Multiplying small groups at a commuter campus

commuter small groups

Nearly all of the 21,000 students at Hunter College in pricey Manhattan are commuters. I was one of them. Students come and go as quickly as possible at our school, making it difficult to develop a growing witnessing community. But we had a vision of expanding our one Bible study to five — if we could find four more leaders. I led the search, excited and challenged to see what God would do.

Many of the commuting students in this expensive zip code of New York City have an apathetic and function-only view of school. They want to get their degree and get out as soon as possible; most don’t care about improving the school structure itself. Like other commuter schools, it is common for leaders in campus organizations to disappear in a flash. There are revolving doors both literally and figuratively. Despite the ministry challenges, InterVarsity’s presence on campus changed my life.

In the fall of my junior year, I joined an InterVarsity Bible study to learn how to read the Bible in English — all that I knew about Jesus, church, and the Bible was in Spanish. Studying the Gospel of Luke opened my eyes to a whole new Jesus, and I found myself wanting to know more about him. I also wanted to share this Jesus with more people, so I started to invite my friends from classes. Soon I began reaching out to students at my school via Facebook, searching for anyone who was Christian and inviting them to the fellowship. By the end of the semester, the Bible study had grown significantly with new people.

My Bible study was led by Jason Gaboury, InterVarsity staff. As I got to know Jason, he saw some particular gifts in me and gave me direction in how I could use these gifts for the ministry. But I was surprised when Jason invited me to become the Small-Group Coordinator for our chapter. He described the position like this, “What it is, really, is that you are the behind-the-scenes person making sure everything goes smoothly in small groups.”

Now, I’d never even led a small group — how was I supposed to coordinate them? But Jason challenged me to expand our Bible study from one per week to five per week — and I am always up for a challenge!

Jason continued leading the original small group, so I had to find four small-group leaders of my own. Amazingly, the Lord provided four amazing women to start new Bible studies on our campus, and I learned a lot in the process.

Searching for leaders

As I searched for new leaders, I used three criteria I borrowed from Willow Creek Church:

  • Character: I knew all four women were growing spiritually outside of InterVarsity and that they led healthy and stable lives. They maintained solid GPAs. They were active in their churches; some also worked. I also liked that these women knew when they needed help. Their lives weren’t perfect, but they knew when to reach out to someone for advice or prayer.
  • Competency: Each of these women frequently offered great insights in our Bible study. They challenged me with their thoughts about the text. What’s more, they asked a lot of questions. I enjoyed that they didn’t have all the answers, but had a sincere thirst for biblical knowledge.
  • Chemistry (or, should I say, biology?): All of us met in the same biology class — a God-coincidence — and somehow we found each other in a sea of 700 students! We discovered we had a lot in common and had great fun together. These women were a pleasure to work with to start new small groups. In fact, I don’t remember it ever feeling like work.

At the beginning of the next semester, I met with the four new leaders and the first thing we did was schedule time to meet together each week. On a commuter campus, that’s not easy. At our weekly meetings we went over the Bible study questions, discussed what we were struggling with as leaders and talked about how we could serve the larger fellowship. We also covered the responsibilities of a small-group leader so they had some training for their role. And we came up with a cool, silly name for ourselves: the BSLATs (Bible Study Leaders of America’s Tomorrow). I know it sounds horrible, but you would be surprised what a corny name like that can do to build community!

Soon four new small groups were on their way. They met at various times during the day, a necessity for commuting students. I made it a point to attend several of the small groups at the beginning of the semester to offer support and constructive criticism. The critique was hardly needed; I was so proud of my leaders!

Growing in breadth and depth

The results were two-fold. First, small groups (and, therefore, the fellowship) grew in breadth. We didn’t hit our target of seeing ten people weekly in every small group, but we did go from having one small group of around ten people to five small groups averaging seven people.

Also, the small group leaders grew in spiritual depth. I loved watching my friends use their leadership muscles! They grew more confident in their ability to lead their peers and grew deeper in their Biblical knowledge.

One of the new leaders, DaHea An, saw God equipping her for something greater in the future. “Before I was a small-group leader, I had never considered my ease with people to be a skill that I could somehow cultivate and use for God,” she said. “Now, after this experience, I am consciously developing the skills I have so that I will be prepared to do whatever God asks of me next.”

For me personally, my experience as a small-group coordinator was a step in the process of my own career. What I learned about myself is that I love to lead leaders. I believe that the most important thing that I can do is to develop a future generation that will lead better than I did. So I put aside grad school applications and picked up an InterVarsity staff application instead — and I haven’t regretted it for one day.

A few suggestions

Building a witnessing community on a commuter campus isn’t easy, but the rewards are great when strong relationships with others — and with God — have a place to flourish. Here is what I learned that may be helpful on your campus:

  • Pray for more students to emerge as leaders for your group. Trust that God is at work among your peers!
  • Share your vision and talk up the goals of the chapter. Again, trust God to trigger excitement for reaching out to your fellow students.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask people to lead, even those who already appear to be quite busy. Some may be waiting and praying for the right opportunity to develop their leadership abilities in service to others.
  • Offer support in a variety of ways and meet together to prepare and pray. This can be both practical and fun!

This year the chapter at Hunter College has experienced some changes and the number of members has decreased, but there is renewed focus on raising up new leaders through the small groups — continuing the witness to fast-paced commuter students.

—Melina A. Soriano