Tips for reaching specific groups of college students

By Chris Brooks

One of the things I loved about my time in college was the incredible diversity found within various friendship groups. In high school, students drew sharp lines to establish a social hierarchy. But at a university, a lot of lines began to blur or even disappear all together.

Now that I’m a college pastor, I still revel in the diversity and inclusivity of many of the various friendship and social groups I see among my students. But this still creates a challenge for ministers: even with the lines blurred, how do we cross them to minister and make disciples?

Here are few things my team and I have noticed when we have tried to pioneer inroads with specific circles of people on campus.

The University of Alabama wheelchair basketball team. Photo by Alexandra Browning on Flickr.

Reach one to reach the rest – I have three young children and one on the way, so my time is incredibly precious. I try to integrate myself into the life of the university as much as possible, but the model of ministry where the minister is at every university event, recital, or game every night of the week is not only unsustainable for me – it is sin. It’s not healthy for my family, my ministry, my church, or me.

So how do we reach specific groups? Here’s an example: I started discipling a guy who is on the university’s wheelchair basketball team this year. He is much more equipped and able than me to reach other wheelchair athletes. He also lives to work out, so practically everyone at the recreation center knows him by name. He is a person of peace. This is an example of how you can reach the few to reach the many, and it’s a great way to reach into specific groups of students.

Go to them before you ask them to come to you – We try to get our students into the missionary mindset. I have come to love the fact that our collegiate ministry has no space of its own in our church building. We are like a bunch of homeless squatters. At first, I thought that would be detrimental to an attractional style of ministry, but then I realized that this has been our greatest asset in creating a discipleship culture to “go and do likewise.”

Now we assemble with the explicit purpose of scattering. Our goal is not merely to get students to come to our church’s campus, but to get our Christian students to fully invest in theirs. We don’t need more Christian ghettos surrounding our universities so that it is possible for Christian students not to make one significant relationship with a non-Christian student during their full four years.

For us, scattering meant cancelling our Sunday evening service so our students could be in their dorms, apartments, and fraternity houses doing laundry, eating dinner, and sharing Christ with their lost classmates.

Don’t always ask them to fit into your programs – I am pretty passionate about having a simple holistic discipleship strategy in our ministry, but we had to also realize when to make an exception. Here’s an example: We had decent number of sorority students in our leadership team who were ministering to their sisters, but we couldn’t seem to get breakthrough for them in the discipleship process because their schedules were so crazy and their loyalty to their houses was so deep. So my wife, prompted by the Holy Spirit, partnered with another girl to start a Monday meeting just for sorority girls to walk through the basics of the Christian faith. It was incredibility successful and fruitful.

Partner with your university – My buddy Ish says it this way: “It would be kind of odd if you were a prison ministry and didn’t partner with the prison.” Why is it then as ministers that we often overlook (or even view as adversarial) the very schools from which our students come? I am a creative who thrives on innovation, and this means I am often guilty of trying to create something new when the best thing our team can do is improve on or simply get involved in what already exists.

A case in point is our international ministry. We poured a ton of time and attention into reaching out to the international community by hosting dinners, fellowships, and Bible studies. We had one ice cream social where like five international students showed up surrounded by about 30 of our American students. We scared them to death. That’s not at all what I think the Lord or Lottie Moon had in mind in terms of reaching the nations. But then we joined up with the Universities Conversation Partners Program. Through this, our students formed one-on-one relationships with international students in a comfortable setting. Now we have substantial inroads with our international community – and with our university as well.

We want the faculty, administrators, and university employees to know that we are a church ready to love and serve. This works outside of college ministry as well. Our youth pastor coaches tennis at one of his local high schools. Our church partners with the mayor on several of his initiatives for community restoration.

So here’s the question: Where are schools, city, or other churches (gasp) already doing something to reach out to the poor, the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan? How could you help equip them for even greater Kingdom impact?

Put yourself out of business – I remember studying in a seminary class on foreign missions that the goal in planting a church internationally is to raise up indigenous leaders who can ultimately put the missionary out of business. We try to remember this goal regardless of whether the group we are trying to reach is an unreached people group in the 10/40 window or a group that has bars on every window two blocks away in our community. The goal is to make disciples who make disciples who know how to feed themselves and how to teach others to do the same.

Look which way the wind is blowing – This is our constant lesson. We have a surplus of great ideas, plenty of quality students eager to serve, and an ever-increasing amount of phone calls and opportunities to reach out to various groups. But we are doing our best to discern which direction the “wind of God” is blowing. The temptation many of us will face once we have developed a certain level of organizational and leadership skills is to think that competency is all we need. Our communities and campuses don’t just need restoration – they need resurrection. Only the Spirit of the Living God has that on his resume.

What lessons have you learned about reaching specific groups of college students – or other students, for that matter? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Tips for reaching specific groups of college students

  1. So true … “Looking which way the wind is blowing” always amazes me! As I am living life and building relationships (without the evangelism “agenda”), I find genuine friendships and mentoring develop. Here is where and when God opens doors for me. Teaching and encouraging our students to do the same can be difficult because of the lack of structure for such a lesson. Stories and testimonies can play a great role in this! The “lesson” would be to encourage humility. The prayer would be for the Lord to break our hearts for people around us…natural connections follow.

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