Preaching to College Students

Many campus ministers rely primarily on guests to preach to and teach their students. This was the strategy during my college years, and many still use that strategy. Not all campus ministers are great preachers, nor do they feel like they have the time or capacity to focus on that particular ministry task, and with good reason. Campus Ministers have to be good at many things, including counseling, administration, money management, personnel supervision, facilities operations, church relations, food preparation, travel arrangements, and the list goes on. I believe that is it a mistake, however, to outsource biblical teaching exclusively to those who do not know your students or their context as well as you do. Simply because you are not the world’s greatest preacher does not mean that you can’t be the world’s most effective preacher for your context. I work for a university where annually we have dozens of guest speakers, preachers, teachers, and lecturers visit campus each year. Dollar for dollar, I think that our faculty, staff, and campus ministers communicate more effectively to our students than even the most entertaining or impressive guests. In other words, if what you’re going for is entertainment, then a guest is best. If what you want is impact, guests often (usually?) fall short. In a world of limited resources, therefore, I say you get more bang for your buck by anchoring your teaching/preaching schedule with people on your campus or on your staff, people who know and love your students better than anyone.

With that in mind, here are a few brief ideas on preaching to college students in a campus ministry context:

  1. Preach as often as you can, or as often as it makes sense in your environment. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t great at it or don’t love it keep you from being effective at it.
  2. Pay attention in speech class and preaching class. The technical details about presentation style, stage presence, eye contact, diction, pace, pronunciation, visual aids, etc. – these details matter. This is especially true in a world where students spend more time fact-to-face with screens than with live people.
  3. Know your audience. Know their life stage, social tendencies, emotional burdens, and intellectual curiosities. Know their language, their intelligence level, their average GPA and ACT scores, their music, their culture.
  4. Don’t assume that students have any degree of biblical literacy. Most do not. At the same time, don’t “dumb down” your content. Explain concepts confusing to someone who didn’t grow up in church, but don’t be pedantic.
  5. Challenge students. They expect to and want to learn. They don’t necessarily need to or expect to “feel better” after a message. Hit them between the eyes; say it like it is; throw down when necessary. Do this with humor and grace, the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
  6. Be personal and missional. Let them learn a little about you and your struggles, without emotionally streaking. But stay focused on the mission, the Gospel message and its proclamation, what theologians call “Christo-centric” preaching.
  7. The sermon should be part of a process, not an isolated event. Invite others into the planning process. Give clear next steps. Use the sermon to lead an organization, to expose its flaws and your own. Use the momentum created by a challenging message to accomplish things far more important than the sermon itself. At the end of the day, the sermon is a means, not an end.

 

Leadership

What Do College Students Care Most About?

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I was reminded in a recent blog post by my son (read it here) that for students, college is about friendships. Professors want students to think high-minded thoughts, to probe the depths of intellectual inquiry, to increase in knowledge. Campus ministers want students to deepen their faith and their commitments to Christ and the Church. Parents want students to make good grades, gain a marketable set of skills, and get a job after they graduate. All good things, but students mostly want friends, at least at first. After they find good friends, then maybe they’ll want some of that other stuff too, especially if their friends want it. This means that for most students, friends can make or break the college experience. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts on college friendships for each of the players involved:

Parents – Talk to your students about finding the right friends. Consider Greek Life carefully and prayerfully, knowing that the choice to pledge could be the most significant decision your son or daughter makes. Think not just about the academic programs and job prospects that a university provides, but think about its campus culture as well. Get to know your student’s friends. Have them over, feed them, help do their laundry. You can learn volumes about your student’s college experience from his/her friends.

Professors – Your students care more about their friends than they do you or your class. They’re probably taking your class because a friend told them it was good. They’ll skip your class to spend time with a friend in a crisis, and they’ll be confused to learn this isn’t an excused absence. They will skip studying for a late night pizza, coffee, or Sonic run. Nothing you say in class will change this. Students who don’t find good friends tend to transfer to another school. And you were probably the same way when you were a student.

