Churches often look around and correctly notice that college students are missing from their pews. We have children, teenagers, parents and grandparents, but where are the 20-somethings? This realization causes panic and a sense of desperation to keep the ones we do have, and consequently, a church’s college students can become the most prominent hurdle to a church’s engagement of the campus just down the street.
Out of this sense of desperation to keep the current students, many churches start “college classes” on Sunday mornings. But because their homegrown college students are away at college, numbers are erratic and unpredictable. The group size surges in the summer when students are home, and the church celebrates spikes in attendance on holiday weekends.
The problem is that we have fallen prey to a defensive posture rather than an offensive posture. The desire to keep the few college students who have grown up in church has curbed the desire to reach students on the campus down the street — the students who have yet to hear the gospel.
John Johnson, student pastor of Parkwood Baptist Church in Concord, has helped his church see past this phenomenon with a sports metaphor: the “home team” and the “away team.”
He challenges Parkwood to see the students from their church who have gone off to college as the away team. These students are sent by the church to be missionaries on the various campuses they now call home. The church’s responsibility in this is to care for the missionaries. They write notes to these students reminding them that their church is praying for them; they visit the students during the year; and they send them care packages at key times during the year. The name of the game with the away team is “missionary care.”
These students are sent by the church to be missionaries on the various campuses they now call home. The church’s responsibility in this is to care for the missionaries.
On the other hand, Johnson challenges Parkwood to see the college students yet to be reached at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as their home team. If the away team is about the defensive game — keeping the enemy from taking ground — the home team is about the offense, or taking ground from the enemy.
Churches build their home teams in collegiate ministry by going to the campus down the street. In a sense, it’s like recruitment in that we are inviting them into the mission of God. Sometimes that means we introduce them to Jesus. Other times it means developing their character or calling them off the bench. These students are the ministry that the church should focus most of its energy and resources on.
Simply put, encourage the away team by reminding them of their roots and helping them find a church where they are studying. Then, make disciples among the harvest that is down the street — the home team.
The college campus is not an agent of evil from which we should protect our homegrown students. It is a mission field into which the church is sent. By thinking of collegiate ministry with two teams — the home team and the away team — churches can avoid the trap of taking only a defensive posture in regard to their collegiate ministries. After all, Jesus promises in Matthew 16 that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [the church].” Let’s give the gates of hell an assault to try to defend – an assault that will render those gates as inept as they are evil.