The Challenge of Commuter Schools

I walked alone across the campus to my car. It only took about five minutes. In those five minutes I saw six other people (yes, I counted), also walking alone to wherever they were going. I had just spent three hours wandering around the campus, looking for students to hang out with for some “spontaneous discipleship.” I found no one I knew. There were a handful of strangers rushing here or there, students who had no time to stop and meet me. I’d had such a hopeful attitude today. It was a Wednesday, the busiest day of the week for the campus. But I shook my head in sorrow once again as I walked. The parking lot is full of cars, but the student union is a ghost town, I reflected. Such is the culture of our campus.

Commuter campuses. Unless you attend one (or are on staff at one) you probably won’t understand the phenomenon. It may seem crazy to spend three hours on a college campus and see no one you know. It may seem even crazier that in those three hours, I walked through the cafeteria, student union, even the pub, and found a total of 25 people. And, those 25 people were sitting alone, either engaged in reading textbooks or shoveling down a bite to eat in between classes.

It’s not like no one goes to school here. The admissions office boasts the highest enrollment in the 32 years the school has been opened—6,000 students. It’s just that those 6,000 students are very rarely on campus at the same time. And when they are, they drive to campus, park as close as they can to their class, walk to class, walk back to their cars when class is over, and go home. Hence the name “commuter.”

Between the frustrations and the joys of my seven years in this challenging ministry, I am learning a wonderful lesson in faithfulness. For if you are called to share the gospel in the fragmented world of the commuter campus, you are called to live a life of faithfulness no matter the success.

Community or Commuter-ness?

Though commuter and community sound similar, they mean completely different things. A community is a group of people who live in the same area; a group having a common background or shared interest within society. When trying to build “witnessing communities” on campus, it helps to have some kind of pre-existing community to work with. Dorm life, a winning sports team, Greek life, award-winning musicians can all be rallying points for students on a campus. Any of those areas serve as a shared interest for the college culture.

Let me give you an example of pre-existing college community. We live two hours away from the University of Southern California. I have never stepped foot on that campus, but I can tell you a bit about their community. It’s a huge day when their football team plays their cross-town rival, UCLA. So huge, people in my town two hours away visit the homes of friends who want the same team to win in order to watch the game, even if they’ve never stepped foot on either campus! And a couple of years ago I attended a business conference in my town where the USC Trojan Marching Band was part of the entertainment. As soon as they started playing the fight song, all of the former “Trojans” in the room stood and joined the victory chant. Football is huge at USC. All of the students are affected by it whether they want to be or not. It is one of the “common backgrounds” upon which that community of students is built.

Commuter means someone (notice the individualism of that word!) who travels regularly from one place to another, especially between home and somewhere else. Building a witnessing community in this individualistic atmosphere is really tough and, at times, almost impossible.

My school doesn’t have a football team like USC. Our men’s basketball team was the NCAA Division II Champion a couple of years ago, but even that didn’t draw the students together. Hardly anyone went to the games. In fact, I don’t think there is one “shared interest” among the majority of students here, unless you count the fact they are all commuting at the same time. The irony of this is that almost every one I talk to is lonely and desiring to have friends. They just don’t think they have the time to give what it takes to make a community.

The very nature of a commuter campus creates many obstacles to building community. Usually most of the students live at home with their families, sprawled all across the city. They have part- to full-time jobs along with taking a full load of classes. The Christians involved in our group are also leaders in their churches. They have boyfriends, girlfriends, or just friends from high school that they still hang out with. With all of these activities filling their overstuffed schedules, it’s not surprising when they say they have no more time for campus outreach. The other clubs on our campus face the same frustrations. Even the three fraternities and sororities have a difficult time getting new pledges.

There is also a stigma associated with the commuter campus. The students who attend these schools tend to see themselves as “leftovers,” the ones who couldn’t or didn’t want to get into a “real” school (like USC or UCLA). Their smarter or richer friends went away from home to attend those schools; apathy seems to seep through the pores of all who have been left behind.

