College Ministry Needs Biblical Theology

by Nathan Williams October 14, 2016

Last spring my wife and I sat down for breakfast with two young Christian women who were nearing the end of their undergraduate degrees. They had been at our church for a number of years during college. Neither had a job lined up after graduation or any expectation of a "ring by spring," which at their Christian college validates the whole school-debt-without-a-job situation. They had a look in their eyes that said "life is getting way too real" and wanted to talk through their anxiety with us. So we met them at Panera, got a cup of coffee, and looked back over God's faithfulness in our lives and theirs. Each of us left encouraged and challenged by the reality that our lives fit within God’s overall story. 

Fast forward to late July and the same two girls were back at our church together for a visit after graduation. Both have wonderful ministry opportunities over the next year, and we couldn't be happier for them.

In a couple of weeks, tens of thousands of college students will start the journey that those two girls just concluded. Others will head back to school for their last fall of sleeping in a dorm room. Churches all over this country will have a unique and God-ordained opportunity to minister to them in this very crucial season of life. But let me suggest that this fall you don't just give the students at your church a home cooked meal, a listening ear, and a few too many shifts in children's ministry. Instead, give them something that will anchor them for that moment when they remove the cap and gown and face whatever God has for them. Give them biblical theology. 

What is Biblical Theology?

Scholar James Hamilton has said this about the discipline of biblical theology: "To do biblical theology is to think about the whole story of the Bible."[1] While much more could be said about biblical theology as an academic study, it is essentially about fitting the parts of the biblical story into the whole. In other words, biblical theology means to read and teach the Bible with an eye to the whole narrative from creation to new-creation. This focus on the entire story is essential for all believers, but it is particularly important for the season of life in which college students find themselves. Here are three reasons why.

1. The Right Story Matters

I know mentioning “story” is the ultimate hipster move. But don’t let the importance of stories be trivialized by the quinoa crowd. Listen to these wise words from the ultimate hipster, Andrew Delbanco, as he describes his book The Real American Dream:

The premise of this book is that human beings need to organize the inchoate sensations amid which we pass our days-pain, desire, pleasure, fear-into a story. When that story leads somewhere and thereby helps us navigate through life to its inevitable terminus in death, it gives us hope…We must imagine some end to life that transcends our own tiny allotment of days and hours if we are to keep at bay the "dim, back-of-the-mind suspicion that one may be adrift in an absurd world." [2]

The bottom line for your students is that they have no other option than to build life on a particular story. At this point their story has probably been shaped by all sorts of cultural narratives from consumerism to postmodernism. A major focus of our discipleship needs to be exposing the vapidity of secular stories and helping them fall in love with the biblical story. They desperately need to live and move in the biblical narrative and see how their lives fit within the redemptive story that goes from creation to consummation.  Give them the biblical story so they can live with hope and direction.

2. Decisions need a Context

Just think about all the important decisions that 18 year old freshman will make in the next 4-5 years. College students are setting the trajectory for the rest of their lives in the most important areas. We need to teach them what true human flourishing looks like in work, play, and church life and biblical theology is absolutely necessary to put these areas in the proper context. It’s not enough to give them the ol’ Protestant work ethic and tell them to give to the church from the money they make. We must ground the purpose and goal of work in the redemptive plans of God. Biblical Theology gives every area of life a broader scope and motivates us to see even the mundane details of life within God’s plans.

 3. Biblical Theology Cures Moralism

I’m sure you have heard the statistics concerning how many “Christian” young people leave the church once they arrive on the university campus. In his book Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture Graeme Goldsworthy suggests that this unsightly trend may be due to the steady diet of moralism our churches are feeding young people. [3] If he is right then we have to battle the false gospel of moralism with a robust emphasis on biblical theology. I find that many students are wide eyed with wonder when they are introduced to the united, unfolding drama of the biblical story. Once you have tasted the sweet honey of the gospel story, why would you go back to the bitter water of moralism?

Our students are about to return for another semester. Their lives are about to get “real”. They will need a story. Let’s love them enough to show them how their lives fit within God’s great plan by giving them biblical theology.

[1] James Hamilton Jr., What Is Biblical Theology? A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2013), 12.

[2] Andrew Delbanco, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 1–2.

[3] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 151.