Many great movements of God have started on college campuses. Often, the fuel of the Awakenings and spiritual revivals in North America was ignited by students whose hearts were enflamed by a passion for God’s glory and mission.
Today, the prospects of such a movement of God are increasingly likely. God is definitely at work on our university campuses.
It seems that college campuses present fertile soil for locating, equipping, and releasing laborers for the harvest. In fact, many like Brian Frye  believe that “the university years provide the best context to introduce, train, and catalyze new church planters and planting teams.”
Even more, some believe that the university campus itself is ripe for the launch of church plants designed with the university as its primary mission field.
The university setting provides a defined harvest field like few other domains of society in North America. The students are connected via formal and informal relational networks that foster the organic dissemination of compelling ideas.
Church planters committed to declaring the good news of Jesus can naturally leverage these relational webs to communicate who Jesus is and convincingly demonstrate the hope he brings. In this relationally rich environment, vibrant, healthy churches spring up on college campuses in a comparatively rapid fashion.
In collegiate church planting, emphasis is given to introducing those who are far from God to a life-giving relationship with Jesus. Once connected to him, newly minted disciples are able to live out their faith in a transparently authentic biblical community among other students who are growing in the same faith and practice.
The university is a prime context for exploratory Bible studies, special events, and weekend retreats designed with evangelism in mind. Collegiate churches often offer a gospel discovery course that walk students through the gospel, the value of the church, and what church membership means. Those who come to faith and are discipled during their college years are often offered opportunities be a part of a church planting team once they have graduated.
Because of the high priority given to evangelism, collegiate church plants in North America see an annual ratio of one new believer for every ten weekly worshippers, a ratio that vastly exceeds what is found in the church at large. In some cases, they are reproducing disciples at a 75% rate in evangelism (3 out of 4 became a part of the church through evangelism).
So, what can we learn from college church planting?
The Value of a Defined Mission
Collegiate planting is intentional in its mission. Rather than attempting to do everything, the leaders consistently prioritize the evangelism of college students. The church’s calendar of events and weekly gatherings is created with a specific mission field in mind.
Additionally, the church’s leaders are able to prioritize only those events and practices that help them reach their mission field and can exclude other good activities that might be normative in established churches but do not foster the aim of reaching college students. Taking a page from Paul’s missiology, “to a college student, they became college students.”
High conversion rates are the result of disciplined evangelistic intentionality. College churches are often sowing seeds of the gospel with abandon. Leaders are freed to spend time on the campus, build relationships with students, take time for gospel conversations, and speedily integrate new believers into the life of the church as they plan to turn around and reproduce the process with a new disciple-maker in tow.
Vibrant evangelism is often accelerated by church leaders who came to faith in Christ during their college years and are now intent on reaching those like them with Jesus’ message. The fact that many college church pastors are relatively young themselves provides them with valuable insight into the needs and sensitivities of college students and positions them to testify to the truth of Jesus in a contextually savvy way.
A Disciple-Making Pathway
Although the methodologies and forms of leadership equipping and mobilization are varied, one thing remains constant: collegiate church planting requires an integrated and reproducible process of discovering, developing and deploying new leaders into ministry and mission of the church.
This disciple-making pathway is the bread and butter of collegiate church plants. Because of the condensed timeline in which the church will often engage with a new believer, a well-thought out and consistently executed pathway of development becomes missionally critical. As a result of this focused intentionality, a college-based church often “punches well above its weight class” in terms of its proportion of attenders preparing for significant ministry roles.
It’s without question that the early years of a college church are fragile in many ways. Financially, as the church is often established with a high number of college students, most of whom have no viable job or means of contributing financially to the church’s budget, resources can be scant.
Over time, the church will age as the members get older and community or campus leaders begin to engage, and financial sustainability becomes a reality. But the apostolic impulse toward multiplication keeps the system lean, streamlined, and missionally focused. Everything—from meeting space to staff to ministry events—are reduced and refined so that the singular aim is reaching college students with the gospel.
This stands in contrast to a church that might have collegiate ministry as one among many ministry objectives, each vying for the attention and resources of the church.
Beginning with an End in Mind
Many college churches are planted from the very beginning with an eye toward multiplication. They are not merely the result of multiplication, but from the very beginning they are looking to raise up future leaders who can reproduce the planting objectives on another college campus.
Those leading such endeavors are often in the sweet spot of missionary agility. Their age, combined with their relative freedom from many of the demands of family or vocation, positions them to take radical risks for the sake of missionary endeavors. They aren't constrained by marriage, mortgages or managers, and they are the most mobile, malleable and "movemental" people on the planet.
Those captured with a heart for God’s purposes through his church in their early 20s are then positioned for great gospel impact for the rest of their lives as they make life decisions in light of what best aids them in their pursuit of Jesus’ kingdom agenda.
There is no doubt that the lessons learned from collegiate church planting’s research and development can, and should, be applied to other aspects of ecclesial and evangelistic praxis within evangelical churches. With their example of an evangelistic urgency coupled with a disciplined execution of a disciple-making pathway, collegiate church plants are mapping out a preferred future for Jesus’ church in North America.
Most churches in North America would benefit significantly by learning from these missionary leaders.
Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.