“I would not be where I am today were it not for the people who discipled me when I was in college,” said Tyler Baggett, associate pastor at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Illinois, about the significance of college ministry when he was a student.
College students today need the support of other Christ-centered people now more than ever, he said.
“It is such a pivotal time in the lives of young people, and you’re trying to figure out what your entire life will look like,” Baggett said. “As a Christian, you’re discerning God’s will in that process.”
Baggett joined the Jacksonville church staff in 2019 and leads the college ministry. Since then, he has been learning the challenges and triumphs of mentoring young adults.
“I think it is tough! Few students decide to join a church but are involved in a variety of ministries,” he said. “It’s important that churches have a mindset of serving students no matter where or how they are involved.”
Ethan Williams is a student in the ministry Baggett leads. “One of the reasons I think many college students stop attending church is because they haven’t been properly instilled with the importance of being in a local church, so they put off finding one and it becomes a habit,” Williams said.
Juggling a full-time sophomore-year schedule while maintaining good grades, friendships and extracurriculars can feel overwhelming, he noted. But a full schedule only increases the need for students to be involved in a community of believers.
“Attending a college ministry is a great way to meet people in your peer group who can become fast friends and fellow disciples, who, at the same time, are able to encourage you in your Christian walk,” Williams said.
Wanting ‘real answers’
Because students are only in college for a short period of time, that can make it difficult to strengthen those relationships long term. Baggett advises building on those connections during those four years through focusing on topics that matter to the students.
“I think a lot of students are rightly concerned about and interested in justice and social issues,” he said. “Students want real answers and real assurance, not cliché phrases.” Navigating students through their own doubts and questions pertaining to their faith in the current culture is vital and necessary, Baggett said.
“We have a challenge to present absolute truth to a generation who doesn’t believe in absolute truth,” said Shelbie Kemnetz, campus multiplier for New City Church in Champaign. “However, when a student becomes convinced of the gospel, they will take it and run with it like never before.”
Finding their identity in Christ
After a year’s experience in ministry with young adults, Kemnetz says she is a firm believer that students want a relationship with Jesus, even if they don’t know it yet. “They are trying to find their identity in temporary things that can be taken from them. When we present the gospel, we present to them a solid foundation in which they can find their identity.”
Finding a constant amidst the chaos in this fallen world is exactly what students are seeking, but they often don’t know where to start. Kemnetz suggests students give the church community a chance to pour into them and help them grow in the way God has uniquely gifted them. And if that sounds like too much to start, she says the church should offer food. Students are often hungry.
Designed for community
At New City, she is witnessing the power of collegiate ministry and has seen that fruit multiply in just one year.
“One student decided to follow Jesus in obedience through baptism, and she is now going to be one of our key leaders on campus,” Kemnetz said. She shared stories of gospel conversations happening in dorm rooms and how students were glad that they are a part of a church that is investing in them.
COVID-19 put some of that ministry on hold. In Jacksonville, Baggett has worked despite some limitations.
“We haven’t gotten the chance to have regular large group time with our students,” Baggett said, “but we have been able to have small group Bible studies, and those have been great.” He has been trying to make the experience for students as normal as possible.
“We do a lot of partnering with Christian organizations on campus at Illinois College,” he said. “We do our best to still support them and what they’re doing on campus.”
For the young adults he encounters, Baggett emphasizes the importance of joining a college ministry.
“You were designed to be in community with other Christians who can encourage you and challenge you as you walk with the Lord,” Baggett said. “Get involved, be committed and see how God will build on the work he has started in you.”