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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Involving college students in church planting

Special update: I wrote a book for churches to give to first-time guests. It’s had a huge impact at bringing more people back as second-time guests and adding them into the church community. Get the Kindle version of Unforgettable: Your purpose in Christ here and the print version from Those outside the USA may need to order print copies from,, or
I believe that whether a church has been around for 5 minutes or 50 years it should be training leaders. So, if you have 5 people in your church, you, your wife, your 5-month old son, your brother-in-laws dog and your neighbor (who doesn't really know they are in your church because they only hung out at your house one time) then how can you be training leaders?

Answer this: what group of people are readily available, mobile, passionate, hungry to learn, ready to take over the world, looking for community, willing to help, interested in community service projects, asking to do internships and even excited about Jesus? Um, college students?

I know, this might sound REALLY obvious but I'm just starting out on this church planting thing and gathering students to train up is an exciting new concept to me. So I've done some study and called some people on why and how to engage college students in a church plant.

Why target students?

  1. "Many college students will never have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. College students, numbering approximately 16 million, are one of the most significant and unevangelized people groups in North America." Source
  2. 65% of the Builder Generation were evangelical Christians. 35% of the Boomer Generation were evangelical Christians. 16% of Generation X are evangelical Christians. Only 4% ofBridgers are evangelical Christians.
  3. Judges 2:10 "And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel."
  4. 18-22 is a crucial decision making age bracket.
  5. 90% of men stop going to church at age 18.
  6. A recent church planting conference at Liberty University LYNCHBURG, Va., designed to recruit students for real-life church planting opportunities issued a call to more than 5,000 students, several hundred responded, saying they were ready to consider summer missionary and church planting internships across the United States. Source.
  7. College students are impressionable, energetic, idealistic, dare-some, mobile, employable and innovative -- perfect candidates for church planting.
  8. College students are the most likely interns, apprentices, volunteers and part-timers.
  9. Students can usually tap into larger social networks than young couples, the middle-aged or seniors.
  10. These students and student aged Christians changed the world: Ludwig Von Zinzendorf, John Wesley, William Carey, Samuel Mills and the "Haystack Five", Hudson Taylor, Lottie Moon, C.T. Studd and the "Cambridge Seven", Luther Wishard, Robert Wilder and the "Mount Hermon 100", Grace Wilder and Cameron Townsend.
  11. Dr. Bill Bright founder of Campus Crusade said, "If we can win the university today, we will win the world tomorrow."
What are the different models of church college ministries?

By the church, but not the church

The Northern California and Nevada district of the Assemblies of God suggest 4 models:
  1. Student-Led Bible Studies on Campus: there are tons of resources for releasing students to do this sort of thing and do it well. One or two gifted and committed students are needed to launch this.
  2. Lunch Programs on Community Colleges: begin offering a free meal along with an evangelistic program on campus once a week. Time, money for food and having a core of students to create energy is vital for this to work.
  3. College-Age Sunday School Class: a quality leader and a core of college students is needed to start this.
  4. The Three Hours Model: a college-friendly Sunday morning worship service, a college-specific Sunday school class/small group network, and a college-specific midweek worship service (either on campus or in the church). Multiple staff are required to pull this off. This model ideally needs a full-timer.
Conclusion: I think there are more models than this. These appear to be separate events, divorced from the wider body of believers. The question is: what will this reproduce? Once these students leave college will they have a vision for global church planting?

