Opportunities plentiful to reach college students with love of the gospel

Making Christ Known on Campus

When Ryan Williams graduated from high school and turned his sights toward college life at Winthrop University, he wasn’t pondering spiritual things.

“I wasn’t really thinking about what God could do in my life,” he said, even though he was part of a church youth group where he’d been exposed to biblical teaching and had known people who “tried to pour the Word into me.”

“I wasn’t ready for that, I guess,” said Williams.

Instead, toward the end of his senior year, he had started partying and drinking with friends, which he continued to do after enrolling in the fall at Winthrop, a school he’d chosen because he felt particularly drawn to its “small-college atmosphere.”

At Winthrop, he quickly made friends and settled into a pleasant life on campus. “I was having the time of my life,” he said. “I couldn’t get any higher.”

But then a close relationship ended badly, and he found himself questioning the direction his life had taken. It wasn’t just the partying and drinking, and it wasn’t just the failed relationship. Williams says his discontent was rooted in something deeper.

“I was angry at the world,” he said. “I really can’t say why — it was just what was in me at that point in my life.”

He’d attended a few BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministries) meetings during his freshman year — “because there was free food, you know” — and later, during his low period, some of his BCM friends encouraged him to start coming again. “They shared the Word with me,” Williams said. “That was the first time someone had really laid out the gospel to me.”

“Through them, God planted the seed for me to get saved,” he said. Last December, sitting alone in his room one night and feeling dejected, he opened his Bible to a passage a friend had read to him a few days earlier: Lamentations 3:1-24. “That passage is about how somebody felt so beaten and broken down, but they never lost hope in the Lord,” he said.

“I prayed, ‘Jesus, I can’t live this life the way I’m living it without you anymore. I need you.’ That was just how it happened, alone in my room, at midnight. I really accepted Christ into my heart — not just saying it, but understanding it and meaning it.

“When I gave my life to Christ, it was an unexplainable thing. Things that I used to want to do became less relevant. That’s not to say they went away immediately, but I thirsted more for the Word and just letting that guide my life.”

Today, he says he’s no longer angry at the world. “To see that anger deteriorate and go away has been a crazy thing. I have more of a peace about me, and there’s a love for others that wasn’t there before. It’s been an all-encompassing change that’s hard to explain.”

Jack Blankenship, BCM minister at Winthrop, concurs: “Ryan’s life was dramatically changed this year, so much that people on campus started noticing and asking why.”

For Williams, the role that BCM students and staff have played in his life has been pivotal: “That pouring out of Christ’s love into me is what turned me around and opened my eyes to just a different way of living.”

At a commissioning service at Rosewood Baptist Church in Columbia, Medjina McStravick (left), a Francis Marion University student now serving as a summer missionary in Canada, is prayed for by Ken Owens, director of the Collegiate Ministry Group of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and Rachel Keefe, an intern with Francis Marion’s BCM.

A ‘Critical’ Time of Transition

Williams is one of about 250,000 students enrolled in 84 public or private universities, technical schools or other teaching or research institutions across the state, according to a 2014 statistical abstract published by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. Most of those students are from South Carolina, but many also come from other states or countries.

At almost every one of those 84 institutions — whether they be public or private — South Carolina Baptists have a presence and influence, either through Baptist Collegiate Ministries, or through the targeted ministry efforts of churches, or through informal volunteer efforts by individuals.

And of those quarter-million college students, many are experiencing personal independence for the first time, far from the familiar base of home and church.

Some of those students “will be followers of Jesus who need to find a church and a Christian community,” said Ken Owens, director of the Collegiate Ministry Group of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. “Others will be spiritually lost, disconnected from God and in need of a Savior.”

Owens leads a network of 18 collegiate ministers — full-time, part-time, SCBC-employed, college-employed, volunteers — who seek to reach young adults with the gospel at a period in their lives when their worldview is being molded into permanent form.

[Related story: Collegiate minister Scott Smith: ‘I really enjoy what I do’]

Steve Lindenmeyer, missions and college pastor at Centerpoint Church in Charleston, where up to 70 college and medical school students worship each week, says college students “are at a critical phase of development where some of life’s most important decisions are being made: What do I believe? What am I going to live for? What will I choose to do for a career?”

