The Changing Face of College Ministry (Part 1 of 2)

College is an interesting age and stage to do ministry in. It’s no surprise that college students are always changing and if one is in college ministry (or any ministry for that fact) long enough you are able to notice more readily some of those changes and trends.

I’ve been in vocational college ministry for almost ten years now:

  • 3 years at Grand Canyon University where I was an admission counselor and recruiter and where I worked on occasion with the Department of Spiritual Life as we coordinated events for students.

Over these last ten years I have had the opportunity to be a part of a lot of exciting things in ministry and it has been interesting to watch the college student change. Recently I have been in a lot of conversations with various college pastors in the local area as well as across the country. And we have spent a great deal of time talking about the changing face of college ministry. On top of that, it is interesting to continually watch the Ivy Jungle Campus Ministry Update and the changing trends they identify in college students.

What I want to do in this post is just identify a few of the trends that I have noticed. These come out of my observations and conversations with other fellow practitioners. In doing this, keep in mind that I am aware of the fact that I am casting a general stereotype which may or may not hold true for your experiences. And I’m taking into consideration that location and context greatly influence college ministry. So for everything I point out, you may or may not disagree. I would be interested in your feedback then. I’m also aware that the trends I identify are not exclusive to college ministry perhaps, but reflect a great movement in the Church.

I began working with college students on a small, liberal arts, Christian University in Phoenix, AZ, and I’m now working at a large church in Los Angeles that is composed of a lot of people in entertainment, while I work with students primarily from USC, UCLA and LMU. So that’s a little of my context.

Trends

Move Away from the Programmed Ministry, Towards Relational Ministry

  • This shouldn’t be surprising, especially since Willow Creek recently repented for their heavy reliance on program based ministry at the cost of traditional spiritual practices.
  • It used to be that if you had the right program, it would attract all the students you wanted, but now that isn’t enough. College ministry has always been relational (college students are relational by nature), but in recent years many have realized that relational ministry (relationships within the ministry) are sacrificed in order to keep the program running.

Move Away from the Big Gathering Event, Towards Smaller, More Interactive Gatherings

  • It used to be that college students were drawn to large gatherings. That is still true in some sense. But with the failure of many attempted big events on campus (I’m thinking of a handful at UCLA), to continued decreased attendance at traditional events like Forest Home’s College Briefing.
  • I was recently at a meeting with about 50 other college pastors for the upcoming Passion LA Regional Event, and the looming question was whether or not such an event could be pulled off in Los Angeles.

Move Away from Watching, Towards Participating

  • College students don’t want to simply come to a worship service, or outreach project and watch. They want to participate. That might not mean preaching, speaking or playing an instrument, but they want to participate in the planning of the event, and also participate as a worshiper in a service. It’s not good enough to sit on their hands in a service while others do all the work/performance. There has to be an element of participation.
  • This trend can be seen in the increasing number of prayer and art stations at college services and conferences. It’s hard to find a conference these days or a college service that doesn’t incorporate elements of small groups, group prayer, contemplative stations, etc. in their service.

Move Away from Expository Preaching Only, Towards a More Story Based/Narrative-Expository Combination

  • When I first started in college ministry I used to preach pretty expository, verse by verse in my sermons. But now I have had to learn how to incorporate more elements of narrative preaching and story telling into my sermons. This is something that I am glad to see happen.
  • But college students today have been raised in a story telling culture (not unlike other generations). But with the new media, computers, video games, movies, etc., they are immersed in story.
  • “The Christian mission is not well served when we speak in terms of spiritual laws or rational formulas. Propositional truths, when extracted from a narrative context, lack meaning. ‘The chief role of a Christian,’ he says, ‘is to tell a better story.’ Donald Miller in Christianity Today. Don’t underestimate the influence of Donald Miller in shaping the college mind in this area. The event that we hosted Donald Miller at in October of 2005 to this day has been our biggest draw and most popular/commented/challenging event so far from student’s perspectives. Though our event with Rob Bell is close if not equal.

Move Away from Top-Down Hierarchical Leadership, Towards a Bottom-Up, Flattened Leadership

  • I can’t say enough about this topic. But students today are very, very suspect of a ministry or organization with hierarchical leadership. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have it in a ministry, but student’s automatically will be suspect about it, especially in a church setting. Student’s today don’t want their churches or ministries to reflect corporate structures.
  • My thoughts on this issue were best addressed when some other’s commented on the moral failure of many leaders in our culture: whether it was the Jimmy Swaggart scandal, or the Bill Clinton White House scandal, etc., students are suspect of those in power.
  • Students want to see ministries that model servant, downward mobility leadership. (Read Henri Nouwen and others on this topic.)

These are just some of my thoughts based on observation, conversation and study. I will be posting two more times on this issue within the next seven days. But I would be interested in what I have posted so far.

  • What do you think of some of the trends I have identified?
  • What trends have you noticed?
  • Where is college ministry going?
  • Some may think of these trends as being one and the same with the “emerging church.” But I would say they neither are or aren’t “emergent” but part of a larger, more foundational paradigm shift. Thoughts?

3 Comments

  1. by Travis Keller on December 13, 2007  2:47 am Reply

    Rhett,
    You are right on in my book. It is refreshing to hear someone else with the same perspective. It was good and responsible for you to note the possible differences but I do not see any even though I am in the middle of Ohio. I just finished reading Leonard Sweet's "Postmodern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for a 20th C. World." He defined elements of our after-modernism era using an acronym: E.P.I.C. Experiential; Participatory; Image-Driven; Connected. The book is quite simple. It is good for anyone beginning to entertain these concepts.

  2. by Rhett Smith on December 13, 2007  12:25 pm Reply

    Travis,

    Thanks for the comment. I know I'm definitely not alone in this area. You, I and many others have been observing these things and are on this journey as well.

    I will have to check out that Len Sweet book. Sounds interesting.

  3. Pingback : RHETT SMITH » Transitioning Life's JourneyThe Changing Face of College Ministry (Part 2 of 2) » RHETT SMITH

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