As a youth pastor, Tommy Park became alarmed by the number of students in his youth group who left the church when they went off to college. He saw college ministry as a way to reverse this trend, serving covenant children during a crucial time in their lives and reaching young people who might never attend a traditional church.
“There is a strategic opportunity to evangelize a whole generation who doesn’t know much about the Bible, church, or Christianity.”
After eight years in youth ministry, Park became the Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) pastor at the University of North Florida (UNF), where he has served since 2006. More than 75 percent of UNF’s 16,000 students commute to its Jacksonville campus from surrounding areas. And most of the students who attend RUF there did not grow up in PCA churches.
“There is a strategic opportunity to evangelize a whole generation who doesn’t know much about the Bible, church, or Christianity,” said Park of his role in college ministry.
UNF’s location in Jacksonville allows Park to connect his students with a number of local PCA churches. And since many students are from the area, they continue to attend PCA churches after graduation.
The Fruit of “Life on Life”
With such a large commuting population, RUF at UNF relies heavily on small groups and one-on-one relationships with students to foster a sense of community. And this “life on life” approach is bearing long-lasting fruit for the kingdom. UNF student Kimber Penland believed in Jesus but had little understanding of the Christian life when she first came to RUF in the fall of 2006, the same year that Park assumed leadership of the ministry. Through RUF she developed a deep love for the Lord.
Why do College Students Leave the Church?
18% Disagree with church on political/social issues
17% Was only going to church to please others
16% No longer want to identify with church
16% Disagree with church’s moral/ethical guidelines
15% Challenge in life caused me to question my faith
14% Disagree with church teaching about God
13% Going to church out of habit
12% Not sure
9% No longer wanted to identify as Christian
9% No longer wanted to identify with denomination
“I came to Christ in college through RUF … that is where I gained the understanding of what it meant to be a Christian and what the Christian life looked like. A lot of that was just the example from [Park] and Nikki. They fed me when I had no money and were there for really beautiful and light times,” she said.
Penland saw in Park and his wife, Nikki, a loving, godly marriage where the wife submits to the husband and the husband leads with selflessness. Penland met her husband through RUF, and Park performed their pre-marital counseling and marriage ceremony. Penland considers RUF to be the true beginning of her growth in faith, and she and her husband now attend a PCA church in Melbourne, Florida.
For AJ Mondin, Park figures into every major event during his life over the past seven years. Mondin, who came to RUF in 2010, now attends Christ Church Mandarin (PCA) and is a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Jacksonville campus.
“Tommy was there when my dad died my sophomore year of college, and he was there when I met my wife at RUF and married her. He texted us encouragement when my wife was giving birth at the hospital, and he was there last month when our son was baptized,” Mondin said. “It may seem like a simple thing, but when I was growing from 18-year-old freshman to 25-year-old husband, father, and seminary student, it has meant a lot to me to have someone who has walked beside me through the whole of it.”
The simple act of entering into relationships with college students — discipling them, supporting them, and modeling godly relationships for them — can grow the church and bear fruit for generations.