“When the gospel of Christ intersects with their lives during this critical time, it is transformational,” he said. “The trajectory of life can literally be influenced or changed based on the decisions one makes while in college.”

Jack Blankenship, collegiate minister for Rock Hill-area campuses, offers a similar assessment. “College is a pivotal time in life where thoughts, beliefs and passions are cultivated,” he said. “The period of life between 18 and 25 — now called emerging adulthood — is a time when one’s worldview is not only questioned, but solidified.”

College is not the first time students have been presented with “ideas and lifestyles that are contrary to what the Bible teaches,” Blankenship said. “The challenge is that for many of them, it is their first real opportunity for freedom, and that all starts when Mom and Dad drop them off at move-in. All choices are theirs. This freedom … gives rise to an easy opportunity to either shelve their faith — thinking they will pick it up later — or an abandonment of it entirely.”

Blankenship also noted that today’s college students — referred to by sociologists as “Generation Z” — now represent the largest generation of Americans, and more of them are indicating their spiritual affiliation as “none.”

Lander University BCM students minister in New Orleans.

“Unlike millennials, who were often ‘spiritual but not religious,’ more and more of this generation are not even worried about being spiritual,” he said. “This presents a unique challenge. Just as missionaries have to adjust their thinking and approach when they encounter a different people group, we will have to do the same in the coming years — the same gospel message, but different approaches.”

Owens said many students don’t wait until college to drift away from church. “More and more students have dropped out — and are not growing as disciples — by their sophomore year in high school,” he said. This makes them even less likely to seek out a church or a small group of believers when they go to college, Owens said.

College Ministry: Not Just for BCM

On South Carolina’s college campuses last year, nearly 19,000 students were impacted by Baptist Collegiate Ministries programs, and more than 3,500 students were “actively involved” in those same programs. Among college students, 227 conversions were reported, in addition to 422 conversions of non-college students.

Nearly 400 BCM students were on a path toward a church-related vocation, close to 1,000 were engaged in evangelism, and 169 signed up to serve in summer or semester missions work (in addition to 433 who volunteered for short-term mission trips). BCM students assisted nearly 500 churches with ministry programs and gave more than $250,000 for missions.

But as effective as BCM staffers and students are at impacting college campuses with the gospel, the direct involvement of churches is crucial to reaching a greater number of students, say leaders.

“Our ministry is not in competition with our churches,” said Blankenship. “We are an extension of the local church campus, discipling students to reach students. I tell students regularly that if you have to choose between BCM and the church, the decision is already made: Choose church. Some of my best friends are local pastors in our area. We have developed great partnerships and have fought hard to keep a kingdom mindset.”

Clemson BCM leaders pray at a weekly gathering.

Lindenmeyer, whose church serves students primarily from the College of Charleston, The Citadel and the Medical University of South Carolina (in addition to a few students from Trident Technical College and Charleston Southern University), says his desire is that students become an “integral part” of the local body of Christ where they worship and serve during their time in college, even if their “home” church is in another town.

“We believe this is the best way to fully engage with the community they are living in under the direction, leadership and ministry of the church they are serving alongside,” he said.

Jeremy Chasteen is college and missions pastor at Crosspoint Church in Clemson, where 500-600 college students regularly attend when school is in session. He encourages students to join Crosspoint so that they can “serve, teach and lead during their time with us.” His church offers “normal covenant membership” as well as “associate membership” for those students who have a home church and want to maintain that while away at college.

For Chasteen, Crosspoint is about more than providing a temporary church home for students. “We see this as a great opportunity to influence the next generation of missionaries, pastors and those going into the marketplace as followers of Christ,” he said. “We love to partner with campus ministries, but we have embraced our role to be a local church helping lead the charge in fulfilling the Great Commission on the college campus.

“We are trusting God that we can mobilize students to be healthy church members after graduation. We also pray that many students would leverage their degrees to go to unreached cities in the U.S. and around the world to take the gospel to the nations.”

