About six months ago I made the transition from high school pastor to college pastor. When our senior pastor first invited me to consider this change, I was leading a vibrant, Word-centered high school ministry and loving it. However, after prayer, careful thought, conversations with mentors, and, of course, conversations with my wife, we decided to embrace this new role. I'm amazed at God's kindness in leading our ministry thus far, and I'm excited about all that's to come.
I've also become more convinced than ever that the local church must intentionally disciple, lead, invest in, and train college-age Christians. I'll offer several reasons. But as I do, let me say I fully acknowledge that having a college pastor is a luxury few churches can afford. Still, I believe the following points apply to churches with formal college ministries (or staff leaders) as well as to churches led by one pastor with a team of lay leaders.
So why must we in the local church focus intently on gospel ministry to 18- to 23-year-olds?
First, these young people are setting the spiritual trajectory for their entire lives.
Think for a moment about your own spiritual journey. Surely some of you enjoyed dramatic conversion experiences later in life---perhaps even during your college years. Such stories remind us conversion is a miracle, the work of the Holy Spirit invading and convincing lost hearts of gospel truth. But I imagine many of you have a different story. It's a story of coming to faith in Christ at a fairly young age---a conversion followed by small choices, adjustments in direction, rebukes from trusted mentors, and steady growth in holiness over the course of years.
Now, for how many of us did several of those vital direction adjustments occur during college? For better or worse, between the ages of 18 and 23 we often become the people we're going to be for the rest of our lives. College students are making huge choices: where they'll work, whom they'll marry, how they'll engage in the church, and with whom they'll associate. For the sake of these dear young people's souls, let me implore you, pastors and lay leaders, invest yourselves in this "trajectory-setting" process for the glory of God.
Second, these young people will overwhelmingly make their choice for or against investment in the local church during these years.
It's during the college years, away from home and parents for the first time, that many they face a significant (and often new) question: Will I commit to a church? Numerous young people from Christian families have never answered that question on their own. And tragically, many answer it negatively. Is that entirely the fault of the Christian parents or surrounding churches? Of course not. Sometimes new independence merely exposes a heart that's never been given in repentant faith to Christ. For college students who do know the Lord, however, this season of life is crucially important for setting patterns of local church commitment, involvement, and ministry. Learning to serve as men and women---not just "tagalong" kids of longtime members---is a lesson of incalculable value. I certainly found new joy in local church investment during my college years because of this dynamic.
Third, these young people bring life, vibrancy, service, wisdom, and energy to our church bodies now.
I'm speaking again to those of us older than 23. We need these young people in the everyday life and ministry of our local churches. They need us, yes, but we need them, too. Our church has welcomed the great benefit of seeing many Wheaton College students teach our young children in Sunday school classes. My heart is encouraged each Sunday as I run into a member of the college basketball team---there at 8 a.m.---faithfully helping lead our first- and second-grade Bible classes.
Friends, we should look for opportunities to put these young people to work in vital gospel ministry now. Ask them to read Scripture publicly. Use their musical gifts in corporate worship. Invite them to disciple younger students and children. If our 18- to 23-year-olds aren't joining, serving, and even leading (in some fashion) in our churches, they're not the only ones missing out.
Fourth, college students will for the most part leave our churches and pursue jobs and professional callings around the world.
I'm already dreading May 11, 2013, when we'll see dozens of godly men and women graduate, leave our town and church, and possibly never return. But as a college pastor I need to embrace the transient nature of my ministry, recognizing this transience makes it such strategic gospel work. What a privilege I have to teach God's Word, train students to study it, disciple young men, foster maturing faith in Jesus Christ . . . and then say "goodbye" as these young soldiers fan out across the globe to work, marry, join and lead churches, and declare the beauty of the gospel in all of it. I'm not exaggerating when I tell my colleagues I have the best job in the church.
So take note of the 18- to 23-year-olds in your midst. Meet them. Love them. Disciple them. Train them. Involve them in ministry. Then rejoice as they're launched out to bear witness to Christ in their various callings around the world.
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Learn more about college ministry from Jon Nielson at the The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference in Orlando. He'll be joined by J. D. Greear and Rupert Leary for a workshop on "College Ministry: Because Real Life Starts Now!" And if you attend the missions pre-conference on April 6 and 7, you can sign up for Leary's other workshop, "Mobilized for Missions: A Strategy for Launching College Graduates Around the World."
Jon Nielson is the college pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He blogs at Something More Sure.