Doing ministry in North American public schools is both a science and an art. There are common denominators among ministries that are successful, but the external factors that govern specific school environments vary greatly.
For example, some schools or schools districts have strict guidelines and interpretations of federal law regarding religious expression and local church involvement on campus while others adopt a more permissive or casual stance on the same. Additionally, every local school contains a widely varying racial and socio-economic demographic of students.
In my region of the United States, Christian clubs on school campuses are common. Although rarely do they accomplish much more than meeting together for the sake of meeting. Approximately 20 million of the 25 million teenagers in the US (80%) will attend a public school each weekday in 2018 (childstats.gov, nces.ed.gov). Given that approximately 33% of Generation Z in North America is engaged in a Christian faith community (Barna 2018), I believe that local public schools contain the greatest potential for reaching the remaining nearly 17 million unchurched teens. And without an effective ministry strategy, that potential is wasted.
Here are four essentials for effective campus ministry that benefit students, schools and the local church.
Essential #1: Passionate Student Leadership
While some campus ministry does function consistently with adult leadership, federal law does not protect any free speech or exercise of religion in public schools except for that of students. The Equal Access Act of 1984 provides the same right to Christian clubs as that of other extracurricular clubs in public schools, but only if they are student-led and student-initiated. While this may sound inconvenient, isn’t this how we are supposed to go about the Great Commission of Matthew 28? Aren’t we more effective as student pastors when we equip our students to evangelize and do the work of ministry? Effective campus ministry will fail without student leaders who genuinely love God and share His heart for the nations.
In order to build a ministry on the shoulders of students, those students must exhibit some level of desire and competency for the joy and responsibility of leading their peers. While faculty and non-school persons are not given the right universally to lead religious clubs in public schools, clubs do need a faculty sponsor and a meeting location with permission by the school.
Essential #2: A Clear Strategy
Out of these four essentials, a clear strategy for campus ministry is the only thing that we often lack for measurable results. Great strategies arise from asking the right questions:
- What is the overall goal?
- How will this goal be achieved?
- How can we empower student leaders to lead, invest relationally in their unchurched peers, and accurately articulate the message of the gospel?
- How can we construct a pathway from our local school to our local church?
A clear strategy makes all the difference. One excellent organization that exists to assist Christian students and local churches with an effective evangelism strategy in middle and high schools is First Priority of America (www.firstpriority.club). Their strategy and potential partnership is worth exploring for any student ministry worker.
Essential #3: Resources for Implementation
Just like our weekly church programs require resources to implement, so does campus ministry. While students must provide club leadership themselves, churches can support that leadership with resources.
Does the club require food, bibles, or a sound system?
After providing some basic needs for club operation, the next step is making training and curriculum resources easily accessible to student leaders. One way First Priority does this is by providing the First Priority of America app, making most of their resources available in one place for students to download on their smartphones.
Essential #4: A Local Church Connection
Campus clubs obviously need student leaders and resources, but there is another reason why a local church connection to campus ministry is essential. Without the partnership of a local church, students who are evangelized on campus may not make the transition to long-term discipleship and integration into a faith community of God’s design.
Often, when campus ministries decide to remain independent of local churches, they end up competing with churches for the same students, events, and resources rather than working together for the Kingdom.
The partnership between campus ministry and the local church will work best and be most sustainable when both of the parties mutually benefit from the relationship. Speaking of mutual benefit, campus ministry also benefits the Kingdom most when multiple churches partner together, combining student leaders, resources, and options for new believers to find a church to attend. This means that student pastors must lay down their pride, build trust, work together, and refuse to dominate the realm of ministry in the community.
Unity isn’t optional when doing mission work and we are better together.
If your student ministry does not officially have an evangelism strategy for the local public school, I encourage you to begin praying about what the strategy of your ministry should look like in the future. Pray for direction, cast the vision, empower and equip students to lead, and finally, implement.
— Phillip Cole
Phillip Cole is a communicator and director of First Priority ArkLaTex in Shreveport, La. He and his wife have two boys and love doing ministry together. You can follow Phillip on Instagram at @phillip.cole or learn more about their organization at firstp.org.