By T.R. Robertson
My sons loved going to church on Wednesday nights when they were little. In 1990 they were stairstep kids, ages 5, 4, and 3, and they were bundles of energy. I have to admit, my boys had a reputation for being a real handful. The teachers needed all the help they could get.
Help came in the form of students from Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri, just 30 miles to the north. David, one of those students, remembers the experience well.
“I was traveling on Sundays singing for the college during my sophomore year,” says David, “so I needed to fulfill my Christian service requirement during the week. I got to know the Blue Ridge Christian Church preacher and thought it would be fun to try something there.”
David and another student traveled from Moberly to Columbia each Wednesday evening, where they would help corral the kids in a garage that was serving as a classroom.
“Overall, being exposed to the body of Christ every week at Blue Ridge was a good experience,” David says. “Honestly, the thing I learned was that I would rather teach adults than children.”
One week that summer, David filled in for the preacher, teaching the adult class.
“Afterwards, Bob Seath told me he thought I would make a good teacher and I should teach adults more. I probably felt more affirmed by someone like that appreciating me, and that led me toward more of the adult preaching and teaching and less toward children’s ministry.”
For my sons, student volunteers like David made it possible for them to enjoy being at church, and to learn a few things about faith and God in the process. For David, the experience was formative in the choices he has made and the person he has become since that student volunteer opportunity.
Twenty-five years later, David Fincher is the president of his alma mater, Central Christian College of the Bible. He’s now the one sending students out to volunteer in churches and other ministries as part of an organized internship program.
Making Theory Come to Life
At CCCB, students are required to fulfill three levels of service:
Level 1—Day of Service: One day per semester students and staff go out in teams and do special projects for area organizations and churches.
Level 3—Field Education: Ministry degree candidates are required to spend 300 hours in an organizational context working under an experienced, paid professional.
Micheal Curtice, professor of missions and ministry and assistant dean for professional studies, leads the field education program.
“Through working with local congregations, students learn the real value of ministry and the day-to-day reality of the Christian life lived out in community,” he says. “The classroom is often a place for theology and theory. The local church is where a student can make that theory come to life.”
“One of the most important elements of a well-rounded education is character,” Curtice adds. “The other two aspects of Christian training can be taught in a classroom setting: biblical truth and ministerial skills. Character is always molded through real life, and volunteering in a local church is the anvil on which we can sharpen iron with iron.”
Caleb Ford, a 2015 graduate of CCCB, drove 1 hour 40 minutes each weekend to get to his internship with the High Hill (Missouri) Christian Church.
“I was given the opportunity to preach three times every month, twice at the nursing homes and once at the church,” Ford says. “Surprisingly, preaching at the nursing homes helped me to become a better preacher more than any preaching class I’ve ever taken.”
At one nursing home, he preached in the dining room, with a soda machine and the dish room behind him. “I would be preaching away and employees would need to come and get soda and get ice for their drinks, and it was really loud. Also, with the dish room behind me, there was almost a continuous clatter of dishes.
“At first this was very distracting and it rattled me a bit. Toward the end of my internship, I had become so focused during my sermons at the nursing home that my phone was beeping in my pocket and I never noticed. Preaching in that loud environment helped me develop a focus during my sermons that I had never had before.”
For many ministry students, their first experiences serving in a congregation can be a culture shock.
Rob Branham has been a youth minister and preacher in Missouri, Alaska, and now Australia. At his first ministry during college, in a rural Missouri church, he learned quickly that not everyone lives or thinks the way he was brought up.
“A unique thing about that church,” he says, “was that the women sat on one side and the men on the other. Lynne and I followed suit. However, after we were newly married we became rebels and sat together.”
In spite of the cultural differences, Branham valued his time there.
“I learned a lot about sermon delivery and how to listen and love people. It was there I learned it’s not whether you sing hymns or newer worship songs that determines your worship—something I’ve carried with me all these years.”
Students involved with campus ministries at secular universities are also encouraged to volunteer with local congregations and in other ministries. At the Mizzou Christian Campus House at the University of Missouri, residents are required to participate in a ministry activity each semester.
Nicole Rieken, a prelaw student at Missouri, has volunteered with the CCH prison ministry.
“It’s had a life-altering effect on me,” she says. “The women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting are truly an inspiration. They don’t allow prison walls to define their lives. They are living powerful and meaningful lives for Christ and serving him throughout their situation.”
An emphasis on internship is common among accredited Bible colleges today, but a generation ago, volunteering in ministry was optional.
One of my fellow students from the late 1970s was Jack Sumption, who now preaches at First Christian Church in Memphis, Missouri, and is an active participant in the CCCB alumni organization.
“I’ve had the privilege of overseeing internships for two young men from Central,” says Sumption. “Both were outstanding and are still in ministry. They taught me much.
“Looking back, I’d like to think if I’d had a season of interning, I would not have made the first church I served go through so much. Godly and patient men in my first ministry and preachers in the area gave me much guidance and support. For that I am grateful.”
Interning has many benefits for both the student volunteer and the congregation being served, but a positive result doesn’t happen without effort. David Sowers, who has been a preacher, missionary, Bible college professor, and is now an international student minister at the Mizzou Christian Campus House, has seen both the good and bad sides of internships.
There is an expectation the student volunteer will be “faithful in preparation and fulfillment of commitments made to the congregation,” says Sowers. But not every student learns that lesson. “Some student volunteers would not call us in advance when they decided not to show up. This hurt us because we were counting on them, and the kids were counting on them to be there.
“I’ve also seen a case where a promising young intern was not treated well by his supervising preacher,” adds Sowers. “Expectations were unrealistic, and criticism far outweighed encouragement. The student had plans for full-time ministry service but allowed discouragement to keep him from it.
“Those of us who supervise interns must realize they are young and inexperienced. That’s why they’re interns! While they must be accountable to us as their supervisors, we cannot have the same level of expectations for them as we would for a more experienced full-time staff member.”
Fincher, who worked with my sons decades ago, now has children of his own who have benefited from student volunteers.
“Students who have been involved at Timber Lake Christian Church (Moberly, Missouri) in the youth program on Wednesday nights have been a great influence on children like mine. They come from churches where they were the beneficiaries of someone’s service and investment. Now they want to put that back into other children and teenagers. We couldn’t do all the ministries we have at Timber Lake without assistance from the college students volunteering.”
T.R. Robertson is a supply chain analyst with the University of Missouri in Columbia and a freelance writer.