Many of us were deeply influenced for Christ by the churches we went to while we were at university. Those of us who are graduates probably have fond memories of packed churches, open bibles and full notebooks. And it tugs at our hearts strings when we think of the Sundays we normally face.
Now, we should rightly be grateful for such ministries, which still continue; we should pray for them, and support them financially. They are hugely valuable, and nothing I am about to say should be thought to question that.
But there are problems with the dominance of the model when it is applied outside a university context.
The first is that many student churches will have a three year curriculum for their discipleship program, to equip these young adults with good basic doctrine, a bible overview, and key bible books covered. That’s all excellent, and I have no quibble.
But those of us who move into other church-based ministry must recalibrate that model. Unless we are in a student church, we won’t have a three-year turnaround for a large number of our members. We need a life-long discipleship pattern, that takes people further. We need to address ever-deepening content.
Related to that, the ideal undergraduate model is a note-taking student, but that’s not where most adults are, educationally. Many will have left school at 16, many others will prefer to discuss and debate, and many will have competent jobs which require them to critique material and not just accept it. We need to address how we expect people to learn and teach.
Third, an undergraduate church is a high turnover church, but most ministry happens in congregations where the relationships in the small groups last decades, not terms. We need to address issues of love and forgiveness, not just friendliness.
Fourth, many of us who went to college or seminary, went in a context where we experienced those student churches for a second time around, this time when we learnt about pastoral ministry and church leadership. And so the experience underlined those structures for us. If you think you were not affected by that, ask yourself why your church issues a ‘term card’, or why we have long summer breaks.
Fifth, therefore, those of us who lead churches which are not in a student context need to notice why we flounder. It’s been borne in on me by becoming the pastor of a church in a well-educated setting, but without any tertiary education. We export most of our 19 year olds.
If we took a standard undergraduate-church model off the shelf, we would simply run round in circles. There are no undergraduates willing to take on a two- or three-year curriculum. There is no big influx in September.
Now, I know I am not alone in this, because even as I have typed I have thought about a number of my friends who pastor churches in a similar context as ours. So here’s my question for discussion: which are the churches and ministries that you look to and learn from, which thrive in a world without students?