Dec 12, 2016


A Huge Benefit of Smaller College Ministries

Erik Dunkin makes his case that smaller college ministries can provide a benefit for students that larger ministries can often lack.

We all want to see growth. We want impressive baptism numbers. We dream of seeing many students come to know Christ for the first time. Up and to the right is our preferred trajectory.

But the reality on the ground is something different. Up and to the right…then a hard downturn, down, down…a slow trickle back up…then we’re not even sure what’s happening. Is this even worth the effort?

I’ve certainly found myself asking this question. Most of my years in college ministry have been spent with ministries of between fifty and one hundred students, meanwhile ministries three times our size met simultaneously across campus.

In light of the fact that many college ministries are not particularly large, I wanted to name one of the huge benefits of leading a smaller college ministry.

In a smaller college ministry, students can have more access to mature, adult leaders.

A common trend I’ve observed in larger ministries is that their on-campus, freshman groups are student-led. Certainly, I am a believer in this model. Once you have an established core of solid student leaders, this is a great way to go.

But, for some of us, we may never get an “established core of solid student leaders.” Whether due to a lack of social skills in our student body, or being at a community college where the average tenure is two years and done, we may simply be “stuck” without the possibility of delegating the work to stellar juniors who’ve been discipled by us for two years.

So, in this scenario, guess who’s walking around the dorms trying to connect with freshman? Yep, this guy. Thirty-year-old man with two children and a mortgage.

Sound awkward? It’s not, actually. Being with freshmen on campus is one of the best parts of my job. I love it.

And my presence there is a benefit to the few students who stick with our ministry.


Because a seasoned adult has a lot more to offer freshman than a twenty-year-old leading his first Bible study.

Again, I’m not knocking student-led groups. But there is a theme I’ve observed over the years in larger college ministries: they struggle in the area of quality control. Especially when it comes to student-led groups. And this makes sense. The first several Bible studies I led were not particularly effective, either!

In a smaller ministry, however, we know that our groups will be led by solid, experienced, mature adult leaders.

When my wife was a freshman living in the dorms, she chose a smaller ministry for this exact reason. The large, attractional ministry on campus had a big bible study on her floor. But a couple floors down, she heard about a study led by a thirty-something staff woman of a smaller ministry. My wife went to the smaller study once, and she stuck.  She loved the maturity and depth of her leader. She loved being invited into her home to watch her be a wife and a mom. Those were intangible benefits the larger ministry was unable to provide.

And as these adult connections continue over the years, the effect is deepened. Assuming the ministry remains relatively small, the adult leaders don’t feel “torn” because they have to move on and focus on the next, up-and-coming class of leaders. Since that class is only a handful of students, too, there is always room around the table for everyone.

In the end, some of the most mature, Biblically fluent people I know came up through the ranks of small, tightly-knit college ministries. Their maturity came from several years of mentorship and friendship with the same group of people, including outstanding, godly adults. They didn’t get lost in the crowd or overlooked. They were the focus, and that focus paid off in their lives.

If you are leading a smaller college ministry, don’t get flustered by the lack of numbers. Instead, observe the unique opportunity you have to focus deeply on a few students over a long period of time. Invite them into your family. Bask in the lasting imprint of maturity and godliness.

If you do, you’ll see that your ministry is up and to the right after all. But in spiritual maturity, not numbers.


about the author

Erik Dunkin

Erik is a Badger at heart, with his undergrad degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison; and is also an alumni of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago, where he got his MDiv. He’s previously been on staff with The Navigators, and is now the College Pastor at Prairie Lakes Church with theRiver College Ministry, which primarily serves the University of Northern Iowa.