Christian college students attending secular schools can feel alone and outnumbered by those outside the faith. Finding a campus ministry or a local church's college ministry is essential for Christian students to flourish in their faith while in college. But simply attending a church isn’t enough. Students need small groups.
Hannah grew up going to church, and left home to attend Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. Early in the school year, she found Christian Campus House (CCH), a campus ministry established in 1970 that serves the students of EIU and Lake Land College. Hannah attended CCH every Sunday, but arrived just when things started and left right as the last song ended. She was lonely, depressed, and didn't have any friends. After her first semester, though, Hannah took the brave step of joining a small group. Though shy, Hannah was able to open up and be herself in her group. She made really good friends, including one who became her best friend. As time went by, her peers got to know her through Life Groups, discovering Hannah's intelligence, deep faith, and natural ability to connect with other women.
Since 2002, I've had the honor and privilege of overseeing the leadership development and small-group ministry (Life Groups) of CCH, and I've heard countless stories like this. Our ministry reaches students in a unique way, and that often leads to life change. CCH is a church of about 130 students. We have four full-time staff members, yet we operate primarily as a student-led church. With the exception of our Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday night large-group Bible studies, the students choose, plan, and lead all of our ministry activities. The main teaching, preaching, and leadership training is done by staff, but the students lead the ministry, including all of the small groups.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, we give students a lot of responsibility, and we ask for a high level of commitment—and we've seen interesting results.
Structure of Groups
Of 130 students who regularly attend CCH, 90 are part of a gender-specific Life Group. Our groups run on a semester schedule to match the university's calendar. Each semester, groups spend 12 weeks together—10 weeks are for the small-group study, and 2 weeks are simply for having fun together. Each semester, we reshuffle the groups to coordinate with students' changing schedules and study preferences.
There are two study options for groups: a book or an inductive Bible study. All of the book study groups use the same book, and all of the inductive study groups go through the same book of the Bible. Because our church turns over every four or five years, we're able to repeat studies every few years. We cycle through favorites like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Life You've Always Wanted by John Ortberg, and Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. For our Bible study groups, we cycle through the Epistles because they work well for inductive study.
Identifying High-Quality Student Leaders
We expect a lot of our leaders because they lead all of the ministry activities, so our annual process of identifying leaders takes about six weeks. We're never looking for a certain number of leaders. Instead, we're looking for the right leaders. They must have a strong commitment to the Lord, godly character, and teachability. They also must have the time for our weekly training meetings and ministry events.
Potential leaders fill out a 14-question application that covers everything from describing your personal testimony to addressing potential differences in theology, as well as listing perceived strengths and weaknesses. Current leaders receive teaching on what we're looking for in new leaders, and they're commissioned to pray and submit the names of those they would recommend for leadership. Some potential leaders are asked to apply based on a current leader's recommendation. Others choose to apply on their own.
Current student leaders then work through the applications and vote on who should move to the next step of the process: an interview. The interviews are one hour long with a staff member and a student leader. They then give a report and recommendation to the entire student leadership team. The current leaders vote on who should become student leaders.
Staff members are permitted to share opinions, but we don't vote. We realize that the student leaders see their peers outside of the church walls and have the clearest insight on others' faithfulness and leadership potential. It also allows our current leaders to take ownership of the future of the ministry and learn how to select leaders. Mistakes are sometimes made in this selection process, but that, too, is a learning experience for our student leaders.
While this selection process takes time, it's essential that we have quality, committed student leaders. By the time they're selected and say "yes" to leading, we can be sure they're all in. That's important because we ask a lot of our leaders. In our commitment to develop leaders, we require several hours of weekly meetings for training and development.
