Ask Blake Hardcastle, director of the University of Delaware Baptist Student Ministry, for the best way to engage 22,000 college students with the Gospel, and his answer is clear--reach them where they are, on campus.
This large, highly-concentrated pocket of lostness is nestled in the heart of Newark, Del., at the state's largest university.
At the University of Delaware, as well as many other campuses around the country, organizations need proper credentials to have a presence on campus. As a registered student organization, the Baptist Student Ministry has access to UD students in a way that the city's local churches don't.
Curtis Hill, senior pastor of Ogletown Baptist Church in Newark, sees BSM as a crucial partner in the church's ministry to collegians.
"If I'm thinking missional strategy," Hill said, BSM is "an effective platform" to gain access to those students.
The relationship between Ogletown and BSM involves multiple layers of cooperation. It begins with Ogletown's giving through the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist channel of support for state, national and international missions and ministry. The Cooperative Program helps fund the work of the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network (also known as the Baptist Convention of Maryland-Delaware), such as the BSM at UD and other collegiate ministries in the two-state convention. The church also is part of the Delaware Baptist Association, which dedicates a portion of its budget to collegiate ministry at UD.
In addition, Ogletown funds a staff member dedicated to collegiate ministry who works primarily on campus with Hardcastle. And the church makes direct contributions to BSM.
Hardcastle, a member of Ogletown, said the partnership began about 12 years ago when church leadership realized they had no clear strategy in place to reach college students. Some students would attend services, he said, but it was little more than a "spiritual checkmark" for them; they weren't fully integrated into the church body.
"[Students] just don't come to the church on their own. You have to be on campus to access them," Hardcastle said.
Building relationships and making personal connections are key to reaching students, he said. BSM conducts various acts of kindness to foster awareness, such as handing out free donuts and taking out dorm residents' trash. Once connections are made, students are more receptive to Gospel conversations, he said.
BSM then seeks to make disciples through outreach and social activities, a weekly large-group Bible study on campus, smaller groups that meet during the week, one-on-one discipleship, missions and service projects, and opportunities for students to serve in leadership positions.
A growing area of ministry for BSM has been international students. According to the University of Delaware's website, 3,338 students from 90 countries were studying at UD in 2014. Of that number, nearly 1,000 were non-degree-seeking students studying English at the English Language Institute through the university.
Student BSM leaders must commit to meet with international students to practice conversational English, which provides natural opportunities to talk about Christianity. An increasing number of international students, some without access to the Gospel in their home countries, have been attending Bible studies and other events.
"They want to be with Americans, they want to be with English-speaking students, they want to experience American culture," Hardcastle said.
While affirming international mission trips, he noted, "Instead of spending $3,000-$4,000 on a trip for a summer, you could spend $300-$400 and have coffee [with an international student] every week for a whole year."
Five international students have accepted Christ in the past two years, Hardcastle said.
In addition to their ministry responsibilities, student "servant leaders" are required to meet one-on-one with BSM staff for discipleship, emphasizing spiritual disciplines and spiritual growth.
Matt Jones, a 2013 graduate, is among UD alumni whose faith was impacted by BSM. Though he accepted Christ at age 6, he said the bulk of his spiritual growth resulted from BSM.
Jones recounted a life-changing moment: One day toward the beginning of one-on-one discipleship with Hardcastle, the BCM director asked him to explain the Gospel.
"I just couldn't believe that I grew up a Christian, and I had no idea how to explain that," Jones said. Through practice and continued discipleship, he said he made sure to always be prepared to give an answer.
Jones led freshmen small groups for three years, building relationships with first-year students through activities and leading Bible studies.
Connecting to local churches
An important goal of the BSM's discipleship is to develop students into functioning members of a local church body. As freshmen and sophomores, the students are encouraged to get involved in a local church, whether Ogletown or another congregation in the area. As juniors and seniors, they are encouraged to move from a "consumer" role to active participation in ministry--whether formally through established church ministries or informally by intentionally seeking out opportunities to build relationships and serve others.
Not only do the students benefit from a local church connection, but the church benefits from the constant influx of students actively growing in their faith.
"Because of the work that Blake's done in evangelism and discipleship, they're leaders," said Hill, Ogletown's pastor. "They know how to engage lost people. They know how to make disciples."
Hill sees college students not as the future of the church, but as the present.
"They have gifts, they have skills. They have a passion to walk with the Lord. They've counted the cost," Hill said. "So there's a pretty strong backbone for Christ, and that is huge in the church."
Jones is one of several BSM alumni who stayed in Newark after graduating and continue to serve at Ogletown. He currently leads a youth group and a young adult group. Hill said others are serving as staff, volunteers and deacons at the church.
Hill sees cooperation at its finest when students are sent out to reach the nations through IMB missions. Ogletown commissioned two students who began their two-year service as IMB Journeymen this past summer.
"The BSM leads people to Christ that we probably would not have had an opportunity to [reach], and they end up at our church," the pastor said. "But then because of the IMB, because of the Cooperative Program, there's an outlet for students to go on summer missions, and then they come back and tell our church, as a church body, what the Lord did. So it's neat to see on so many levels that cooperative effort working."
In addition, the church underwrote costs for four students to go on short-term mission trips through IMB student Nehemiah Teams. Jones, who spent a summer in the Philippines with Nehemiah Teams, was able to meet and share the Gospel with people who had never heard the name of Jesus.
"It was kind of like we were walking through the book of Acts, in my mind, in seeing God doing miracles almost in front of our eyes," he said.
His love for international missions was one of the biggest things he took away from his involvement with BSM, Jones said. "Without BSM I wouldn't have cared about missions at all."
Collegiate ministry requires patience, Hill said, noting that yearly statistics cannot tell the full story of the fruit that becomes evident over time. He and Hardcastle both have numerous examples of former students who, years after graduating, are still serving in church leadership roles or in missions.
"There's an exponential impact over time that really becomes almost impossible to measure," Hill said. "[T]he fruit may not be immediate, but years later this is going to be hugely impactful for the church. We make a big investment in college ministry, and it's worth it."