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Should the local church work alongside a college campus outreach, or are these two in competition with one another? A listener writes in to ask, “Dear Pastor John, my name is Ryan, a senior at Virginia Tech. I have been struggling lately with the appropriate role of campus ministry as it relates to the local church. What should that relationship look like? Should campus ministries focus mostly on evangelism and the church on discipleship? What roles should each take to best further the gospel?”

Ryan asks what the local church and campus ministry relationship should look like. But then he refines the question: Should campus ministries focus mostly on evangelism and the church on discipleship? But with that refinement of the question, he might be assuming something that in the best case should not be assumed and should not exist.

“Local churches with organic campus ministries draw students into both relationships and church involvement.”

I’m going to go with his first question rather than the refinement and maybe it’ll be plain why. Namely, what should that relationship look like? I’m not on a crusade here against parachurch campus ministries. I think they have done great good for hundreds of thousands of students and that many churches have benefited greatly from the ripple effect of those evangelistic and discipling efforts.

Nevertheless, I think that the relationship between the local church and the campus ministries should be different than it often is. What I have in mind is what we did at Bethlehem while I was pastor there, and it still exists and I watch it with great joy. Namely, we asked a ministry called Campus Outreach to come to our church about 13–14 years ago. Campus Outreach is a loose affiliation of Campus Ministries with a common Reformed theology and a common ethos and philosophy of ministry that are not responsible to any central campus ministry organization. There’s no formal structure with leadership at the top dictating what the campus ministry should do, but in each town or city where the campuses are, Campus Outreach is responsible to — and usually part of — the leadership of a local church, like ours.

In other words, the campus ministry only exists on the campuses as an extension of the ministry of a particular local church. In this kind of arrangement, it seems to me, the ministry enjoys the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it honors the New Testament focus on the local church as God’s design for reaching and discipling the lost, and on the other hand, it benefits from the special focus and training and strategy and funding that is explicitly targeting the special challenges of young people at the university. In this relationship the tension doesn’t exist over the question, “Should the campus ministry do the discipling work and hope that someday students might find their way to a local church?” Because the campus ministry and its discipling work are part of the local church and students are drawn into relationships and church involvement all at the same time. That’s the vision. That’s the whole point, structure, philosophy of ministry.

What makes this possible is that the campus ministry is philosophically, theologically, ethically on the same page as the leadership of the local church, so there’s no awkwardness or inconsistency in inviting people to Christ and at the same time inviting them into the fellowship of Christ’s people at the local church, which is the way evangelism should be happening. I think one of the reasons there’s often a tension between campus ministry and local church is that the campus ministries didn’t grow out of the local churches and therefore feel awkward in bringing new converts to a local church because there’s no organic relationship between the church and the campus ministry. It feels like kind of an add-on, an unusual advocacy for a particular local church when all of them are around.

“The local church is God’s design for reaching and discipling the lost. Campus ministries strengthen that effort.”

The relationship feels peripheral and optional and strained, sometimes, and I think that’s very sad and doesn’t serve God’s purposes in the world as well as if the campus ministry were such a clear and organic extension of the local church that, when students come to Christ, being part of the campus ministry would mean being part of the local church — being part of God’s worshiping people of all ages and ethnicities and so on. It ought to feel seamless between: evangelism-discipleship-church.

So let’s just be practical for him where he is on his campus — I think what this means for those who serve in campus ministries that are not structured like Campus Outreach, is that the campus minister should seek to find the most biblical and faithful church he can find in that area, be a full-fledged member there, and then teach the new converts through the campus ministry from the beginning that being part of a local church is part of what it means to be a Christian, and then draw them into their own participation in the church.

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