Community colleges: mainstreaming the marginalizedby Evan Blackerby
Many collegiate ministry leaders have built the bulk of their strategy to impact an entire campus on one key principle: reach the few to reach the many. With a nod toward pragmatism, ministry leaders have correctly understood their inability to engage, reach, interact with, and converse with every single student on the campus. So, in order to cover an entire campus, leaders have leveraged the influence of the few. What do I mean? Well, let me ask you this question, “If you want to increase your ability to reach more students, who do you go after first?” Don’t like that question? Let me ask it another way: Who is more important to reach first to affect change faster? Athletes or Mathletes…Greeks or Geeks?
It’s no secret that reaching the influencers is a strategic play in affecting change faster.
The problem is that community colleges and commuter schools don’t live in the same social constructs as residential campuses. What do you do when there are no athletes? Or Greeks? What do you do when there is nothing but a fragmented social order incapable of a campus-wide, widespread movement?
I’ll tell you what we’ve done for a long time: We’ve ignored them. We have chosen not to care because they don’t fit our modus operandi.
For decades, commuter schools, junior colleges, and community colleges have been second-rate schools – backwoods detours leading back to the high-speed freeways of higher education. The four-year residential campus was the goal, and the only reason to go to a school that wasn’t such was either because one didn’t have the grades or the cash. Students settled for an inferior educational route in order to save money or acquire an acceptable GPA – just to be able to transfer to a real school.
Community colleges are to universities as Shasta Cola is to Coke. Drink it long enough and maybe you can afford the real thing. They are the marginalized college students – marginalized by the standards of higher education and marginalized by our collegiate ministries. But that’s not the case anymore…at least in regard to higher education. In North Carolina where I live, 70% of all college students are in community colleges! That’s 840,000 out of the 1,200,000 students in my state! And many of them aren’t even there to transfer some general education classes to a university. Many of them are there to learn a trade like cosmetology or brewing beer or nursing or welding or emergency services. Many of them realize they don’t need to go $30,000 in debt and study for four years to be a cop or a computer programmer or an electrician.
If we really believe that Jesus died for all college students and all of them need the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel, then we need to quit kidding ourselves that we can reach future taxidermists and firefighters by sending in the Sperry’s and shoulder pads alone. In those kinds of programs, the hairstylists don’t even cross paths with the HVAC techs. They all live in their own fragmented pockets isolated from the other students on their campuses. For those students on those campuses, there’s no such thing as campus-wide influence. Program-wide influence is about as much as you can hope for. We continue to think that we can reach them with our old, outdated strategies, and that’s why collegiate ministries at these schools consistently show lower numbers than their bigger brothers at the four-year, residential campuses. While higher education has embraced the community college as mainstream, the Church continues to marginalize them.
The saddest part is that local churches is the most equipped to take the gospel to these students. Here’s why:
Churches have a resource for taking the gospel to these students that campus ministries simply lack: practitioners.
Churches are filled with paramedics, nurses, auto technicians, manicurists, computer programmers, phlebotomists, police officers, welders, diesel mechanics, early childhood educators, and the like. Campus ministries are not. Sorority girls simply don’t have the same credibility as a welder when it comes to influencing a group of students who are in a welding program. The same goes for all of those vocational and tech programs. When an auto mechanic volunteers even a little bit of time in the garage at a community college, he quickly becomes a mentor. When he starts helping the students find jobs by utilizing his own network, he gains even more credibility. When his church recognizes this, trains him, and commissions him as a missionary, he finds himself on the front lines of ministry. And all along the way, community colleges are looking for volunteers. Do I really need to connect the dots here?
Let’s quit trying to start second-rate campus ministries at community colleges and start empowering local churches to send in the people who are most equipped to make disciples on community college campuses. It’s time to mainstream the marginalized.