Does Your Church Have What It Takes to Reach College Students?

The following is a 9-point article that was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog. We certainly do not have this subject all figured out, but anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of our congregation at the Summit Church is college/graduate students, and so we’ve had to learn many of these things by necessity.

There are three well-established facts regarding Christianity and college students that ought to capture the attention of any gospel-loving pastor: a) college is a time of unprecedented openness to all things, including the gospel; b) many of the great “awakenings,” both major and minor, in our history have started through college students; c) there is a disturbing absence of this age group in many of our congregations.

1. Whatever you do, don’t shy away from depth or hard truth:

Students are not dumb, nor are the college professors filling their minds 5 days a week. These students are being presented with deep questions, and simplistic answers not only fail to persuade them, but make them increasingly skeptical of Christianity. So take them deep, and do it often. In almost every sermon we try to have an “apologetic moment,” where I explain how this or that biblical truth counters the cultural norms they absorb in their college. The most popular series we have done have related to straight, deep answers to challenging questions.

Furthermore, teach the hard stuff-like what the Bible teaches about gender roles, sexuality and divine punishment. Most students already know generally what evangelical Christians believe about these things (if for no other reason than that we are spoofed by their professors and SNL), so we gain no ground by pandering around it, ignoring it, or apologizing for it. Speak truth convincingly with clarity and grace. Recently I had a practicing lesbian student tell me that she comes to our church because we at least teach the Bible clearly, even though it angers her sometimes. She said, “I don’t want someone just telling me what they think I want to hear. I know what the Bible says. I’m trying to decide if it’s true. I want someone to explain to me what it says and tell me why it’s true.”

2. Preach the Gospel:

The beauty of the gospel, as well as its outrageous claims, intrigues most students. It engages both believer and unbeliever. It exposes the root idolatries that drive our behavior, and reveal God’s radical agenda for the world that calls for a dramatic response. The gospel “secret” is that all the things we want to see produced in students, things like “radical generosity” and “audacious faith,” are produced not by telling them what they are to do for God, but by exalting in what God has done for us. (For more on this, see perhaps my Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. Sorry for shameless plug.)

3. Love on display is often the most effective apologetic:

Francis Schaeffer first said that, I think. Strike that. Jesus first said it (John 13:34-35). We often think the way to convince unbelievers is to show that our smart guys are smarter than their smart guys. True cynics are convinced more, however, by the beauty of Christ’s character in us than they are meticulous logic of our apologetic. (This is not to diminish, at all, the vital role of giving intelligent answers to hard questions). Note that it was when the first church “shared all things in common” and “there was no need among them” that Luke says they had “favor with all the people” and “God added to their number daily those that are being saved.” The church’s greatest persuasive power is in her serving (cf. 1 Peter 3:15; 4:7-11).

4. Remember that we live in the Bono generation:

Serving the community and the poor around the world is now, for lack of better terms, “cool”. And while “Tom’s shoes” certainly has a different agenda than does the church, this generation’s awareness of global suffering ensures that any message that fails to address global and societal needs will fall on deaf ears. The awareness of global suffering actually provides a wonderful opportunity for the gospel. We can show the gospel provides a better, more holistic answer to the problems of the world.

Our church has identified 5 areas (the homeless; the orphan; the prisoner; the unwed mother; and the high school dropout) that we plug students into. We use these as opportunities not only to win our community, but also to disciple students. Opportunities to serve the poor becomes some of our best opportunities for the evangelizing of lost students. Many students will serve alongside us in projects directed toward these groups even when they won’t come to our church services.

5. Lift their eyes to the nations:

God’s agenda for the world is nothing short of people from every people group worshipping Jesus (Rev. 5:9-11). We should teach students to choose their life’s path based on this end-goal. Even those students who do not go into “full time ministry” can choose their career path in light of the Great Commission. They have to get a job upon graduation somewhere, so why not do it in a place where they can be a part of church planting? We teach our students that unless God has put a better plan in front of them, they should plan to spend 2 years in one of the places we have a church plant (both domestic and abroad).

6. Aggressively develop summer projects and overseas opportunities:

Summer projects and mission trips are great “farm teams” for training students in mission. We have seen tremendous returns from students who served on one of these projects. Currently, we have projects each summer in our city; in places we have church plants domestically; and overseas.

7. “One-on-one” and “small-groups” are often more effective for evangelism than are large groups:

The “come and get it” approach of many churches and campus ministries has become less effective with today’s students. Plus, there are usually a lot of groups already doing that on campus, and that “market,” if you will, is already glutted. All that to say, there are more lost kids on campus than ever, but most them won’t go to the typical “large group evangelism” events. We have found that one-on-one and small group approaches will, however, reach many of these “radically un-churched” students.

Also, it’s easier (and cheaper!) to draft younger, “just out of college” workers than it is to hire a career “college pastor” (which is what you’ll need if you’re going to run an effective large group on campus). Not only are these younger workers easier to find and employ, they have an easier time engaging students one-on-one and in small groups. They are also less likely to be arrested for hanging out in the dorms.

8.Providing multi-generational connections for students within the church is essential to discipleship:

Students need a Titus-2 type connection with older men and women. This can happen in both the formal and informal settings: by encouraging healthy couples and families to integrate students into their families; in multi-generational small groups; and through having students help out with children’s and student ministries are all ways students can connect. Five college students guys hanging out together sharing their collective wisdom is not the “manifestation of God’s varied graces” that God promised in the church (Eph, 3:10; 1 Peter 4:10); it’s more like Lord of the Flies.

9. Cultural adaptation is important, though not essential:

Personally, I have a hard time understanding why churches hold on to the cultural mores and styles of previous generations and at the same time complain at their inability to reach this one. I know we can’t make the gospel more attractive through our “coolness,” but, face it: if the 1950’s ever come back, many of our churches are going to be ready. But they are not coming back. We need to reckon with that.

That said, the real appeal of the church is in its timelessness, not its trendiness. The authenticity of the message is more important than the coolness of the messenger or the loudness of the music.

The “traditionalism” of most of our churches usually kills not because it is “uncool,” but because it is a counterfeit of the gospel. I know of churches very effective in engaging students that have more of the ancient, reverent feel than a vibrant, energetic one. Our church has more of a modern feel, but the gospel’s power can reign in both settings. We would encourage you to lay all cultural elements of your church at the feet of Jesus and ask Him to show you how to prioritize the mission over preference. Every effective missionary in every culture has thought this way. God help us if we value our cultural traditions more than our children!

There is no magic bullet for reaching students, but we hope these timeless values will help spur you to expect great things of God for this generation, and then attempt great things for God in it.

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