In 1877, several Christian students began meeting together at the University of Cambridge in England for prayer, Bible study, and evangelism. As time went on, the group grew in number and began to spread to other campuses. Eventually these groups banded together to form InterVarsity, the first parachurch campus ministry. Fast forward a century and a half and now we have campus ministries on just about every campus here in Canada. Ministries like InterVarsity, Power to Change, Chinese Christian Fellowship, Athletes in Action, and Navigators are all prominent parachurch organizations that focus on ministering to college and university students.
I am thankful to God for campus ministries. During my undergraduate years at Wilfrid Laurier University, Power to Change played a pivotal role in my spiritual formation and it also contributed to my wife’s spiritual growth as a new believer when she was in university. I know many people that have been saved through the evangelistic efforts of campus ministries. And I know even more that have experienced a call to ministry or global missions through their involvement in campus ministries. All that to say, it’s clear to me that God has used campus ministries around the world for the furtherance of his gospel. For that I am thankful.
But campus ministries are not God’s primary vehicle to disciple the nations. He’s given that task to the church. Prior to 1877, campus ministries didn’t even exist because local churches were effectively ministering on university campuses. Here in the 21st century much has changed. Few churches today seek to make disciples on university campuses. It should be no surprise then that parachurch organizations have tried to fill this gap. But in order for these parachurch campus ministries to be effective disciple-makers, they must recognize their need for the local church. On this note, after spending 5 years in a campus ministry myself and 7+ years ministering to university students in my church, here are three words of exhortation that I have for campus ministries:
1. Remember Who You Are
A campus ministry is not a local church. Campus ministries are parachurch organizations. The prefix “para” has the sense of “coming alongside of” something else. So, a parachurch ministry is an organization that comes alongside of the church to supplement and strengthen its ministry. Thus, parachurch organizations support local churches, they don’t supplant them. Campus ministries ought to remember this.
I fear that too many Christians nowadays do not understand what distinguishes a group of believers from a local church. I’ve even met some students that believe their campus ministry is a church and thus they don’t see the need to attend a local church while at university. God can use campus ministries in mighty ways but make no mistake: a campus ministry is not a local church. Local churches are bodies of inter-generational believers that meet together regularly to hear the preached Word, to sing together, to pray together, to celebrate communion, to practice baptism, to equip the saints, to establish biblical eldership, to discipline their members, and to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the world around them. If you take away any of these core distinctives of a local church, you no longer have a church. Campus ministries have a much narrower focus in the kingdom of God. They exist primarily to evangelize the campus on which they find themselves. Don’t get me wrong, they have an important role to play, but they are not the local church. They must understand and remember that.
2. Support the Local Church
How then do campus ministries “come alongside of” local churches? There are many ways they can do this. Primarily, campus ministries should seek to funnel their students into the church. This involves emphasizing to their students the fact that they are not a local church and then encouraging their students to join and get involved in a local church. They should even go so far as to say something like, “If your busy schedule requires you to choose between getting involved in our campus ministry or getting involved in a local church, choose the local church.” Additionally, campus ministries should allow local churches and local pastors to give input into their ministries. Campus ministry leaders should seek to be held accountable by the leaders at their church, asking for counsel and feedback often. When possible, campus ministries should partner with local churches to run events like evangelism trainings, retreats, and outreaches. Really, there are endless ways that campus ministries can support and partner with local churches but in order for this to happen, it requires intentionality, effort, and the conviction that campus ministries need local churches.
3. Fulfill Your (Unique) Ministry
Because campus ministries are not local churches, they should seek to fulfill their own unique ministries. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul tells Timothy to “fulfill your ministry.” Timothy needed to fulfill the ministry that God had uniquely gifted and called him for. Similarly, campus ministries should seek to do what they’re uniquely positioned to do. Campus ministries have access to the campus and to students in a way that local churches usually don’t. They should leverage this unique access to the campus for the sake of the gospel. Hence, the primary purpose of a campus ministry should be to evangelize the campus. They should prioritize boldly sharing the gospel with students. Then, as students are saved, they should funnel them into local churches where they can be discipled, equipped, and held accountable.
Campus ministries that prioritize something like community over and above evangelism are not fulfilling their unique ministry. Instead, they are prioritizing something that students can and should already be experiencing first and foremost in a local church. This goes against the very purpose of parachurch organizations. Parachurch organizations should not supplant something that local churches are already doing, rather they should come alongside of the church to supplement their disciple-making efforts. I’m not saying that campus ministries shouldn’t pursue community at all, especially since their community in Christ can be an integral part of their overall witness to the campus (see John 17:20–23). Rather, I’m arguing that their pursuit of community shouldn’t take away from their primary purpose of evangelism, it should be subservient to it.
Above all else, parachurch organizations on university campuses should leverage their access to the campus for the sake of the gospel and then, as part of their disciple-making process, they should funnel Christian students into local churches for their discipleship.
Campus ministries cannot be silo ministries if they’re to be useful in the kingdom of God. They need the local church in order to effectively contribute to the fulfillment of the Great Commission. As they boldly share Christ on campus, they must also work closely together with local churches to see students discipled and sent out for God’s glory.
Can you think of any other exhortations you’d give to campus ministries?
How can a student balance church involvement with campus ministry involvement?
What can local churches do to more effectively and practically minister to students?
What sorts of initiatives can local churches and campus ministries partner together on?