Can a small church really have an impact on a college campus? Even if it has a tiny staff, lacks modern facilities, and has no coffee bar? The answer is unequivocally yes.

Almost five years ago, my wife and I moved to South Carolina to pastor a church situated just a few blocks from a small college. When I began to ask local pastors about the campus, they joked that it was as spiritually alive as the vast cemetery that bordered it. One church in town had a handful of college students on Sunday. That was it.

So we set to work. And it was rough. College ministry took place during odd hours. Initially, the staff were less than enthusiastic. Most students were at games and practices, studying, or sleeping in on Sunday morning.

I now understand why most churches give up on campus ministry: It’s inefficient and can produce frustrating results. Campus ministry sucks up time, money, and energy that can be easily spent elsewhere. But I want to encourage churches like us to persevere. Ministering to students will cost a church a lot, but it’s worth it for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.

Here are four realities that should drive even small churches to minister to college students.

  1. They need the church more than you need them.

When a small church begins to pour into college ministry, it makes no practical sense any way you slice it. Spending your precious resources to reach penniless young people seems like financial foolishness. Even if they begin to attend or even join your church, they can’t give back in a substantial monetary way.

On top of that, college students bring heavy spiritual burdens to a congregation. Just sit down for lunch with one sometime. They will unload about the inability to afford the next semester, the stress of their parents’ looming divorce, the panic of failure on the field, in the classroom, or in a relationship.

One of my best friends is regularly burdened for the nominally Christian students he tries to mentor throughout the semester. Many of them know they are living in sin. They struggle with guilt and aimlessness. In conversation I’ll ask him, “Are any of these kids going to church?” To which he says, “No.” “Are they reading their Bibles? Are they praying?” He only smiles knowingly. They don’t realize it, but we both do. They need a local church—a body of believers to disciple, challenge, confront, and encourage them week by week.

  1. They have theological and experiential hang-ups.

College ministry often means dealing with the fallout of entertainment-driven youth group. The only contact that many Christian and non-Christian high school graduates have with the church is bounce-off-the-walls retreat weekends, gross out games, and Nerf guns. When they arrive at college, local congregations have the hard, unpleasant task of walking them through the let down of joining “normal” (read boring) church.

They may come to college with a bad taste in their mouth from hypocrisy they witnessed in a home church. Many international students may come to America with a completely secular worldview. I met a student this year who marveled that we had a church building like it was some kind of tourist attraction, saying, “I’ve never been in a church building before!” Churches who reach out to these students must have the patience to share the gospel slowly and intentionally. It will require lots of time, and still many students may disappoint and fall away.

Students can be a bit like theological kayakers. Minor rapids feel like waterfalls and every cultural or personal issue threatens to overturn the boat. What they need are spiritual fathers and mothers who will gently and calmly talk through their real issues and struggles. They need mentors who are willing to listen, willing to ask probing questions, willing to love them as they work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

  1. College ministry is an investment in the future of other churches.

Perhaps the most selfless aspect of college ministry is that you are going to so much effort to pursue and invest in young men and women who will leave in four years or less. This alone seems exhausting. Wouldn’t churches—especially small churches—be wiser to invest in reaching established families in the community?

Campus ministry requires a kingdom perspective. There is a reason why the Lord is gathering students from across the world into your city. It is an opportunity for churches to invest in the future of the capital “C” Church. This is the greatest joy and act of selflessness: training up disciples of Christ and sending them out to serve other local churches. Our ministry among even a small handful of students can have immense kingdom impact as they depart our fellowship and enter the world to become faithful husbands, wives, businessmen, teachers, and church members elsewhere.

  1. You will see mustard seed success stories.

Certainly, college ministry will drain your church. However, you’ll be surprised by how your church comes to love—even need—these students. Our college students have become vital to every aspect of our ministry: music, children’s Sunday school, ushering, outreach, prayer, small groups, the list goes on. Their energy and enthusiasm can inject a church with new life. The Spirit has given them gifts that were meant to build up your church. (And they make dependable babysitters!)

I think you’ll also be surprised how college students come to appreciate the authenticity of “boring” church. Many of them are just looking for honest relationships. So much of college life can be about faking it and hiding insecurities. When a church is comfortable with its uncoolness, it allows students to feel safe to open up and ask questions. Doors for the gospel will swing wide.

Pray about how you and your church—large or small—can begin to engage the student population in your community. Four years is longer than you realize. So much discipleship can happen if churches will see the need for the Gospel on these campuses. Pray and strive for mustard seed-sized success. Success is a small Bible study with three or four young men. Success is two students catching a vision for church membership. Success is a student spending time with an elderly church member.

These small successes will require a vital selflessness from your church. We have to trust that though Christ’s kingdom begins as a mustard seed, it grows to become a large tree (Luke 13:18-19).  May the love of Christ compel us into the sticky lives of these young men and women with patience, mercy, and grace.