By the church, kinda the church
University Presbyterian Church in Seattle has put together a PDF manual for church-based college ministry:
  1. The premise of this manual is structured around running separate church programs for college students and then having to work at connecting students back into the wider congregation. The initial draw is a large gathering of students at a weekly celebration service called "The Inn". Then they have discipleship systems and other program based activities. This is not designed to help with church planting but for more established churches. However ,there are some helpful things to learn for church planting.
  2. After hooking students on a big student run meeting and then trying to pull them into the church the manual says on page 19: "We promote to students other [church] functions and opportunities so that they can benefit from the whole of the congregation. We also believe that students have much to offer the church, thus we create ways for their lives to bless the congregation. We are often asked, "how many students go to your church on Sunday?" Our response is, "We don’t really know." Our measurement for connecting students to the church is not based on attendance at a Sunday worship service. Our measurement is how many of our students are in relationship with those who make up what we call the church."
  3. One key ingredient to the success of this church based college ministry is recruiting interns. This has real value for a church plant: "Each year we hire 4-5 college grads to serve full-time for 9.5-12 months as interns. The UMin intern program is designed to give college graduates an opportunity to gain valuable experience and training in both practical and theoretical aspects of ministry as well as have the opportunity to function as part of the larger church staff at UPC. The internship is a training program designed to give interns opportunities to discover and use their spiritual gifts, to develop spiritually and theologically, to work in an atmosphere of personal and professional guidance and support, and to gain practical ministry experience." (Page 17)
Conclusion: discipling college students in a church planting environment, getting them serving in various roles and taking on interns for a summer or an extended period seems like a brilliant way to help the plant and train up some quality leaders. I dislike the idea of separating college students from the church to create a sub-church. But then I'm idealistic and this might be the only feasible way to make it work in a large setting. It seems that the context of a church plant would make this model obsolete until you grew. Logistically a church plant needs everybody highly involved -- meaning students as well.

Simple church, but where's the rest of the church?

A book titled "The Blueprint: A Revolutionary Plan to Plant Missional Communities on Campus" by Jaeson Ma promotes the idea of Simple Churches on campus. Student leaders trained and sent by local congregational churches.
  1. Jaeson Ma is director of Campus Church Networks, a church-planting ministry that has planted over 300 student-led house churches in North America and East Asia. He also co-founded Campus Transformation Network, which has mobilized 24-7 Prayer rooms on 80+ major universities in the US and 100+ in China in partnership with Campus Renewal Ministries (Jeremy Story), 24-7 Prayer (Pete Greig) and Burning Heart Ministries (Becky Tirabassi). Jaeson is a frequent speaker & strategic trainer for student revivals, retreats, outreach events and conferences in the US and around the world.
  2. Jaeson writes that most local churches do not know what to do with college students. Page 199 "... sooner or later they would graduate and find the same problem of not fitting into traditional churches or not finding a church where they could be empowered." Jaeson's strategy formed: start simple churches in campuses that would bring the church to the students instead of students to the church. After much study in missionary church planting models, such as the underground house churches in China, he was convinced that simple relational-based churches would meet the most practical needs of college students. In relationship-based churches, believers can encounter God personally, experience authentic community and be empowered to do God's work. "If an 18-year-old Chinese girl can plant 100 churches in one year in China, why can't a college freshman plant a few simple churches on a college campus?" Essentially, a simple church on campus starts when one student breaks in a social network and sees salvation and baptizm -- this characterizes a church. The "missionary" would identify leaders and train them in shepherding people.
  3. They look to reproduce this model in the hope that one day these leaders become elders. The goal would be to start as many simple churches as possible to cater for the myriad of student clusters. The power in the model is that of students own church as something they do, not a Sunday meeting they attend. He does say "This is not to say that students don't need to go to a congregational church on Sunday, although that may be the case in certain instances; but they need to see church as a lifestyle, not an event. The congregational church should instead act as an apostolic mission base, equipping and sending students out to plant autonomous simple churches. When students graduate, they would be sent out to start simple churches in their communities, in their workplaces and all over the city. Jaeson put this into action his last year of college. Students of peace were saved, who reached their social networks and started simple churches. In turn, simple churches were started through the city, the USA and in East Asia!
Conclusion: The fact that this method reproduced churches outside its own societal domain and in other nations is wonderful evidence that something right is happening. I agree that a lot of churches have no idea how to train and help college students and I am very impressed by the fruitfulness Jaeson has experienced.

I have a few questions about this model. Can a student led simple church really meet the spiritual needs of it's group? Why assume that attendance to a congregational Sunday service will not include serving and therefore owning opportunities? Is the best place to prepare students for Christian faith after graduation to remove them from a body of people who are living a post-graduation lifestyle for Jesus? Can a church be defined by just salvation and baptism -- what is the biblical model? If starting simple student churches is a reaction to traditional churches not knowing what to do with students, is it then acceptable to start churches just for teenagers or the elderly because they don't fit into the simple student model? If the goal is simple churches, then how do you continue to grow and establish the apostolic sending bases?

