Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the Belmont Wesley Fellowship blog. An edited version is reprinted here with permission.
by David Hollis
I have been serving as a pastor for seven years. Every place I have served has offered an opportunity to work with college/university students. I am now appointed to serve as a campus minister and work daily with students. I’m routinely asked by pastors and church members about attracting students to their church. So, here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

Rejoicing and questioning

First, when anyone mentions a church reaching out and being hospitable, I rejoice. I am especially thankful when churches have a heart for college/university students. I also want to encourage a considerable amount of reflection, questioning, and listening. By nature, I typically start with the “why” on anything. I believe in beginning with the end in mind. And it needs to be said at the outset that most students don’t make great pets. So if a church/pastor/member primarily wants students to attend in order to make their church look younger and to be able to say “We have students at our church,” this mindset could invite problems.
It is great to sit for a while and ask (five times) “Why are we doing this?” This is helpful for any decision, but especially when you are considering launching a student ministry. I want to be clear though: I think having a flourishing ministry to college/university students is well worth the sacrifices and something many churches should consider.

Taking stock

Once you have gone through the “why” question you must come to the likely tougher question: “How are we equipped for this?” Again, having college students at your church is a great thing, but being a church that has a flourishing student ministry demands a certain approach. Many churches are notorious for not playing to their strengths (gifts) and attempting to be everything to everyone. Only recently has much serious consideration been given to the fact that churches, like people, have a particular set of gifts, contexts, and callings. For instance, a church with only one or two healthcare professionals which seeks to launch a community clinic has an uphill battle. This isn’t to say that having such a clinic is not a worthy goal or that such a church will be unable to accomplish this task, but churches and many agencies face the task of choosing a mission and purpose in a field in which all things they do are in fact “good.” So let’s focus on the big questions to ask concerning student ministry:

  • Who are the college/university students in your church already? Chances are that you have some, if only a few. If you don’t have any at all or you only have a couple who are loosely connected, it’s worth asking (again) “Why is this the case?” Even better, talk with those students about 1) why they are at the church and 2) why they think more students aren’t. Ask them if they think the church is a good church for students and why or why not. Lean into the questions.
  • Is there a core group of people who are gifted and called for this kind of ministry? Ministry to college/university students is as specialized as ministry to children and adolescents. It’s not a good idea for this to be only the work of one person on the staff of a church or a couple of members. You need a team and they need to be committed to training and growing in their skills. Consider some of the obvious people who come to your mind, and then have some listening sessions to identify other interested parties.
  • Is there room? Mostly this asks whether or not your church has or will make space (both literally and in the budget) for this kind of ministry. Many churches have entire wings designated for children and youth but have no place within their church for college/university students. Students are expected to share space with other groups. This might be the best you can do, but what message does this send to students whose lives are already constantly in flux? One of the greatest gifts a church can offer students is a sense of constancy and stability during this time in their lives. But this is possible only if a church is willing to make room and be hospitable.
  • Are you willing to be challenged? As I mentioned before, most college/university students don’t make great pets. They aren’t likely to sit quietly and gaze adoringly at you. They are being trained in their classes to question, critique, and even criticize. Part of their training insists that they take a position and argue the viewpoint vehemently through providing evidence. So if your pastor doesn’t welcome feedback (and pushback) on her or his sermon, consider (after you get a new pastor) whether you are up to inviting students whose lives revolve around big questions. The current generation of students also has little to no tolerance for hypocrisy (i.e. your church facilities are immaculate and you have a massive endowment, but you don’t give much of this money to the local homeless shelter) and exercise their faith primarily through mission and service. They want to be involved and will seek a church that they think is making a difference in both the local and global community.
  • Do you have more than one thing to offer? Students are complex organisms, which is to say they are people just like you. A common assumption I encounter regularly is that the only thing a church needs in order to attract students/young adults is to start a “contemporary service.” If this is all you have, no matter how rockin’ it is, you will not have me or my wife attend your church (I’m 32, she’s 28). We prefer worship that has liturgy, hymns, and organ music. More and more students and young adults do. But, of course, if your church won’t consider having a service with a different worship style this is a problem also. What is crucial, again, is that you play to your strengths as a church. If you have a worship service just to have it and to attract a certain group, you’ve lost the plot.

This list is neither exhaustive nor definitive. But it does offer a great place to start in your listening, praying, and conversation around ministry to college/university students. Remember, there are people everywhere with a heart and calling to see this particular group fall in love with Jesus and devote their lives to serving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Find them, and listen to what they have to say.
Rev. David Hollis is the Director of the Belmont University Wesley Fellowship in Nashville, Tenn. In 2012, he founded loverb whose mission is to inspire and support faith communities in sharing stories of compassion meeting action (www.loverb.us). David strongly believes Christians have a responsibility to love God and neighbor by caring for creation.