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Why college students just might be the most fruitful demographic to disciple

For the last 19 years, I have been involved in ministering to college students. Why? I believe they are the most strategic demographic on the planet. I hope that this article helps convince you. 

If you are already convinced, may it give you a simple, powerful way to cast vision to recruit co-laborers and ministry partners. To make it memorable, I will use the acrostic C.O.L.L.E.G.E.

Crossroads – Major Decisions

Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’”

College students are at a crossroads making major decisions in all areas of life. And if no one encourages them to consider their choices and points them to the ancient paths, they will miss the way. 

This crossroads is the most obvious the first weekend on campus. I remember in the early years, my brother and I were at a fast food restaurant near SDSU early in the semester when two 18-year-old girls were vomiting in the bathroom. Probably not what they pictured when they imagined what college could be.

The reality is that the friends students make the first few days or weeks of school could impact the direction of their entire lives. 

Proverbs 13:20: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

There is a race to the heart of every freshman. If they fall in with fools, it could ruin their lives. But a few wise friends could save them a lifetime of regret. 

And it’s not just the friends they choose in college; most choose a major, which impacts their career, and many choose a spouse, which limits or expands their lives more than any other choice.

If we can catch them at the crossroads and convince them to slow down long enough to ponder the direction of their lives, maybe they will be convinced to take the narrow path that leads to life. 

It may sound blunt, but one reason that I love working with college students is the fact that most of them haven’t had enough time to totally mess up their lives yet! 

Of course no one is irredeemable, but if we can catch people early and help them get on the right track we can save them a lifetime of regrets. Of course, of all the decisions the most important one is what they will believe about God. 

Open – Evaluating Faith

In general, people are most open to the gospel at two times: trouble and transition. College is one of those transitions where they are forced to figure out what they really believe. 

Those who grew up in church are wrestling with the question, “Will I really make my parents’ faith my own?” 

Meanwhile, professors and upperclassmen “love them and have a wonderful plan for their life” as well. They are more than happy to help them deconstruct their faith. 

I’ve also found that even those without much faith background are sometimes open to exploring, if invited. 

For example, my dad was given a 4 Spiritual Laws booklet in college, read it multiple times in his dorm room and came to Christ. Since then, God has used him to plant eight churches, train over 5,000 church planters in 30 countries, and now all four of his sons are in ministry seeking to reach college students.

When you reach one student, it not only has the potential to change just one life, but entire family trees

Leaders – Today and Tomorrow

If not in college, where will the future ministers, missionaries and church planters come from? 

Personally, I benefited from a solid upbringing, but it was in college that my mentors helped me smooth off many of my rough edges, which I’m still working on. 

But it’s not just future vocational ministers who need to be raised up. We need Christian leaders in all spheres of life, from politics to education, to the medical field, to entertainment. 

Virtually every person who significantly impacts culture funnels through a college campus. 

That’s why I believe Bill Bright was right when he said, “Win the campus today, win the world tomorrow.” 

And as former UN secretary Charles Malik said, “The university is a clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world.”

Unfortunately, though, other than a few solid Christian universities, most of our academic institutions are already overrun by anti-biblical ideologies. So, if we are not on campus fighting for the souls of these future leaders, who will?

Also, don’t forget that students are not just leaders of tomorrow; some are ready to lead in a significant way today, and we should empower those who are!

Learners – Cement is Wet

Students are … well … students. Their minds are much more moldable because they are still in learning mode. 

Most of the verses I use regularly I memorized or rememorized in college. The Bible study and theological books I read in college are the foundation for my ministry today.

Most students have more time to be intentionally and personally discipled than when they get out. 

Also, they can be taught not just WHAT to think but HOW to think. One of our goals is to help people become lifelong learners. The habits students form in college can serve them the rest of their lives.

Energetic – Infuse Life into Church

Let’s be honest, students don’t bring a lot of money into the church! But what they do bring is more valuable!

Energy and enthusiasm can’t be bought or manufactured. I’ve found that students and young adults are some of the best servants in our church, and it’s a lot of fun! 

Global – Can Go Anywhere

Many students long for adventure and want to explore the world! 

Most don’t have mortgages or kids, so it’s much easier for them to give a summer or even a couple years overseas. It’s extremely rare to meet a long-term missionary who didn’t first go short term.

Also, the world has come to us! There are over one million international students in the US, many of whom are from much less reached nations that are hard for Americans to get into. They can be impacted right here and sent back to their countries as ambassadors for Christ. 