Rob Nicholes, college minister at First Baptist Church of Columbia, says his church encourages students to join via “watch care,” which does not change their local church membership, but “designates to the home church that they are under our care while here.”

BCM students at the University of South Carolina compete in a relay as part of an end-of-year outreach on campus.

“This allows them to make a tangible decision to put down some roots in a local church,” he said. His church extends some of the benefits of being a church member, including eligibility for missions funds and scholarship funds for seminary.

Getting students who have grown up in their hometown church to engage in another community can be a challenge, Nicholes said. “They are comfortable at their home church, and the college faith community where they are seeking to be a part of a ‘new family’ has barriers.” He said the same challenge exists even for students who are staying home for college and are seeking to be a part of the college ministry at their home church.

Nevertheless, the opportunities for ministering to college students are “boundless, because they have more freedom in their schedules than any other age group,” said Nicholes. “They want to make a difference, they want to learn, they want to serve, and they are very open to what God is doing and may want to do in their lives. It is a very unique time.”

Bob Cline, senior campus pastor at Anderson University, talks with students.

Life and Learning on a Baptist Campus

If BCM aims to touch lives on all of South Carolina’s college campuses, students who attend one of the state’s three Baptist universities — Anderson, Charleston Southern and North Greenville — are immersed in an environment where living and learning under the leadership of Christ is integral to each school’s mission statement.

In addition to academic majors that offer preparation for ministry and missions, all three schools fund staff ministry positions and encourage involvement in student worship and ministry/missions organizations beyond just BCM.

At Anderson, students can also choose to participate in Women’s Ministries, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Reformed University Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ.

Students break into small groups to pray during chapel at Charleston Southern University.

At Charleston Southern, students are encouraged to “grow more in love with Jesus” through weekly discipleship (in “D-groups”), through worship (at weekly “Elevate” services and at chapel) and by missions and service involvement (through “Engage” opportunities).

At North Greenville, students can be part of weekend “Impact” ministry teams at area churches, help with the school’s annual student-led renewal event, or take part in one of several annual campus conferences designed to strengthen their faith or expose them to missions opportunities.

‘The Harvest is Plentiful …’

How can churches and individuals become more involved in college ministry?

“We need more people ready and willing to enter the harvest field of university campuses,” said Lindenmeyer. “To engage students requires the most important of all commodities: time. It takes time to build relationships, to clearly demonstrate and declare the gospel and to counsel students in difficult circumstances. It takes time to have students in your home and around your table.

The BCM praise team from North Greenville University leads during weekly worship time.

“I believe college students are less concerned about what they see in a weekly worship service and more concerned with the authenticity demonstrated and lived out the rest of the week,” he added. “That requires availability and commitment.”

Owens, too, said ministry with college students “demands a relational investment.”

“Just putting on a good program or sponsoring a meal at the church won’t create a lot of interest among students today,” he said. “They want to know people from the church. Developing ways for students to relate to one another and to older mentors is critical,” he said.

Owens encourages every church to explore “the need and opportunity” to make a missional connection to its local campus. “Find out if the campus has trustworthy Christian ministry organizations, like BCM,” he said. “Connect with their leaders and see how you can help fill a ministry need, such as assisting with student move-in day, participating in an international student gathering, or adopting a dormitory for gospel impact.”

“If the campus doesn’t have an active gospel witness, examine ways your church can begin to shine the light on campus,” he said. “Meet with university officials to discern needs on campus that your church may be able to meet. Or help begin a new ministry organization on the campus.”

Owens advises churches not to overlook technical colleges. “They are the fastest-growing colleges in our state and the ones least served by Christian ministries,” he said.

Even churches that aren’t near a college campus can be involved by praying for students and BCM leaders, Owens said, and by offering financial support with Cooperative Program gifts.

Finally, churches should work hard to stay in touch with their students who have gone off to college, Owens said. He encourages church staff members and lay leaders to travel to campus to visit their students, to send them care packages and letters, and to plan activities for them when they are home on break.

He also recommends reaching out to high school seniors before they graduate by taking them to the Converge collegiate conference in February or leading them in a transitions Bible study. (To request more information about leading a transitions study, visit http://www.scbaptist.org/transitions/.)