Campus Minister – Your events, programs, and activities should capitalize on students’ perceived need for friends. This isn’t pandering, it’s understanding and adapting to a culture, as you would in a missions setting with an unreached people group. Students will follow their friends to a party or to church, to a summer camp job or a summer missions experience, to a campus lecture or a campus ministry. To call this a “herd mentality” is to degrade this stage in a student’s life.

Students – If you leave home for school, and even if you commute to a campus near your home, your life is uprooted, upended, and upheaval is the result. You need friends, good friends, and quickly. Go out and find them, don’t wait for them to come to you. This will sometimes be uncomfortable and occasionally awkward, especially if you tend toward the shy side. Embrace the awkward – all new students feel it, and most older students too. Friend groups morph from semester to semester, so everyone is always making new friends. And most importantly, find the RIGHT friends who share your faith and your values, who want truly good things for you, who will challenge you, confront you, disagree with you, sharpen you, hold you accountable, and keep you from thinking that college is all about you.

College

Leaving Home for College: Part Two (for students)

You’ve just graduated from High School. You’ve probably attended college orientation, or will very soon. You’re now counting the days, maybe hours, until you move in and start your college career. I know you’re getting advice from every conceivable person, so here’s how to survive the next few weeks until move-in day.

  • Cut your parents some slack. Your parents are acting strange, looking at your old baby pictures, watching videos of when you were a child, and generally over-reacting to almost everything.  They are an emotional wreck, for some good reasons and maybe not so good reasons. They’ll chill out eventually. Probably. Hopefully.
  • Manage information overload. You’re going to get an awful lot of information over the next few weeks, including advice from mentors, important dates from your college, stuff you need to remember. Get a notebook. Write it all down. Keep in all in one place.
  • Get organized. Make a list of things you need, decide what you have, what you can borrow, and what you need to buy. Keep “to do” lists and check things off. Life is about to get stressful, and organization will minimize the chaos.
  • Talk to your parents about boundaries. I know they’re getting on your nerves, but you need to set some boundaries with them about how often they’re going to call, text, contact you on social media, visit, etc. Get on the same page with them. Be firm, but respectful, about your expectations.
  • Be smart with money. You need to understand the financial big-picture, where the money is coming from to pay for college, and how much you have to spend on necessities and luxuries. Your parents will expect you to be financially responsible, and you want to be, so get the knowledge you need to make that happen.
  • Take the time to say goodbye. Maybe you’re sentimental and maybe not, but either way, your life is about to change permanently. Whether or not this makes you sad to think about, say goodbye to life as you know it. Tell your teachers you appreciate them. Write a thank-you note to your youth minister. Say thanks to those friends who’ve been by your side through thick and thin. And avoid the temptation to spend all your time with friends. Express appreciation to your family members, who more than anyone, need some closure.
College

Leaving Home for College: Part One (for parents)

This is the time of year that students and parents attend college orientation, an exciting time for students but a tearful time for many parents. As a campus minister, I’ve spent over 15 years helping with college orientations and I have occasionally thought that parents were a bit melodramatic about saying goodbye. All that changed last year when my first offspring left for college himself.  I found the experience gut-wrenching, not because I was worried about him or his future, and certainly not because I wanted him to stay home. I just felt the grief associated with the end of that stage of our relationship.  So based on my experiences, here are a few things I’ve learned about saying goodbye.

For parents:

  • Let go. I know this is such a blinding flash of the obvious that nobody will say it, and that’s why I need to say it.
  • Don’t hover. Agree to mutually acceptable levels of contact by phone, text, social media, visits, etc.
  • Be patient. Your student is probably not as ready as he/she thinks. He/she will make some surprisingly silly mistakes.
  • Be realistic. Your student is probably more ready than you think. He/she will make some surprisingly good decisions.
  • Embrace this stage. An adult-to-adult relationship with your son or daughter is a deeply satisfying and rewarding thing.
College