Embracing change: College ministry lessons for the larger church

College ministry completely changes every four years. Perhaps there's a lesson here for the larger church to learn, writes Maggie Alsup.

In college ministry, we have long-held traditions and programs, much like the larger church. But we also get a new class of students every year. This dynamic means that programming experiences major shifts every three or four years. We have to adapt and alter plans to fit what the new students and student leaders are interested in or want from religious offerings. It can make for some hard decisions, but it can also be freeing — if you are willing to be flexible.

Being flexible is the key. Something that worked five years ago with students might no longer work. But something that was not successful the first time may turn out to be the very thing that this new group of students is craving.

It can be hard for a pastor to watch this happen. There are times when I am grateful to see a program go and there are times when I am sad to let go of a program that brought such joy to our community and to our past students. In either case, it isn’t a bad thing when this happens, it is a part of our life cycle.

While it can be daunting, it is nice to know that every few years we discover and explore new ways of being. In a church world that holds on to the past and dreads what the future looks like, this way of reimagining is liberating.

Whenever I set out with new students and ideas for ministry, thinking about what to change and what to keep, I often time remember the phrase, “for such a time as this.” And I am reminded that everything we do in the life of our ministry has a special place and time. Programming that existed 10 years ago fed students, and programming today will feed this new group in the ways it needs to. Adaptions and growth, the death of programs, the new ideas and explorations, they all work to feed and help students along in their spiritual journeys.

I wonder what it would look like for the larger church to adopt this type of evaluation. What might it look like for the church to take an inventory of past and current programming and events? What is working and what is struggling? What has served its purpose? What new and innovative things can we risk trying? What wisdom should we hold onto and what lessons can we depart with?

I know it is daunting to get a new group of students each year. I know that every three to four years we have major shifts in programming. I also know that in those moments of anxiety, the Spirit is a work. Something will come along that will feed our students, nourishing them in the journey of faith. There will be programming that fails. There will be programming that is great. There will be some mediocre things as well. But the movement of the Spirit is there through it all, leading us to new and different ways to be the church and learn. That is the beautiful part of it all, even the messy parts. I hope the church can learn from college ministry leaders how to jump into the mess, adapt and change, and grow — following where the Spirit leads.

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