I have been energized by the re-awakening that I have experienced over the past few years of InterVarsity’s apostolic and missional call to every campus. We have always loved campuses and students. Recently, we have been looking into and asking about the campuses where InterVarsity could be present in a more vigorous way.
This has been true for our regional staff team. We have been working on 24-32 campuses around the state of Florida for the past ten years. We have seen many students come to faith for the first time, take new risks to join God’s mission on campus and go on to become significant kingdom influencers after graduation. We have celebrated. After all, seeing students transformed is what we live for. We thank God for the 30 or so campuses and all the restoration and student leadership development we see happening.
But even in our joy over the good work God is doing, we feel unsettled about the campuses in our region that we are not on. There are still thousands of students with little or no access to campus ministry or the good news about Jesus in their context. There are far more than 32 campuses in Florida. In fact, there are over 120 campuses. Many of these are community colleges with essentially no campus ministry accessible to them. What about those campuses? InterVarsity is uniquely equipped to meet the challenges of the commuter campus context. Why? We believe that the marginalized are close to God’s heart. We are equipped to do ministry in difficult contexts and we are effective at developing students from diverse backgrounds to be missionaries on their campus.
Then why are we on so few of the campuses in our region? A few reasons come to mind. At times our work can be so staff-centric that we are not sure it will survive if we give attention to other campuses. Sometimes our model of hiring and staffing can be campus-specific in a way that keeps us from thinking about other campuses in our city or area. However, many of us are aware of the unreached campuses but do not have enough resources to get to them.
But maybe there are other ways people can partner with us, besides just giving money, to help us reach more campuses.
Where are the churches that already have a heart for college students in our state? Maybe they have tried working with college students, but with little success. What if there are churches that are so near a campus that they pass by every day and often think they should do something there, but have little idea how to get started? What if we could learn to empower churches like these to start student fellowships on unreached campuses?
Our team has begun to pray for key churches that have a heart to reach college students near them. We dream about including them in a regional planting cohort. Last summer we decided to look for these churches. We asked them to provide a planter to give 5-15 hours a week to students and we would provide a coach, some funding, training and a cohort experience. Every staff discerned a campus to stand in the gap for, researched churches nearby the campus and worked to set up appointments. In one day we met with more than 36 churches.
The responses ranged from very positive to strangely confused. Pastors said, “This is exactly what we’ve been praying for. We want to reach the campus but don’t know what steps to take” and “For so long para-church ministries have acted like they don’t need us, but it seems like you really want to work with us.” One former IV staff who is now a pastor came to the meeting ready to give his support and had to sit back and re-orient himself to the conversation when he realized he was being offered help and not being asked for support. In the end, at least 30 said they were very interested in getting to know us and considering partnering with us.
The scouting day was a great experience for our staff and for the churches we met with. Since then, we have started partnering with three churches to try and reach new campuses. One of them is working to get a young adults group at church to own the campus as its place of mission. Another church partner, who we hope to include in the cohort, has been going on campus every week to host the money proxy. As a result, they have met 40 students interested in seeing a student fellowship begin at that school.
Some challenges we are facing include:
- InterVarsity is not well known in our state so it is taking time to build trust with churches.
- Helping churches find the right person to fit the context of planting.
- With some churches, it takes time to help them understand our philosophy of ministry. For example, our value of being incarnational and regularly present on the campus, as well as how we value doing ministry with students, not to students as we empower them to lead and reach their campus.
- Working to be clear about hopes and expectations and to understand what they want out of the partnership.
Our regional church partnership cohort is very much a work in progress. From month to month there have been very encouraging moments and some very discouraging moments. But we want to continue over the next several years to see if we can learn how to more effectively partner with churches to reach students. If we are able to build better partnerships with churches, we can reach more campuses and their long-term ownership of currently unreached campuses could result in generations of student ministry. Overall, I think we will gain friends and advocates for the work God has so lovingly called us to.