the fields in which they should be ministering.

B. Campus ministries specialize in dealing with the issues students face while a student. Campus ministries are led by people who have devoted their lives to ministering to students. Most campus ministry leaders have a specific calling, and corresponding gifting, to work with college students. They are aware of the specific problems students face and know how to communicate with them and help them.

What to Do

So how involved should you be in a campus ministry and in the church? Let me give you 5 thoughts you should balance as you go about making that decision.

1. It is important that you be involved, especially during your freshman and sophomore years, in a campus-based Bible study and in ministry-training led by an on-campus ministry. Campus ministries will deal with issues very pertinent to you, provide you with some great peer community, and will keep you close to people to whom you need to be ministering. Some churches also have a campus-based college ministry that does many of the things a campus ministry does… and thus, you will probably have to choose one of these things and get really involved with it and not the others. That’s ok; you can’t do everything! There are plenty of people we need to train and win, and with thousands of people on your campus, there is plenty to go around for each ministry! What is not OK is to be overcommitted, or to moonlight at several and not get involved in any, or (if you choose a campus ministry like Campus Crusade) to be only an audience member at your church. More on that in #2…

2. While you are involved in campus ministry, you ought to be involved in your church, during that same time, by:

  • Uhhh… actually going to a church. Your campus ministry cannot just “be your church.” Campus ministries are not churches in the sense that they are not covenant-bound communities with an eldership that oversees the congregation and leads in the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Table. Campus ministries do wonderful things in ministry, but they are just not organized to be a New Testament local church. The Bible does not recognize genuine discipleship apart from activity in a local church, so go to church while you are in school. But you say, “The church has so many problems.” So do you. Don’t be such a Pharisee. “But I just don’t like the church.” Easy, fighter. She is Jesus’ bride. You can’t love Jesus and hate His wife.
  • Going to the same church each week. Don’t spend your time jumping from church to church, and don’t just sit in the audience as a spectator. Belong and be known. As Josh Harris says, “Don’t date the church. Marry her.”
  • Joining your church. become a part of the covenant community. That’s what a church is: a covenant community. So, belong.
  • Volunteering. Don’t just come and sit in the audience. Perhaps you can volunteer in any one of the numerous things churches need help with on a Sunday morning (parking, greeting, first impressions, kids) or perhaps it can be sometime throughout the week. The key here put yourself in a place where you can know and be known.
  • Finding personal mentorship in the church by getting to know individuals and families. Find ways that you can be connected to older believers. Some churches offer “adoption” programs whereby you can get to know a family–eat dinner with them occasionally, wash your clothes at their house, etc. Others provide opportunity for direct one-on-one membership or internships.

3. During your junior and senior years, incrementally increase your involvement in your church. By your junior and senior year, it’s time to begin to equip yourself to live in a non-college environment. Thus, in the latter half of your college tenure it may be more prudent to be in a church-based small group, where you can experience intergenerational community and be involved in the various ministries of a local church. For many, this is only natural, as during their junior and senior year they have begun mentally to shift to the next phase of their lives. (This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you shouldn’t help lead freshman and sophomores during this time in a campus ministry. Some of you will be uniquely gifted in this! More on that in number 4.)

4. The answer to where you should be in ministry is not a “one-size-fits-all” answer, but should correspond to how God has designed and called you. Some students will, from the beginning, know they want to minister to kids, seniors, the poor, etc., and that being involved in the ministries of their church will be a better fit for that. That should not be discouraged or looked down upon! On the other hand, some students are designed and called by God to focus more of their ministry on their peers. They may always keep their Bible study and ministry focus on campus and this is fine as well. This is how i was: not only for all my years of college, but several years afterward as well, I led Bible studies and ministry on campus. Students should be given freedom to explore their ministry callings and plug into the ministries that best fit them.

5. Consider your options for post-graduation missions. Many students will (and should!) think about spending their first couple of years after graduation serving on a ministry project. Both campus ministries and churches offer these opportunities. Churches will usually offer better profession-based, church-planting focused projects, and campus ministries will usually offer better options for ministering to other students. If your campus ministry and church give summer missions options, explore both. This is the ‘freest’ time of your life, and you never get these years back!