Maybe I don't understand this model enough which is why I have so many questions about it. Simple churches seem a little disconnected and isolated -- let's do church without everybody else!

Ignore the church, just train students

A book titled "The Fuel And The Flame" by Steve Shadrach addresses the needs and principles required to disciple students.
  1. Steve Shadrachspan loves winning, building and sending college students for Jesus Christ. He was the pastor of students and missions at his church involving over 800 collegians before launching the ministry of Student Mobilization. He's worked with Campus Crusade Navigators and Kanakuk Kamps and writes for Focus on the Family's college webzine Steve and his family reside in Conway Arkansas next to a campus where they live with and minister to students. He's also president of The BodyBuilders providing ministry tools seminars and consulting for churches campus ministries and Christian organizations around the world.
  2. Steve defines college as "a four (or more!) year window in a person's life when God has maximum opportunity to build a foundation into a life lived for Him."
  3. Main points I got out of it is to focus on: prayer, relational networking, global mission, reproducing key students and viewing campuses as sending bases.
Conclusion: The focus is student discipleship which is driven by the premise that collegians are the most valuable group of people in our society because they are learning to shape the future. Again, my question is: what will this reproduce? I couldn't find a significant emphasis on church planting nor the importance of local church.

A new church for students

Jeff Gates, lead elder at Living Hope Church St. Joseph Missouri, has recently gathered some college students and formed a new location in Maryville, about 45 minutes north of St. Joseph. I called Jeff and he gave me the scoop:
  1. Jeff attended some of the college ministry meetings and introduced himself to the leaders immediately. It is very important to gain their trust fast.
  2. He clearly stated he was not there to steal students but wanted to serve in anyway he could. He was clear that he didn't really want to help financially but spiritually.
  3. He found that certain ministries jumped at the chance to have some of their students mentored and cared for my families -- something often lacking in college ministries.
  4. Jeff was on the lookout for students he was drawn to. He then proceeded to meet with them for coffee making sure that the ministry leaders were in the loop the whole time.
  5. Jeff knew that 60-80% of High School students have been in church at some point. He wanted to find kids who have some kind of church background and show them that he was starting a new church that wasn't quite like their parents church.
  6. Jeff ran a "Just Walk Across the Room" series with the navigators and identified more students he connected with.
  7. Jeff affirmed that college ministries often talk about valuing the local church but their programs don't allow students much time to really serve local churches. Plus it didn't seem that many unsaved students were being added -- which is a passion Jeff has for the local church.
  8. After talking with the college ministry leaders it was clear that Jeff's new church location was not in conflict with the campus ministries as it was meeting at a separate time and offered a different context for Christian faith.
  9. Once he gathered a core group he says it went viral and started to grow pretty quick. The small store front they rent has completely filled up a few times.
  10. In future Jeff is going to use the core he's gathered to target freshmen in the first 2 weeks of fall. Doing BBQ's and giving away stuff to draw interest and use it to tell people about the church.
  11. Jeff now has a number of students committed to internships over the summer and next year.
  12. Jeff admitted that to do this properly you have to invest a lot of time into it. There are no short cuts, it has to be authentically relational.
Conclusion: This is an exciting development for Living Hope Church. I have some questions for Jeff. Is this really a church? Could it ever draw locals in addition to students? What is his strategy for training students in church planting? With this success does he still have a good relationship with the ministry leaders? How can he connect these students to other mature Christians?

