By Helen Gibson
Keith Wieser was sitting in the stands at a Washington State University football game in 2005 when he had a “God moment”—an experience he says changed the trajectory of his life.
From where he sat, he remembers seeing almost the entire student body gathered in the stadium that day, cheering and shouting, supporting their team.
In the midst of it all, Wieser says he began to feel God whispering to his soul, asking him a simple yet incredibly powerful question.
What are you going to do to make a significant impact on the lostness of this campus?
At the time, Wieser and his wife were working in a campus ministry at Washington State, but they felt God calling them to do more.
“We began to dream about what it could look like to release the power of the church in the center of campus,” Wieser says.
They went on to plant Resonate Church—a church based on a college campus that has grown significantly since it began with a small group meeting in a local coffee shop in December 2006. Since then, Resonate Church has seen floods of students come to Christ, celebrating 854 baptisms, Wieser says.
Today, Resonate has expanded to 11 sites in eight towns throughout Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, and they’re planning to launch another site in Montana.
The story of their explosive growth on college campuses is just one example of a larger movement—church plants and campus ministries across the nation working to engage college students and young adults with the gospel at a critical moment for the church in North America.
In the Facts & Trends’ Future of the Church study by LifeWay Research, 68 percent of Protestant pastors say the attendance of young people—those 18 to 29 years old—has decreased or stayed the same over the past five years.
And 4 in 10 pastors say reaching this generation with the gospel is the issue they’re most concerned about when thinking about the future of their churches.
When it comes to making an impact on the next generation, Wieser and other evangelical leaders say college campuses are one of the best places to start.
“We believe the university campus is the key to transforming culture as we look toward the future,” Wieser says.
“On the college campus, there are leaders who are going to shape business and politics and social structures and, really, the thoughts for the next generation. The great reality is we can take and have an intersection of the future leaders in a place where they’re most moldable, reachable, and sendable.”
Why college students?
Brian Frye, who serves as the national collegiate strategist for the North American Mission Board, says focusing on college students in these kinds of ways can be incredibly impactful.
“If we can engage college freshmen with the gospel, that tends to be the time in life when people are experiencing the highest level of receptivity to the gospel,” Frye says.
“It’s that place and space where everybody’s new, all at the same time. College is the time between families, before you have a manager, before you have money coming in significant ways, before you have a mortgage, your marriage, all that stuff.”
Frye doesn’t deny the fact that college ministry could be difficult or time-consuming, and he admits that some might see college students as being “flaky” and “messy,” but he says ministry to people in this age group has the potential to be incredibly impactful.
“We feel like that’s the quickest way to accelerate the gospel,” Frye says.
“And then of course, if you’re sharing the gospel in a university environment, that’s the quickest way to the nations, right? That’s the quickest way to the 10/40 window. That’s the quickest way to leadership in business, the quickest way to academic leadership, governmental leadership.”
Recognition of this has led to an emerging trend of “collegiate church plants,” or churches planted on or near college campuses. Frye says there were only a handful of collegiate church plants in 1999.
Today, however, there are about 100 collegiate church plants across the nation, Frye says. That includes 19 launched last fall.
Frye says this trend is encouraging—but if Christians really want to reach college students, they’re going to have to take this goal seriously and make some changes at large.
“Very little of their time, very little of our church budgets, are geared toward reaching those who don’t have a relationship with Christ and who are in that age bracket, so we have to change that,” Frye says. “There is a tremendous amount of opportunity.”
Engaging and equipping a unique, emerging generation
As a student at Iowa State University, Kendra Gustafson was heavily involved with the Salt Company, a ministry to college students. When she graduated in 2010, she joined the Salt Company’s staff.
Though she’s only eight years removed from her college years, Gustafson says she’s realized the students she works with today are living in a very different world with its own unique challenges.
“Because the world is changing fast, some of the unique struggles they face, it’s hard for me to relate to,” she says.
One difference she’s noticed is the impact of social media.
“Their whole worldview and the way they view relationships is really mixed and mangled into online, indirect forms of communication,” Gustafson says. This leaves many students craving real, authentic community, even if they don’t necessarily know how to express that desire.
“They long for an authentic relationship,” she says, “and they don’t even know they’re missing that.”
Social media has also left students with shorter attention spans, Wieser notes, which means they’re not as easily entertained as they once were.
“The reality is we just can’t do enough to entertain them anymore,” Wieser says. “The entertainment value they experience in their lives is so high that if we try to create more worship services that try to match that, at some point you’re just chasing after your tail, and you’re expending a lot of energy.”
But what college students and young adults aren’t looking for in terms of entertainment, they are looking for in terms of clarity, he says.
“There’s a hunger for clarity,” Wieser says. “There are so many competing ideas that, whether they agree or not, if there’s a clear worldview, that instantly becomes a magnetic draw to their hearts.”
Similarly, Gustafson says she sees a desire for authenticity among many college students and young adults.
“Tell me the truth,” she says, describing what she feels many students are longing for. “Don’t glitz it up and make it look pretty. I just want to know what’s true. I don’t need to be entertained. I just want truth.”
These college students and young adults don’t want to be merely passive participants in church or a campus ministry. They want to be involved, Wieser says.
For that reason, he says they should be able to clearly understand—and engage in—the mission of the church or ministry from the beginning.
“Articulate a vision that’s worth their time; articulate a vision that points them to something significant,” Wieser says. “I think the entire generation is looking to be an activist for something—that activism can be pointed to the gospel.”
Frye says college students and young adults should be introduced to the importance of church planting and spreading the gospel as soon as they become believers.
“So, they are inculcated from day one with the idea that when you follow Jesus, part of that is you listen and obey, and then part of that is you are giving your life to becoming a disciple-maker,” Frye says. “And if you’re a disciple-maker, you’re willing to leverage your life to see the Kingdom expanded.”
This idea of encouraging students to be proactive in reaching their peers with the gospel is a key part of the Salt Company’s mission, Gustafson says.
“One of our driving principles is that students reach students, so we do our best to get the students to train and equip the students themselves to be evangelists and friends on campus to people,” Gustafson says.
“They will have access, just through friendship, that a staff person in a full-time role outside of college won’t have access to, especially to non-believers.”
And, doing this will help college students and young adults see the purpose and mission from the beginning, which Wieser says is incredibly important.
“Just have high ownership and engagement with that group of people and empower them, release them,” he says.
Over 10 years after Resonate Church held its first public services, the church is still working to be innovative, current, and relevant to the lives of the college students it serves.
Wieser says this is something collegiate church plants and ministries must continue to do if they want to reach college students.
“I think that when we as a church don’t adapt to the actual needs of the people, but we just ride the wave of what we think is cool or what used to work—what used to be the most appealing thing for the past generation—we’ll lose touch with what’s most important with this generation,” Gustafson says.
“Our method of ministry should always adapt although our message should never change.”
While LifeWay Research found a significant portion of Protestant pastors were concerned about reaching the next generation, there are also many who are hopeful about the future. Overall, 72 percent said the church attendance of those 18 to 29 years old will increase over the next five years.
Leaders like Wieser are hopeful, too.
“My hope is that we see college students mobilized to take the gospel into every part of society.”
HELEN GIBSON (@_HelenGibson_) is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.