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  1. Bill Choate   •  

    What an excellent response to this important question. Most Christian students will attend secular universities. So many college students lose their way during their college years. Fine churches have invested in the lives of students for eighteen years, only to see their spiritual growth stall or their lives damaged by poor choices made during college. Students’ effectiveness as witnesses to their fellow students is squandered, as well, when these students spend their college years moving away from Christ and not toward a life lived in Him. Yes, both campus ministry and church collegiate ministry are necessary to make the college experience the best it can be. You lay out well the important role each plays.

    It is the mission of the church to be the church – Christ’s body, intergenerational, broadly focused, engaging the world. No campus ministry could or should supplant the role of the church. Campus ministry exists within the university in such a way that the church generally cannot. It is within the mission of the campus ministry – wherever it does not conflict with the ministry’s commitment to Christ – to be a citizen of the university community in a way that churches rarely are able. To say otherwise is to misunderstand either the nature of the university or the church.

    I believe it is important to say that a well-developed campus ministry has multiple, progressing roles for the student to experience. Student-led Baptist Collegiate Ministry needs the student’s involvement throughout that student’s four years of education. Campus ministries require the leadership of upperclassmen to minister to and mentor underclassmen. You are right, of course, that at the same time, it is essential throughout college for students to have an increasing involvement in the local church. At some point, the student will graduate. There will be then no campus ministry for that individual. It will be time to fully engage the church as an integrated member, leader, and contributor for the Kingdom.

    In my 25 years of campus-based Baptist Collegiate Ministry on secular campuses, I’ve had the good fortune to be part of solid partnership between church and campus ministries. SBC Baptist Collegiate Ministry is the only campus ministry with the stated responsibility for developing leaders for and specifically encouraging direct student involvement in Baptist Churches. It is a blessing to see this done well. It is encouraging to read supportive, astute comments.

  2. Scott Andrews   •  

    I couldn’t have said it any better myself. For the six years that I served as a campus minister I taught my students the same things. I especially told them that if they had an activity where their service was needed (such as AWANA) on Tuesday evenings, they’d BETTER NOT show up for BSU unless they had their pastor’s approval.

    The problem I have encountered more often than not is the church’s attutude toward college students. They are ambivalent at best and afraid of student at worst. My students, almost all came to my church (I was planting a church at the time) becasue they said they did not feel welcomed in any of the other local churches.
    Furthermore, the pastors who actually had college age students who were attending the campuses where I worked almost all refused to encourage their students to get involved in the campus ministry, afraid of the “competition” I guess. I tried to assure the pastors that I would train them to be missionaries to the campus, and encourage their involvement in the local church, but there was such a distrust my assurances fell mostly on deaf ears. The result was that we have students who go to school during the week and to church on Sundays, and the two never intersect. Conversely, the students that I had involved in BSU really saw the campus as their mission field, and guess what. When they graduated and got an 8-5 job, they also saw the work place as their mission field, and the church as the sending agency to which they were accountable and to which they invited their friends and co-workers. It works beautifully (as it is designed to) when the church enters into the ministry as a partner, and stops looking cross-eyed at the very campus ministries that they claim to support.

  3. Alex   •  

    I lead a campus ministry mentioned in the beginning of this entry, and I understand the advantages and disadvantages for my position. But, there’s a glaring weakness with most campus ministries that needs to be considered… while my campus ministry doesn’t take a stance on the egalitarian/complementarian debate, we have a practice of allowing women to teach and have authority over men.

    Because of the fact that I do not allow women to teach or exercise authority over men, there is a very good chance I will get fired.

    It seems to me that this seems to be a common practice among most non-denominational campus ministries, and I really wonder if such practices have affected the Church as a whole because people grow up in their faith thinking that it is acceptable.

    For me, the best case scenario would be for churches to employ many of these people in campus ministry so that they could be actively on campus but under the authority of a local body of believers.

  4. John David Herring   •  

    JD — thank you for a thoughtful guide to an important question.