College bible study? No thanks. I'm part of a local church!
John Privett pastor of Life House Church Franklin, Tennessee has also recently seen success at gathering students into his church plant. I called him and got the scoop:
  1. It started when John's son Greg, with his friends Sean and Byron, started talking with fellow Christians on campus about the local church. They would literally respond to college bible study invitations with "No thanks, I'm part of the local church!" This created a lot of intrigue because it was such a different concept from normal college ministries.
  2. John started meeting with the students and spending a lot of time in coffee houses on the campus. This was critical to connecting and building momentum.
  3. Because students are smart and hungry to learn he started taking them through systematic theology. He built excitement by purposefullymeeting in a smaller room so that as numbers grew people had to get their early to even get in!
  4. Now, in their Sunday morning gathering, almost all their worship band is made up of students. He has students leading life groups which he personally visits once a month.
  5. John did a lot of events which included food and he worked at connecting students to mature and older couples and families. There seemed to be a real desire to be with families. He said it's easy to think that students just want to be together but actually they crave community. Most are from dysfunctional families and so they love being in the context of mature families.
  6. The church is not a recognized group on the campus but most of the students they gather are leaders in their dorms and allow them access for events. They do that on purpose because they want to make it clear that they are not a college ministry but a local church -- they are somehow different.
  7. They are gathering between 35-45 students right now and will have about 18 staying with them over the summer. They have a couple of interns this summer and will plan for a big team next year.
How can you engage college students in a church plant?

Here are some principles I can draw from this study:
  1. Connect with the leaders of campus ministries and build trust. Ask about serving their ministry or mentoring some students on campus. I just left a phone message with the leader of campus crusade offering to mentor young men.
    1. See how to connect with para-church organizations.
  2. As the lead guy be fully involved in the process. Look for people who you connect with.
  3. Involve students in all church events. In worship band, in speaking, in serving. Give them roles and responsibility.
  4. Connect students with families and mature couples who will cook for them and provide a functional family model.
  5. Offer summer internships and extended internships to students.
  6. Make recruitment during the first 2 weeks of fall a priority so you can catch some students and bypass the campus ministry route.
  7. Any other thoughts?
Other Resources:
  1. Getting a Church Started: A Student Manual for the Theological Foundation & Practical Techniques of Planting a Church
  2. Campus Ministry: Identity, Mission and Praxis
  3. The College Chaplain: A Practical Guide to Campus Ministry
  5. Top ten college ministries in the United States


Claire said...

Yes! Yes! I agree with much of what you've said here. I am reading the book unChristian by By David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons. And a lot of what you've stated here is mentioned there.

It talks a lot about the different generations and their effect on the church and visa versa. And why it's so important to capture today's generation, and why we're loosing them.

I highly recommend it!

Matt Sweetman said...

Thanks for the note. I've added that book to my wish list.

Erik Fish said...

Hey Matt,
Your blog on church planting and college students was really helpful.

I believe there's an improper assumption virtually every church planting model I've seen using college students shows - they believe the way to start churches is to gather existing Christians, rather than start primarily through evangelism among non-Christian communities. I don't see this as a model used widely in the book of Acts, and I think it's precisely this assumption that prevents the Church from expanding on a college campus. After 14 years involved in campus ministry, I haven't seen the Christian population numbers change in spite of numerous new ministries and churches that have come (and gone) on our local campus - there's mostly just a transfer of around 3-4% of Christian college students to various Christian churches and ministries from year to year. Why is this the de facto assumption (starting by gathering existing Christians) that we use? While this may bring students to greater maturity, authentically birth a new community church, and eventually win other students to Christ, I'm not seeing a lot of evangelistic return for the amount of labor involved in this.

I work with Jaeson Ma, one of the church planters you mentioned. We've started to take a different approach to simple church planting on campus. We are training all the students in our network to only focus on starting new simple churches among non-Christian communities (not by gathering existing Christian). After a couple months this semester, we heard some great testimonies coming back in from our students - a student from MIT baptizing a freshman from Swaziland in a dorm shower, students leading new groups of unsaved Chinese students to Christ, students praying for the sick and seeing healing, students coaching other students to start simple churches, etc.

Starting with non-Christians (or one or two Christians embedding themselves in a non-Christian community) is harder, and we've got a long way to go, but we're encouraged that new simple churches are at least starting to develop through evangelism, rather than by starting with a gathering of existing Christians.

There are some things that local churches offer that simple churches can't, but it's encouraging that there are new simple church communities developing that do practice all the essential functions of church (evangelism, worship, discipling, sacraments, giving, etc) and are reaching students who otherwise never would have encountered Christ and a lifestyle of what it means to be his disciple and living that out in the context of relationships.
I guess we're all trying to learn how to do that better, eh?