Jessica and I chose to plant right next to San Diego State so that our church could be a spiritual sending base. One day we were overlooking San Diego and saw one of the many military bases. I had the thought, “What if our church was like a spiritual military base that reached people for Christ, trained them up and sent them out year after year?” What better place to do this than from the college campus?

Essential – Strategic Battlefield

D-Day was the decisive battle of WWII. I believe the college campus is our D-Day, and tragically many churches are largely ignoring it. I think much of the cultural shift we are seeing is the result of losing ground in this strategic battlefield.   

A few months back, I was offered a tempting ministry opportunity, but it was not close to a major university. As I was praying about what to do, God used Psalm 78:4 to guide me:

“We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.”

I’m convinced that in this season, I need to focus my energy on the next generation. 

If we don’t tell the next generation about the great things that God has done, who will? 

One day I was sitting on my porch swing holding my one-year-old son Nathan, and had a thought: Every college student is someone’s Nathan. Every student you lay eyes on is someone’s son or daughter. 

If Jesus attended your school’s college football game and looked out at the sea of students, what would he see? Matthew 9 gives us an idea.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (v. 36–38).

I believe that Christ’s heart breaks for the lost on the college campus today just like it broke for that crowd then. Does yours? 

Jesus sees the students who don’t know him as lost sheep. But have you put yourself in a lost sheep’s hooves? 

A sheep without a shepherd is doomed to wander aimlessly, overwhelmed by fear and anxiety knowing that any moment they will inevitably be torn apart by wolves. Similarly, no matter how put together they may appear, every student on campus without Christ is doomed to walk through life harassed by all kinds of anxiety and depression, helpless against the enemy’s attacks, only to die and spend eternity separated from God. 

Lost students are helpless because they don’t know how to be saved … unless someone tells them.

What’s Christ’s solution? 

If Jesus was in your prayer meeting and you went around the circle taking requests, what would his prayer request be? More laborers! He tells us to passionately and persistently pray for more laborers! 

Your first step to engaging students is to start pleading with God to send more laborers onto your campus. 

Because here’s the reality according to Christ, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

Do you really believe that? Honestly, most of us believe the opposite. We think the campus is too hard. 

We believe that the laborers are plentiful and the harvest is few. But here’s the truth: the problem is not the lack of harvest; the problem is the lack of harvesters. 

Farmers know that harvest time is all hands on deck. If you don’t bring the harvest, it will literally die on the vine.  

Right now there is a plentiful harvest on America’s college campuses. The only question is who will harvest them? 

Jesus made a similar statement in John 4:35–38: 

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

There are three imperative commands in this passage. We are to look, lift up your eyes, and see. In other words—Don’t miss this—the harvest is already ready.

The phrase “one sows and another reaps” is a universal principle. 

Similar to how the prophets paved the way for Christ’s preaching, many students have been spiritually prepared by Christian parents, youth pastors, and other believers who have shared bits and pieces of the gospel with them. But those people still haven’t gathered the fruit of their labor.

The harvest is just sitting there waiting to be harvested. I sincerely believe that right now on every campus in America there are people whom God has already prepared if we will just find them and tell them.

It’s true that a lot of ministry is seed sowing, but I want to challenge you to focus more on reaping. 

My dad teaches that there are two major types of evangelism: cultivative evangelism and discovery evangelism.

Cultivative evangelism is slow seed sowing that we all should be doing with our friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors. This includes living as salt and light and staying ready to share when given the opportunity.

Discovery evangelism is sowing the gospel broadly in order to find those who are already ready. I believe that college ministry is a unique opportunity to reap those who are ripe for the gospel.

We see outreach on campus as a divine Easter egg hunt. The primary prayer we pray before going out is, “Lord, lead us to those ripe for the gospel.” And often he answers our prayers.

Think about this: Where else will you find so many people at the same age and stage with time on their hands hanging out in the same place? It’s almost like fishing in a stocked pond, and the fish are biting. 

If you can find a more strategic group of people to reach, please let me know and I will consider giving my life to reaching them. But until then, my hope is that you will join me in investing your life in this crucial demographic. 

Why C.O.L.L.E.G.E. Ministry?

Crossroads – Major Decisions

Open – Evaluating Faith

Leaders – Today & Tomorrow 

Learners – Cement is Wet

Energetic – Infuse Life into Church

Global – Can Go Anywhere 

Essential – Strategic Battlefield

Which of these seven reasons is most inspiring to you?

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This article originally appeared on CampusMinistry.org and is reposted here by permission.