    Local churches in college towns have a huge role to play in helping students understand the function and role of the Church, as you mentioned in your article. I see the local church as the bridge between a student’s youth ministry (if they had one) and their future activity and service in a local church beyond graduation. It is fertile ground for future church leadership training.

    Sadly, I have seen many Christian students who had little or no involvement in local churches during the college years — but high involvement with on-campus ministries – bounce around from church to church after college, not quite satisfied with their options.

    The reality is that few if any local churches will feel like a campus ministry. Deep involvement with a local body during college certainly helps a student prepare for immediate and active involvement after graduation.
    Collegiate discipleship leaders should take this into account as a barometer of success, along other factors such as the number of students won to Christ, and those moving on to ministry and missions after graduation.

    I would highly encourage home-church pastors to take an active role in helping freshmen students find a church home in their new college town. Get to know the local churches and pastors in the areas where most of your students go to college. Make some recommendations. Encourage all of them to join a local church by the end of their freshman year.

    One final note: I did not encourage our college students to come into membership by “Watchcare.” Rather, I wanted them to become full members. “Watchcare” membership, as I understood it at our church, was designed for folks who came from other denominations and did not want to be re-baptized. It did not mean, as people often believed, that this kind of membership meant that the church would “watch and care” for students during their college years. Of course we would do that — no matter if they “joined” or not!

    I also taught our students that joining the college town church did not mean you were being disloyal to your home church. The truth is that most students would spend the vast majority of a year in their college town, especially if they went to summer school. The college town became their new “home,” and they needed a “home church” where they lived, worshipped, and served the majority of their college days. Not all pastors from the students’ hometowns agreed. But I sure thought that it was important.

    Great article JD, thanks.

  5. Chieftain   •  

    “Give me a student for four years, and upon graduation they will be the best laymen the church has ever seen!”

    Campus ministries, particularly the denominational varieties, are funded to do what the local church cannot: reach the campus. Campus ministers are “specialists” who can target people groups on campus full-time. Most churches do not have the resources or the expertise to do this, let alone the desire.

    It was not that long ago, that the majority of local churches did not have established, stand alone college ministries led by a full-time college ministers. They relied on the campus ministry to do what they do best. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way, and churches everywhere are spending valuable time and financial resources creating essentially duplicative ministries that compete with the local campus ministry! How ironic, since it was the local church that saw the need for (and validated) the campus ministry model in the first place!

    I can hear it now, “But the local church is the only Biblical expression of ministry!” Ah, trying to capture the high ground early, eh? Well, then let’s be consistent, and do away with our brick-and-mortar edifices, multiple paid staffs, and all of the other forms that the local church has adopted post-New Testament. At the very least, go back to the house church model of 2,000 years ago.

    As that drum continues to beat harder, let’s equally evaluate our commitment to theological education, foreign and domestic missions, state conventions, retreat centers, youth camps, national conventions, retirement homes, children’s homes, medical services, and our denominationally managed 401k plans! Because, you know, they aren’t Biblical constructs either . . .

    Paul, commissioned by the church, led a missionary band to do what the local church bodies could not. Denominational-based campus ministries function in the same way — small bands of highly motivated missionaries reaching beyond the ministry scope of the local church. It’s a beautiful partnership when both groups understand their roles and have the freedom to pursue them.

    Do you really want me to poke at the hornet’s nest of campus-based churches? How about domestic missionaries commissioned to plant these same campus churches by the church-governed leadership structures? Oh, well, since that’s outside the Bible belt then it’s OK. You know, “ought of sight, out of mind . . .”

    The popular idea is that the campus ministry should be a “farm team” for the local church to recruit every nursery worker and youth volunteer. So, we take the student off of their mission field, and give them the dirty jobs that most church members don’t want to do. All the while, teaching, however implicitly, three very dangerous concepts:

    1. Get in your car and drive to your ministry. I don’t have time to get to know the people on my floor in the dorms, because I have to go practice for the puppet show we’re having for the preschool at the church. Students learn quickly that you don’t really need to minister where God has placed you.

