Practical tips for reaching college students

By Jordanne Bonfield

For the thousandth time, I found myself on Terri’s couch watching TV with her.  During a commercial break, Terri was trying to break through to me about pursuing counseling. Senior year was taking its toll on me, between a major life change, some family hardships, and the acceptance of a full time ministry job after graduation. It had become clear that I needed some deeper processing and some new tools to help me move forward successfully to the next stage of life.  Terri was my dorm mom at the time, and she had been ever present in my four years of university.

My college years were the era of Friends, Survivor, American Idol, and The Bachelor. Those were reality television’s humble beginnings. What those shows remind me of now are some of the pretty great times with our dorm mom Terri. Even though I didn’t love the shows, I’d be there just to hang around her.  The counseling discussion was not a light conversation for reality TV watching, but it was necessary nonetheless.

The thing I remember most from that crazy and difficult time is the support, love and friendship Terri gave me. She was older than me, and I respected her authority, but she always felt like my greatest of friends. I don’t remember her ever going over the top in planning events for us girls; mostly she just invited us into her life.  That meant hours in her tiny dorm apartment making cheesecakes or watching TV, and trips to Sonic or Dairy Queen or last-minute grocery shopping.

I think about Terri often now, as I am around the same age she was when I was in college. I find myself in disbelief that the college girls I invest in now are 10 years younger then me. I’m not their dorm mom, but God has brought them into my life for a reason, even if it is just to help them pass through the crazy challenges of college life.

As you can see, I mostly think about the relationship side of ministry, but that’s not to discount events. The Gathering Network, the church plant I am a part of in Kansas City, has a summer internship called the Leadership Training Project. This summer internship continues to be the biggest magnet we have for the next generation, and it focuses on discipleship.

But even after 20 years of a really great program like LTP, we are finding that we need to revamp and revise what it means to reach the next generation. The things that worked 20 years ago don’t work today. When I was an intern doing devotions in the morning, I didn’t even own a cell phone. Now, every morning we have to tell interns to turn their phones off just to help minimize the distractions.

I think we can all agree that culture has changed. It can feel like we are running the gauntlet just to even say our first hello, let alone build a relationship with them.

But in this often difficult context, I honestly believe that the highest impact you can have is your opening up your own life.

So what do we do to move into the future of college ministry? As I observe the college students of today and think back on my experiences, here are some of my suggestions. These things may seem simple, but I wish I could see more youth and college ministries thinking about them:

  • Get your youth/colleges students in on the planning. Listen to what they have to say. An event driven by them instead of you is way more likely to have impact.
  • Remember to aim for quality over quantity. I’d rather have 10 students at my house and have great conversations with them than be in the same room with 1,000 that I potentially will never see again.
  • Don’t forget to have a relational follow-up strategy. Having an event might be cool, but what really matters is following through on the connections made during that time.

Although events can be great door openers, my real heart lies in developing relationships. As I envision what is next as a leader, I’m paying attention to these things right now:

  • Be present. Find where they are congregating and GO TO THEM. This is my biggest challenge to myself for 2012.  Get on the college campuses; find the coffee shops they study in, the libraries they go to, and the places they eat. Go THERE and go there OFTEN.
  • When you are there, put your phone away. It may not seem like it matters, but it does.
  • Invite them into your home and your life. Let them eat your food, play with your kids, and maybe even live with you if they need it.
  • If you are in college ministry, don’t discount high school students. They are paying attention to how open you are to them. Each spring during my interviews with potential interns, at least 70 percent of them tell me that they started coming to our church while in high school. Now many of them are on the path to becoming some of our greatest leaders.
  • Your cool factor honestly doesn’t matter. They will think you are the coolest ever if you are just YOURSELF. Don’t try to be just like them.
  • Don’t let your frustration with their lack of response to your texts, emails, or calls derail you. Get with them face to face as often as you can.

What about you?  What observations have you made about the practical steps of reaching the next generation?

Jordanne Bonfield is on staff with The Gathering Network, a new church plant of Heartland Community Church in Kansas City, Kansas. This is her first post for the Wayfarer Blog, and she will be a regular contributor. Two books she’s currently reading are The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture by Stephen Lutz. You can connect with Jordanne on Facebook

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Practical tips for reaching college students

  1. Terri

    This is a great article, my friend. Some good stuff…makes me really miss those “dorm” days and college ministry. Love you girl.

  2. Excellent post, Jordanne! I’m so thankful for your gifts being poured out on the next generation!

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