I realize how spoiled I am in campus ministry because we get a lot of time from of our leaders. They typically don't have spouses or children, so they can commit to the numerous weekly meetings we require. But it's still a commitment. There are a lot of other things that vie for their attention on a college campus. Each week we require our leaders to attend a two-hour meeting, which includes leadership development and skills training for leading a small group. Each leader also attends a weekly mentoring meeting with a staff member. Leaders of Bible study groups also commit to a weekly meeting for inductive study with other leaders. On average, our leaders commit to 5 hours weekly of leadership development plus their weekly small-group meeting. While that may seem like a lot, we heavily invest in our leaders because we know that God is developing them into men and women who are change-agents for his kingdom.
In-Depth Study Without a Guide
Because our Bible study groups don't follow a study or guide, it's essential that we train leaders how to study the text for themselves. New leaders attend a 1–2 hour training session which teaches the process of inductive Bible study (observation, interpretation, and application) and explains the main differences in Bible translations.
Too often, people want to jump to applying Scripture to their lives before understanding what the passage is actually saying. It's essential that Life Group discussions start with inductive study so that group members can appropriately apply the principles. For this reason, our Life Group leaders are trained to lead their group to spend time observing the text, interpreting what it means, and discussing any questions. Only then will they ask application questions.
In addition to this initial training session, each leader of a Bible study Life Group is expected to spend 45–60 minutes a week studying and making notes on the week’s passage (usually 10–16 verses). For reference as they study, we give leaders a Tyndale or Bible Speaks Today commentary for the book of the Bible we're studying.
After completing their personal study, a group of 3–4 student leaders meets with me for an hour to go over the week's passage. This meeting serves as a learning lab. It takes time for them to learn how to observe the text. I ask questions like, “Is that what the verse says?” or “How would you explain that verse (or word) to a 6-year-old?” We move verse by verse or sentence by sentence, each sharing what we’ve observed or learned from our personal study of the passage. When a difficult question is raised, we pull out our commentaries and work through the question together. One of the amazing outcomes of teaching our leaders this method is that they learn how to study the Bible—many for the first time. They realize how much they can learn without being a Bible scholar or knowing Greek or Hebrew.
After this group study, the leaders individually go back to the passage and write questions to use for leading their group discussion. Life Group meetings are led by asking questions and facilitating discussion. Our leaders never teach a lesson, so coming up with these questions is very important. To help each other with this process, each leader submits two observation, two interpretation, and two application questions. We compile these questions and send them out to all of the leaders ahead of time so they can pick and choose as they finalize their discussion questions for their Life Group meeting. To accomplish all of this, we're often working one week ahead of the study schedule.
Raising the Bar for College Students
College students—those 18–22 years old—have amazing potential, and they're able to impact the world in a big way. They're ready to be challenged, equipped, and inspired to take responsibility for their spiritual growth. They're ready to share God's love and truth with others. They are, after all, about the same age as the Twelve Jesus chose. Because we believe college students are capable of so much, we focus on student leadership development, calling every Christian to use his or her gifts and passions for the kingdom. Because of this focus, many students have entered full-time missions or ministry after graduation. And it all begins in Life Groups.
Hannah's life changed by being in a small group, but not just because she made friends and found a place where she could be herself. By her junior year, Hannah was asked to serve as a student leader, and she started leading her own Life Group. She is now a leader of leaders, passionate about the ministry of Life Groups, loves studying the Bible, intentionally connects with others, and teaches God’s word in a gifted way. If she hadn't joined a Life Group, I truly think she would have transferred, miserably, and missed out on some amazing personal and faith development.
Small groups in college ministry aren't just a good idea—they're essential. They're the best way to develop young Christians into passionate disciples. While many lower the bar for college-age people, we raise the bar, and we see them rise to the occasion time and time again.
College students have a passion for Jesus and his Word. They realize that their mission is here and now. They see the hunger for community on their campus. They see great purpose in helping their peers get connected to one another and helping them to further understand his love and truth. College students need more than a great church service to attend—they need to be more than mere spectators. They're ready for us to call them out, challenging them to engage in significant ministry. And small groups are the way to do it.
—Danah Himes is an associate campus minister at Christian Campus House in Charleston, Illinois.