Faithful to the Community

Building community on any campus, large or small, residential or commuter, takes a lot of intentionality with fellow students. It takes a lot of prayer. It takes being faithful to the call of sharing the gospel on the campus. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. I was a student at a residential school, so I know ministry isn’t easy no matter where you are. I think trying to build a community of witnesses on a commuter campus is especially tough, because of the reasons I mentioned above.

But even so, there are a handful of students who don’t like the fragmented lifestyle of commuting. A real community is what they desire, so they are faithful to it no matter how large or small our chapter may be. These faithful few have committed to one another in friendship and in partnership in reaching the campus with the gospel.

We’re learning that being faithful in God’s eyes is not necessarily the same as being successful in the world’s (or even other campus ministries’) eyes. We do New Student Outreach every quarter, even if only ten people show an interest in our group. We have Bible studies every week, even if no one but the leader has shown up for weeks. We continue inviting classmates to large-group meetings and events, even though no one new comes. And we change “large-group meeting” to “Friday Nite Socials” because, well, “large” is not the best adjective to use when describing those events. Most of all, we rest in knowing that God loves our campus more than we do, so, though our numbers may not be large, our love for his people is.

Faithful to the Commuter

It may seem like an oxymoron, but we’ve discovered the best way to build community on our campus is to influence students individually. When we talk about the successes of our group, rarely do we say, “I had twenty people come to my small group last night!” Instead we focus on how the individuals in our small groups are doing. That way, when only two people attend the following week, we’re not so discouraged. We know those two people are growing closer to Jesus.

Brooke is an example of a commuter who’s growing with God thanks to the faithfulness of the leaders in her life. She transferred to Cal State last fall as a junior (another obstacle we face here; rarely do we see students for more than two years). Lesley, the leader of the small group Brooke signed up for, gave her directions to class the first day and then called her later in the week to see how she was doing. Because Lesley did these things Brooke came to the first Bible study, which was at Lesley’s apartment. Brooke met other students that night who were like her—busy with school, work, home responsibilities, but wanting to grow closer to Jesus. She made the commitment to be a part of the small group and was faithful all year.

This year, Brooke is a small-group leader whose eyes shine with the love of Jesus! She is very aware of the obstacles to reaching our campus with God’s love, yet she continues. When the Lord challenged her about her grades, she surrendered her desire for a 4.0, realizing grades had taken the place of God in her life. When she was leading a Bible study in Esther, she came up with the idea of performing the entire book as a play for the whole group. Though there may never be more than 30 people who see that play, it doesn’t matter to her. She is a commuter who has found community and desires to share it with others.

Very rarely does “spontaneous hanging-out” happen on a commuter campus. (I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to just hang-out for three hours today.) So we’ve learned it’s important to call people a couple of days ahead of time and set up a one-to-one with them on campus. Or just calling people and discipling them over the phone works, too. Some of my best conversations with Brooke have been sitting on the floor of my laundry room, talking on the phone because we live 30 minutes from each other.

“Faithfulness, faithfulness is what you want from me.”

As I drove home from campus, that song came into my head. I quickly turned on the radio to my favorite classic rock station. I was frustrated, so the idea of faithfulness wasn’t helping to cheer me up. Slowly, however, I surrendered to God and shared the frustrations of my day with him. For this off-the-scale extrovert, seeing no one today was a huge disappointment. Days like today happen a lot. But I keep trying, because faithfulness is what God wants from me. Being faithful to my campus has meant I’ve had to give up my dream of having a huge campus ministry, fully equipped with student evangelists, worship team, and a chapter president who runs the whole show.

The good news about ministry to commuter campuses is that there are faithful students who want to grow closer to Jesus. He reminded me of a few of them as I turned down the radio—Sara, Lesley, David, Chris, Jason, Anne, Amy, Brooke, Jim, Ashley, Kim, Emily are twelve who came to mind. Though the realities of life on a commuter campus often seem insurmountable, Jesus still loves the students on that campus. He will never give up on them, though they may not care about him. And he’s called me not to give up on them, either, even if only three people make up our community.

Tracy Mouser. Tracy has served students at Bakersfield College and Cal State U. Bakersfield.