    2. Become a ministry mule. What’s the difference between a horse and a mule? Mules can’t reproduce. College students are most often encouraged to serve children and youth in the local church. They do not learn the skills necessary to reach their peers. The result? They go on into the workplace unable to reach the people in the next cubicle they see 40+ hours a week. They only have confidence in reaching people at a different place in life than them.

    3. Become a hollow man. This, to me, is the most egregious. Because local churches are bereft of leaders, they grab any college sophomore with a personality and a shred of talent and entice them with positional leadership to be a youth intern or worship leader. The student learns quickly to be up front and lead by talent and skill sets instead of godly character. Spiritual symbolism takes precedence over spiritual substance. These same students are the pastors and church staff who have affairs 20 years later because they never got the training they needed BEFORE assuming positional leadership! When the storms of life blow in, the only thing that will sustain us is godly character.

    Oh God, how I love Your church! Give us wisdom as we serve You in humility!

    In Christ,

    A preacher’s kid, church planting, multiple seminary degree earning, denominational campus ministry worker

  6. Benson Hines   •  

    Again, I really appreciate your thoughts on this, JD. They’re not mainstream – for anybody – but that’s what’s great about them. We need more thinking about college ministry that takes in all sides of the debates and comes to reasoned (and even unique) conclusions, because it’s a wide, wide world out there.

    This is the most severe tension in the world of college ministry, but most of us (on both sides) don’t seem to have done our due diligence on the ecclesiology end.

    And then we need to teach our students those biblical truths. While it may be an assumption that students involved in church-based ministries are less likely to do the “bouncing from church-to-church” thing after graduation, I would challenge that. If we really did the research on that question, I’m not sure we’d find those students to be all that better off in that department – or at least not nearly as much as we’d expect. Without actually discipling them in ecclesiology, a hope that happy exposure will “churchify” them is only treating them as consumers.

    As for campus-based ministries, I appreciate the missiological take in your post and in many of the comments. Particularly in the SBC, recognizing that the BCM model is very Cooperative Program-ish… well, it both highlights the missions-nature of college ministry AND should make at least make us hesitate to rail too hard against campus-based work (as some are inclined to do).

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  8. Steve Lutz   •  

    If the Church is the Bride of Christ, and
    If the Church is the only official institution of the New Testament, and
    If the Church is the only one authorized to get the keys and administer the sacraments, and
    If parachurch is incomplete and at times takes on illegitimate, church-usurping roles…

    Then WHY is the Church the complementary piece?

    Why should the Church have to take a missional backseat to parachurch ministries? Why shouldn’t the Church take its rightful place on the missional edge, with the parachurch ministries serving in the complementary role?

    The student who sees local church as a complement to their spiritual life ain’t marrying that church–they may not even be dating.

    I wrote a brief article on this called “Church, Parachurch, and the Third Way of Campus Ministry” over at

  9. Del   •  

    You have provided some great thoughts here on our approaches to college ministry. Part of the vision for our small church when it was started 8 years ago was to serve a local very well known private college, turned public. When I was asked to teach this age group I gladly accepted only to find out it was going to require considerable retraining. I found that I wasn’t speaking the same language and had great difficulty for a time.
    In my studies I found something entirely different than what you describes as the students “falling away.” They are being seduced by many of their professors and led into secular humanism and all of its ugliness. I have a Virginia Gazette article (July 2, 2008; page 1C), published in Williamsburg since colonial times, about how Thomas Jefferson was enrolled in the school of philosophy at William & Mary and it told how Dr. William Small, a Scottish professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, “introduced Jefferson to the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, which embraced a philosophy that stressed the use of reason as the most advantageous method of learning the truth.” The article clearly implies that this man probably lifted Jefferson from his quaint colonial origins.
    It is my firm belief that our colleges and universities have become very dangerous places for young people to attend without preparation for the way these institutes are intentionally replacing their family values and religious faith with all of the gods of this world. Even most of the schools that began as seminaries have become dens of vipers, preying on our young. Sadly William & Mary no longer serves “… to the Glory of Almighty God.” The tares that were sowed among the wheat have reached full flower and are choking out the good grain of God’s truth.
    In America, truth is struggling to survive. May God bring the breath of life to our colleges and universities.

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