Why community colleges are a vital mission field

(Photo: Reuters)

What happens when a campus ministry realizes that a quarter of its mission field is missing?

Until a decade ago, campus ministries like InterVarsity (with which I serve) were slow to see the need for ministry to community college students and faculty. The dominant model of higher education was the four-year university. We have built programs and invested resources to reach every corner of this context: professors, international students, graduate students from all walks of life, to name a few. We thought we were fine.

But under our noses, the higher education ecosystem was changing. As we tried to build the Body of Christ in four-year schools, our ministry left a whole other part of the student body underserved: community colleges.

It was a significant oversight. And we had to change.

By the grace of God, this repentance has produced a growing and dynamic influence in the community colleges of our movement over the past 20 years. More so, it gave us a deep feeling of Why reaching these campuses is essential for strengthening the whole body of Christ.

First, community college students are uniquely positioned to impact their community for the kingdom of God. Most community college students come from the area and stay after graduation. They carry with them a special blend of relationship, church connection, and neighborhood knowledge when they come to campus. They later become future school board members, local government leaders, retail managers, law enforcement and more after graduation. They stay and shape their home community in ways that students who go to college cannot.

As disciples of Jesus, these students are an irreplaceable part of God’s work in creating shalom. Because of their strategic value, giving them priority to evangelical witnessing is an essential part of serving the whole body of Christ.

Second, these students are essential for serving and reaching underfunded communities, whether urban or rural. About a third of all community colleges the students are first generation students and almost half are people of color. 55% of them come from families with an annual household income of $ 30,000 or less. Taken together, the data shows how this segment of the student body is overwhelmingly rooted in communities whose access to financial resources and systemic benefits have often been restricted. At a time when denominations and church planting networks are re-examining how to serve and reach rural and urban communities, community college ministry could represent a significant investment in future community leaders.

Finally, community colleges help the church broaden its vision of ministry. Too often the imagination of the church to train emerging adults stops at the youth group. These students do not automatically become adult believers upon entering college. In fact, they still need church support as much as they did in high school, if not more. Yet they often fall into the gulf between the youth group and adult church life – between their unique discipleship needs and the ministry status quo.

Local churches often share our old blind spot for campus ministry. When InterVarsity consults with churches wishing to reach college campuses, few name a local community college that could serve many of their own children. Instead, they focus on prestigious four-year schools that may be further away from them geographically than a two-year school nearby.

But there is something essential about proximity that you shouldn’t miss. Since community colleges represent the communities, campus ministries reaching out to community colleges should also represent the community. One successful solution to this problem that we have found is to embrace and continue the partnership.

Rather than individual churches trying to reach local community colleges on their own, and if 10-15 local churches partner up (potentially with a campus ministry like InterVarsity, Cru, or The Navigators) to develop a more lasting evangelical presence and effective on a campus than a single church could do on its own – and, at the same time, more fully embody the Christian witness of the community as a whole. (The EveryCampus movement – itself the result of a partnership between InterVarsity, Cru and many others – has a searchable database of all known campuses without a witness to the gospel.)

Partnerships like this have the rare potential to transform both students and churches. Students who come to faith in these contexts have a variety of church options to explore and learn. More so, they would witness the amazing power of the gospel to create unity in the body of Christ – a critical testimony in this time of polarization and division. Churches would see their holy imaginations stretched in new and soul-enriching ways. They would receive even more renewal as they opened up to new types of ministry and would be encouraged by the new transformation brought by the Holy Spirit.

As we wonder where God is moving, we would be wise to turn our eyes to the thousands of community college campuses where a Christian witness does not yet exist. In them we find microcosms of the kingdom of God – places where diversity and creativity come together, filled with students specially shaped for a role in God’s mission.

Greg Jao ​​is Executive Vice President of Communications and Engagement at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA and is the author of several books, including The mission of your mind, The kingdom of god, and a contributing author of Follow Jesus without dishonoring his parents, Tell the truth, and Voice of conflict and voice of hope.

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