The Greatest Among You: The importance of getting involved on campus

The importance of getting involved on campus

The time of your life! That’s what people told me college would be like. And in many ways, it was. I got the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking about what it means to be an adult in today’s world, along with trying out lots of different ways to make a living.

Colleges offer students all sorts of new, wonderful experiences that help them explore their dreams, passions, and abilities and help them make sense of that self-discovery process within the context of an expanding (and refining) worldview.

As I look back on it, though, some of the most significant growth that occurred for me was when I was offered opportunities to be of service to others. There are always things we can do—no matter what our situations—to be in service to humanity, but there’s something unique about the university environment that gives young people a chance to harness all of that fresh, creative energy to find fun and exciting ways to serve.

Why Bother?

Most of the films we see about college life caricature students as ridiculously myopic, gluttonous, and self-serving. Males are portrayed as nothing more than older little boys who only care about the alcohol, girls, and other pleasures they can consume for their own benefit. Females are relegated to bigger little girls still trying to find their identities in what they wear, whom they date, and how high up the social ladder they can climb.

Hopefully, you have already realized the futility of this kind of lifestyle, and your desire to attend a Christian college might be—at least in part—an attempt to mitigate some of these influences.

One of the most effective ways we can harness our energies is to look for ways to serve others. When we take our focus off ourselves, even for brief moments at a time, we find our whole attitudes shifting in ways that actually lead to greater happiness for us.

Embodying God’s Spirit

God has created us to live in community. By that I don’t mean just participating in small groups of people who share similar beliefs, interests, or cultural patterns. Those can be great, particularly when they’re centered on Bible studies, discipleship groups, or accountability partnerships. But God calls us to expand the boundaries of our social situations to include the poor, the broken, the disenfranchised, and the lost.

When Jesus commands his disciples to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger (Matt. 25:35-36), it’s as much for our sake as for those to whom we minister. When we shift the focus from our own desires to others in need, we get the awesome opportunity to participate in the redemptive work of God in the world.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised that he would always be with us (Matt. 28:20). He told us he would be sending the Holy Spirit as our comforter (John 14:16). Further, we’re told that as believers, we are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16)—the Spirit of God resides within us! So when we are being of service to others in the world, regardless of the form it takes, we are in a very real way participating in the work of the Holy Spirit. The next time you pray, “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt. 6:10), realize that most often the way God answers that prayer is through you!

Group Involvement

One of my favorite options for college students is Alpha Phi Omega, the national co-ed service fraternity. I’m especially fond of APO because its primary focus on serving others and secondarily focus on social events for the membership.

Spring Breakout is another favorite organization of mine. It’s an alternative spring break option for people who decide to use this week for serving others less fortunate. They operate on college campuses all over the country, and the students that participate in these weeks usually not only go on to participate in them every year while in college, but also go on to integrate service into the rest of their lives as well. If you don’t have a Spring Breakout organization at your school, there are a variety of short-term mission agencies that specialize in spring break mission trips to anywhere from the American Appalachians to the Tibetan Himalayas.

Several churches near your campus will provide ministries for college students, and I would strongly suggest you don’t stop going to church just because you’ve left home. Being a part of an intergenerational church is as important as ever in order to keep you grounded in the larger Christian community, and you might find some great opportunities to be mentored by older members and some cool ways to serve younger groups.

Campus ministry organizations are also fabulous, especially your first few months on campus. There is a chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ or InterVarsity on nearly every campus in America. There are also a number of denominational campus ministry organizations that are worth checking out—even if they’re different from the tradition in which you grew up.

Don’t forget about the college students and young adults who were influential in your life or the lives of your friends while you were in high school. Young Life clubs and other high school campus ministries are always looking for young, energetic volunteers to help lead in high school groups. Or you could become an intern for a church’s youth ministry—how cool would that be?

Each One Can Reach One

No matter what groups you choose to participate in, please don’t underestimate the power that you have to make a difference individually. Even when no one else does, you can go down to the local soup kitchen and help feed homeless folks. You can volunteer to help in a housing project tutoring local children or teaching adult literacy and GED classes.

You can participate in political activism to effect change on a large scale, either in the student government on campus or through the College Republicans or College Democrats. Or you can participate in inter-racial forums and inter-religious dialogue to not only broaden your own worldview, but also provide a platform for you to voice your own convictions. Be sure to check out what your school offers in these areas and commit to trying all of them out at least once.

And when you see another student who’s obviously feeling out of place, realize that you have the opportunity to participate in the Holy Spirit’s comforting work when you reach out as a friend. This isn’t just a sandbox playmate—this is holy work, the divine gift of hospitality. Jesus was serious when he said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11).

College…what a great place to get to practice being the hands and feet of Christ. The patterns you set up during your university years will be the ones you carry with you into your family, church, career, and civic arenas later in life. Make them good ones!


This article was written by Will Penner

Will Penner has been a teacher, coach, and principal of public and private junior and senior high schools; he’s served as a youth pastor and music minister at Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches; and he attended Texas Tech, Baylor, and Vanderbilt Universities. Will and his wife are currently the volunteer youth pastors at Westview United Methodist Church in Fairview, Tennessee; he’s a freelance writer and popular speaker at youth leader training events and youth retreats, camps, and conferences; and he’s the editor of YouthWorker Journal, a publication for Christian youth ministers.

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