Fragile: Handle with Care

“This is incredibly fragile,” she commented. I asked my co-worker what she meant. “Student ministry — there are days when it seems to hang by a thread, doesn’t it?”

I have to confess there are days when I wonder if we’re making any headway in student ministry or if we’re about to collapse on ourselves. Thankfully, there are also days when we have much to praise God for.

On the fragile days, I am usually tempted to take control of the situation. Admittedly, there is a tendency in American culture to want to fix things, but some things shouldn’t be meddled with.  Some things require our trust, obedience and watchfulness.  But it’s not uncommon in Christian circles to conjure grand plans and strategies in order to lessen this sense of fragility.

The Delivery Approach

Consequently, one approach to student ministry is to ‘deliver’ ministry to campus. As staff, we take programs with speakers, include graphics and promotions, and deliver it like a package deal to the campus. In doing so, we can — maybe inadvertently — encourage students to look to ‘professionals’ who have the programs and the answers and who set up events to attract students. 

There’s nothing wrong with good quality programs or the speakers and staff who help run them, but this is not the genius of InterVarsity’s approach to ministry. We take a different approach. Instead, we equip students to take responsibility for their campus and to rise to the challenge of leadership.

In some ways, this is a harder approach to student ministry, but we believe it creates leaders — not just for their time in school, but throughout their lives. It also creates a relevant ministry because it’s by students and for students.

If you look around the Christian world, the usual pattern is the ‘delivery’ model of ministry.  I believe this model creates passive Christianity where participants shop for the best programs and just let these experiences wash over them, hoping this will somehow create meaningful change in their lives. In my experience, it rarely does.

In the end, we may work with fewer students, but our vision is that these students will discover their gifts, see their potential and step out in faith. History shows that movements have been born this way and that the impact has been deeper.

 A Different Approach

The tension between activism and relying on God’s power is a common one in Christian faith.  In Colossians 1:28, Paul describes this mission statement:  “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” In the next verse (Col.1:29), we sense the mystery of cooperating with God’s Spirit in this endeavor: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy which so powerfully works in me.” A more literal translation of verse 29 is, “For this I agonizingly labor with the energy he energetically energizes me with.”

On the one hand, Paul gives everything he has to his mission – he toils and agonizes over it.  But, on the other hand, Paul does his work with the abundant power that God provides. Which is it, Paul?  Is it you, or God?

Apparently, it’s both!  And for us in student ministry, we do our part by encouraging and equipping students as they plan, and work hard to give it everything they’ve got.  But at the end of the day, we all need to know that it is God’s power that makes the difference.  Together we realize it’s his Spirit that overshadows, equips and enables us to be faithful.

If you’re feeling the temptation to take control of your ministry, what should you do?

  1. Remember that ultimately we are all – students and staff – part of the mission of God in the world.  Spend time praying and reflecting on God’s call to you and to your team and acknowledge the ministry as his.
  2. Remember that there is a difference between taking responsibility and taking control.  You can be responsible to the call God has given you without being in control of it.
  3. Help students to discern where God is already at work in their midst and go there to join him. We don’t need to ‘deliver’ ministry to their university; we can release what’s already there and build on it.
  4. Thank God that he’s in the habit of turning audacious dreams and ideas into something awesome in his kingdom.

Yes, student ministry may be fragile, but it’s also a natural opportunity to trust God as we labor in his vineyard for a fruitful harvest on campus.


Adapted from “No Deliveries Here, Please: Who’s in Control of Student Ministry?” posted on the blog of  the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

About the Author
Regional Director
John is formerly IFES staff in Europe & Eurasia, IV Canada staff & now Southeast Regional Director for InterVarsity/USA. Seems he can’t make up his mind!