Reaching college students is hard. When we look in our pews on Sunday and find our churches largely devoid of this age demographic, reality sets in — churches don’t reach college students by accident. Sadly, many churches decide college students simply aren’t worth the effort. The challenge is simply too great.
Don’t get me wrong, the challenge is real. If a church does actually reach them, college students will probably tax the church’s budget more than they contribute to it. They will bring some ideas that challenge the way we think and believe. They might dress in ways that make us uncomfortable. They will fact-check our teaching instantly on their smartphones. They will ask questions we’ve never had to answer before. Can we really afford to accept the challenge?
Maybe the better question is, “Can we afford not to accept the challenge?” Jeremy Dager of Mercy Hill Church says that college students uniquely bring “passion and potential” to a church. He says their passion even translates into their desire to go back on campus and reach their friends with the gospel. And when it comes to potential, it’s about what’s over the horizon. He acknowledges, “If you’re only thinking about them for the short time when they are at your church, then, yeah, you’re not going to be able to see how they contribute.” But he is quick to point out that college students are the people who are going to be influencers in your community in just a short time. They are the future business leaders – maybe even in your own community – that will contribute exponentially to what lies just over the horizon.
As a matter of fact, college students, more than any other demographic, have vast potential to spark missional movements. History proves it.
Nearly every major missions movement has begun with college-aged men and women.
On a Saturday afternoon in August 1806, five college students gathered in a field next to their campus at Williams College for a prayer meeting. When a thunderstorm approached suddenly, they sought shelter in a nearby haystack. A young, awkward freshman named Samuel Mills led them to discuss the eternal reality of so many Asians who had not yet heard the gospel. He then turned the conversation to their own missionary obligation and challenged them with these words: “We can do this if we will.”
What came to be known as the “Haystack Prayer Meeting” was the seminal event that influenced American Protestant Missions for the next 100 years. These students started organizations that first sent seven students to India as missionaries. Then they went to China and all across Southeast Asia. This missions organization eventually sent over 5,000 missionaries into 34 different fields. And it all started with five college students who asked hard questions and declared, “We can do this if we will.”
Nearly every major missions movement has begun with college-aged men and women. From Ludwig von Zinzendorf at the University of Wittenberg to John Wesley at Oxford University, college students have sparked major mission movements. Hudson Taylor began the China Inland Mission as a student, sending 6,000 missionaries to inland China by 1949. In 1886, John Mott, a student at Cornell University, started what became known as the Student Volunteer Movement where students volunteered as missionaries. In the first year of their work, they sent more student missionaries than all of America had sent over the previous 100 years!
College students have an enormous capacity to leverage their lives for God’s mission. They are more sendable than any other demographic. Yes, they are challenging to reach, but they are worth it. Maybe we need to hear the words of young Samuel Mills anew: “We can do this if we will.”