College Ministry from Scratch: A Practical Guide to Start and Sustain a Successful College Ministry
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 2010
Chuck Bomar argues that any church can have a ministry for college students. Bomar recommends that congregational outreach focus on helping students manage age-stage issues in conjunction with their faith development. It is especially meaningful when older Christians in the congregation take time to build relationships with college students because it helps assimilate the students into the life of the Church and it provides a basis for adult friendships at a time when students are figuring out their spiritual identity. Two ideas serve as cornerstones for Bomar’s approach to collegiate ministry: “helping people process their age-stage issues and cultivating intergenerational relationships.”[i]
DEVELOPMENT OF ARGUMENT
The book is divided into two sections. The first six chapters are foundational, while the remaining twelve chapters could be considered an appendix on a variety of relevant topics. Each chapter closes with a brief review of main points. The book does not have a concluding chapter; it simply ends with the last topical chapter.
1. The author reviews his own start in college ministry, where he experienced rapid growth. He cautions that a successful ministry is less about numbers and more about students’ true connection to the Church.
2. A successful college ministry is redefined as one that helps students navigate issues pertinent to their life stage through quality mentoring relationships with mature Christians who can help them address their spiritual and developmental needs.
3. The author outlines a universally applicable 8-point job description for a church-based college minister, focusing on age-stage issues, discipleship, and mentoring.[ii]
4. Nine things are recommended for the “first 90 days” in ministry: study the demographic, articulate the vision, address concerns, meet students, invest in a few, find volunteers, involve students, host a gathering, and meet a campus minister.
5. The author gives a brief overview of college-age issues covered more thoroughly in his other book;[iii] identity, intimacy, meaning, pleasure, and truth are all primary issues students face, so ministry should guide their work in these areas with the resources of our Christian faith tradition.
6. College students need to feel like they belong to the Church as this provides a community to nurture their love of God, love of self, and love of others. College ministers can guide students’ spiritual integration simply through investing time with students.
7. Three major obstacles to involving older adults in college ministry are finding common ground, helping the older generation confidently share wisdom, and showing college students that older adults can offer relevant input to their circumstances.
8. Adult volunteers should come from a variety of backgrounds, but certain moral, spiritual, and personality characteristics are desirable. It is important for volunteers to develops relationship skills such as asking good questions and being vulnerable.
9. This chapter contains tips for selecting and guiding college-age leaders for ministry. There must be a balance between structure and freedom and a greater focus on building character than developing gifts for ministry, especially among new Christians.
10. Bomar offers thoughts on how to engage in intentional one-on-one conversations with college-age people. Setting a relaxed tone without expectations is key. He also offers seven specific questions that can open the door for deeper faith engagement.
11. Biblically-centered, facilitated conversation groups can create relevance for college-age issues by helping people learn to study scripture on their own and allow more involvement in the larger Church. Potential pitfalls include too much homogeneity among group members and assuming that such groups automatically provide accountability.
12. Teaching strategies for college students as they move from childhood faith to their own thoughtful and self-affirmed faith shift from offering conclusions, indoctrination, and rules to offering chances to explore assumptions, gain wisdom, and focus on spiritual truths over behavioral applications.
13. Bomar describes a wide variety of topics appropriate for teaching college-age people whose unique life stage suits them to engage topics like relationships, identity in Christ, and the Bible.
14. Mission trips can be a transformative component of college ministry, provided that they emphasize exposure, service, and relationships, with teachable moments interspersed and ongoing care and interpretation provided after the trip.
15. When leading a large group of college-age people on retreat, leaders should allow for relationships to develop among peers and with older adults; address age-stage issues through teaching and giving freedom, not over-programming.
16. The author’s approach to discipling interns who have a passion for ministry is that they should not be overloaded with tasks, but rather be challenged to discover how God can use them to influence others; the focus is less on gaining skills and more on building character.
17. Most of the book presumes college students are readily available to get involved in the local church. This chapter provides insights for reaching out to students on campus. Differences in engagement are noted between commuter colleges and major universities, with significant encouragement to cooperate with existing campus-based ministries.
18. The final chapter addresses ministry to students who leave their church community to attend college. Ideas are presented for how to maintain connections while away and when they return to visit, as well as encouragement to assist them in finding ministry connections near their school.
Chuck Bomar’s experience in starting a church-based college ministry from scratch makes him a credible author for this book. When Bomar was hired to create a church-based college ministry from scratch, he subsequently devoted himself to the task for nine years. His college ministries drew large numbers of participants: 150 after 8 months; 900 after 4 years. On the basis of his own success, he seems confident that others can be successful too if they follow his model, though he is clear that “success” is much more than numbers.
Bomar writes as an evangelical Christian from the Protestant tradition. One of his strongest theological concepts is the ecclesiological conviction that belonging to the Church is central to Christian identity.[iv] He insists that young Christians need older Christians to guide them on the journey of faith.[v] Identity formation is crucial in college ministry, as it has to be rooted in Christ more than any earthly connections.[vi] The bulk of the theological content is found in chapters 12-13 which focus on teaching strategies (see “Chapter Summaries,” above). College ministry need not offer new material, simply encourage a stronger commitment to the faith students already have.[vii] He doesn’t want leaders to convince students to accept a certain worldview but rather help them shape their own worldview from a biblical perspective.[viii]
AIM OF BOOK
The aim of the book is to give congregations specific, practical ideas for how to minister to college students. It could apply to full-time pastoral staff or part-time volunteers; every church has leaders with potential. Because the focus is so relational, the most important ingredient in a successful ministry is people who are willing to be themselves as they invest their time in the lives of college students. The goal is not to gather a large group, but to “develop a sustainable culture in which college-age people feel loved and a part of the church as a whole.”[ix] The measure of effectiveness should be students implementing their faith in every aspect of life.[x]
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Bomar consistently refers to his target-audience as “college-aged people,” recognizing that not all of them are enrolled in higher education. One of the most compelling and consistent points of the book is the strong focus on intergenerational ministry, albeit a fairly one-way mentorship of older adults to college-age people. “Churches with leaders who help connect people will end up with generations that feel the commonality and a culture of oneness that’s attractive for college-age people.”[xi] He provides an excellent list of potentially fruitful questions to ask when conversing with college students.[xii]
In encouraging church members to tackle college ministry, Bomar certainly expands the pool of people who might feel called to start new endeavors, yet his lack of advocacy for trained pastoral leadership may not help the church recognize the value of compensating ministers for such work.[xiii] He has some limiting notions of who qualifies as the best mentoring “match” with students, yet he does acknowledge that asking the students’ input is also a good idea.[xiv]
Some of the resources Bomar references are outdated. For example, links to electronic resources (mostly his own) available in 2010, are no longer active (as of July 2017). Additionally, his discussions of romantic relationships are heteronormative; he even offers a now defunct ex-gay ministry as a resource.[xv] Finally, while his writing is easy to understand, the casual style with unnecessary interjections is occasionally distracting.
This book is a good starting place for church members who have little knowledge of how to create a college ministry. Bomar covers many topics and themes that are helpful to consider in the early stages of ministry. It consistently speaks to the primacy of developing relationships over offering programs. However, for those who already have ministry experience and familiarity with college students, this resource may not be as helpful as others in terms of diving more deeply into issues most relevant to college-aged, young adults.