By Chris DeWelt
Josh Quade, college age minister at College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri, has led us in choosing a church-based model of outreach and ministry. This allows us to pursue students on four major college campuses while simultaneously connecting them to a healthy, multidimensional church community.
We see the church-based, intergenerational approach as an important discipling strategy where we walk with young adults as they prepare for their future career with a strong spiritual foundation. Personally, as an elder in a church with the word college in its very title, I find that the most important thing we can say to these young adults is, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, English Standard Version).
College age is a hinge point in life. It is a time when many of us make decisions that greatly affect the entirety of our journey. It is when many choose a spouse. It is where many change career choices, often more than once. Sadly, it is where some walk away from faith, not having good answers to the deeper questions of the heart. Happily, it is where some find Jesus in a dynamic and real way. All of this is complicated by a big question today about whether or not our basic categories of adulthood and adolescence have changed in our culture.1
Josh puts it this way, “College students go to college not so much to establish a career as to form an identity. The college experience fosters a sense of self-awareness as their past begins working itself out.”
From conversations with many students, I know this is true. Most bring with them much more than just computers, clothes, and small fridges. They often bring baggage that is not so easily identified or addressed. Add to that the intense cultural shifts we are now experiencing, and you have what can feel like a real whirlpool of life.
This is why the intergenerational element is such an important part of effective ministry to people of college age. Young people want some hope. They want to see that someone older is still on the path. Notice I did not say that someone older has it all figured out. That is not going to happen—you and I know that for a fact. Life is tough and the enemy is active. But true transgenerational fellowship can produce amazing results.
How Our Ministry Happens
There are a variety of ways intergenerational ministry happens with our college-age people:
Spiritual Shepherding—This is what we called “sponsors” in the past. The old role was passive. The new role is proactive, as in coming alongside.
We have a number of elders and their wives involved in the college-age ministry. Yes, their lives (and ours) are busy, but they find ways to have coffee, lunch, or discipleship groups.2
A good friend and fellow elder recently texted this to me: “College students keep you on your toes. They are at a pivotal time in life, forming and questioning beliefs they will hold for the rest of their lives.” He and his wife regularly have college students in their homes, and they spend time, usually at Starbucks, hearing their stories and speaking into the lives of the students God sends them. Another elder and his wife fill up many evenings simply having supper in their own home with young people who seek them out.
One element of shepherding is our weekly college-age worship time, Upper Room. Other connecting places are the spring break trips, winter trips, or the seasonal spiritual retreats. I have found that being available can be the first step to shepherding. I often tell people, “I eat lunch every day, and if you want to join me occasionally, we can talk.”
But far and away the most powerful shepherding connections take place through those who have been helped. College-age young people talk to one another a lot, and they point each other to places for help.
Hosting Community Groups—Here is where you open your home to college-age students and young adults. Your home is off campus—a place where a home-cooked meal (or brownie) might be found along with a lot of love. College students lead these groups, and the hosts are there simply to host. Everything flows out of that setting.
All of the community groups develop their own personality and method. Some are more structured and some are less structured. The key elements are praying for one another and caring for one another. Carol and I have hosted a community group in our home for a number of years, and many important conversations have happened on our sofas and front steps.
Direct Mentoring in Career Areas—Although spiritually rooted concerns are important to this age group, there are also many important practical lessons related to career choices and directions.
One student, not a believer but a regular participant at Upper Room, has been connected through the college-age ministry with a local Christian mortician because that is his career choice. This kind of mentoring creates deep relationships and addresses life issues. The value of this type of experience for the student is extraordinary, as he gets to see what his career looks like in real life. At the same time, great ministry is woven into the whole experience.
Coordinating Intentionally Intergenerational Events—Josh works with the “senior saints” ministry in several ways, particularly the assembling of care packages for college students. Many seniors are enthusiastic for an opportunity to touch young lives this way. The college-age worship team, along with a large group of college students, also leads a “Singspiration” (remember those?) for the seniors, which is delightful for everyone!
Such intentional ministry takes a lot of effort by everyone, young and old. Josh confessed to me that some days can be very challenging (sounds like church!), but seeing the whole body come together and caring for one another is so very powerful.
Intergenerational college-age ministry? Yes! It really does work!
1 For more on this, do a Google search using the term “pre-adulthood.” Also see: Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Jennifer Lynn Tanner, eds. (Washington: American Psychological Association, 2006).
2 By the way, I work with males and always refer the females to a godly woman when it comes to one-on-one or deeper discipling groups (D-groups). Many issues are of a deeply personal nature, and pastoral appropriateness is a top priority.
Chris DeWelt serves as department director of intercultural studies with Ozark Christian College and an elder with College Heights Christian Church, Joplin, Missouri.