the surprisingly unmissional approach to college ministry

On page 30 of Reaching the Campus Tribes, I broach a subject that I believe is really important for churches to ponder. The interesting dilemma is that some modern-style churches may actually impact students worse while striving to break with tradition. In fact, while trying to be more missional, some churches may end up less missional.

Some churches have opted to go the “non-traditional” route by pointing students directly to their intergenerational structures, “fully assimilating” them into the adult programs of the church. They plug them into small groups, Bible classes, or other activities alongside the church’s adults – without any opportunity for small group discipleship as college students or specialized outreach to local college campuses.

(Certainly, this sometimes takes place by default when churches haven’t taken the time to plan anything for students, leaving collegians to trickle into other areas of the church – and otherwise not stick around. That’s not what I’m talking about.)

As I write in Reaching, the full-assimilation method “certainly reflects a clear respect for college students as full members of the local congregation.” So on one hand, I applaud the motivation behind not separating college students and treating them as a distinct congregation (as one leader at a famous Emerging church described).

But for these highly missional churches, the funny thing is that this approach may be LESS missional in regard to those college students. Why? Because this method usually involves yanking them out of their actual community.

Though a college campus is located geographically within a particular area, it rarely has a high degree of sociological similarity to the rest of that area. Especially at residential colleges, many college students have one primary community – and it isn’t the local neighborhood, nor is it particularly similar to the local neighborhood. It’s the campus, and it’s (obviously) a world of its own.

This means that these otherwise missional churches are being highly “attractional” (in a sense that’s opposite from their normal efforts). If I’m not mistaken, this format pretty clearly demands that collegians leave “them” to come away with “us” to do church – both in location and in identity.

If we desire to be missional with college students, we have to think through what that means in their special case. Just as reaching our neighborhood missionally involves connecting with people “on their terms” and “on their turf,” impacting college students missionally involves recognizing their unique terms and turf, too. While it’s good for college students to get out of their small worlds some of the time, learning to live for Jesus within those worlds is vital, too.

The way I put it in the book was:

At the same time, it must be remembered that many college students’ cultural identity and community are located not in the local neighborhood but specifically within their collegiate experience. Thus any church aiming to reach people “missionally” and contextually should consider the special situation of college students. Unless efforts are made to reach campus tribes on their own terms, we may actually be missing opportunities for relevant impact in this important life stage. And we will be removing students from the very communities in which they presently have the most influence for God’s Kingdom.

I’m still thinking this one through. That’s one way we advance college ministry – through debate and rigorous thought. So while I’ll keep thinking, I did want to address this here. And I’d love to hear your thoughts – positive, negative, or illustrative.

[(This post got some really helpful comments – if you can’t see them below, click here to see the post with the comments. Meanwhile, the next post continues the discussion.]


  1. stevelutzpsu

    Ben–great post. You’re right.
    We need a third way–one that’s not purely age & stage, and one that’s not full assimilation. Neither, i think, are truly missional.

    Wouldn’t a missional church be thinking about ways to get students to join them (attractional), while simultaneously equipping them to reach their campus context? And shouldn’t that mean a campus presence for students and some staff (missional)?

    there is both a “come” (matt 11) and “go” (matt 28) in the gospel. A faithful church will do both.

    We need less campus ministries that usurp local churches, and less churches acting like campus ministries. We need churches doing their job and reaching the campuses in their backyards.

    So glad you’re thinking about this stuff and leading the conversation. I’ve done some further reflection on this which can be accessed at

  2. I agree as well.

    Local church campus ministry is a tough gig no matter what. There is so much organizational freedom in being para-church, and a whole lot of strength in having local church roots. How do you mix them together?

    At our church, we take the discipleship approach. College students who join our program (after being “attracted” by our main large meetings, Bible studies, and events) are put into an intense internship of proactively reaching back to the campus community. This spring, we preached a seven-week series called “Campus Missionaries” that brought the missional aspects of life to the forefront of our group.

    This is only one approach, and I’m curious to know how to compares to other models you have seen. Is the discipleship method effective at other colleges and universities around the country?

  3. Benson,
    Thanks for posting these thoughts, and it is definitely a question that we have wrestled through often. You have arrived at the exact same conclusions that we have as a church-based/missionally-oriented college ministry. It’s a difficult tension often, but a fun one to walk!

  4. Good words, Steve. I agree – I’m all about recruitment. It’s just been interesting to note that churches which otherwise stand hard on “non-attractional-ness” (in the way they think about it) are very attractional in this one area. (Clearly, it’s by accident.)

    Adam, I’d say that the send-them-back-out component is probably minimal in a lot of college ministries. Tim Elmore might call this a “disciplemaking culture”; it certainly was happening rather automatically at Texas A&M, but it seems rare to me. It was good to be spoiled by my Aggie years, so I’ll never be satisfied with less.

    I think your plan is a great way to go about it – helping students see themselves as missionaries to their own tribes. Foreign missionaries have to do that same thing, and raising up indigenous leaders to see their homelands as mission fields is tough. (I think we could probably learn some things from their own resources about how they do this.)

    Not to self-plug too much, but I have heard college ministers indicate they might use Reaching the Campus Tribes with their student leaders. That might be helpful for broadening students’ horizons and catalyzing their missionary-identification.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Todd. For those who are wondering, Todd’s at The Austin Stone Community Church. (It might be best-known as where Chris Tomlin led worship for a while, but it’s known here in Texas for plenty of things!)

    I would love to hear how y’all worked through these questions sometime, either here or later on! Thanks for choosing to reach students on their terms / turf.

    [He did lay out their structure here. Thanks, Todd!]

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  7. Benson, thanks for getting the conversation started…

    Having worked on campuses for the past 12 years, I have seen the growing significance in partnering with the local church… and seeing our work as intimately inter-connected.

    Ministry on campus provides, among other things, a constant presence, high level of accessibility and frequent convenient ways for students to worship, gather in intentional Christian community and serve the campus and local community.

    From day one, however, we are telling our students that they must take the initiative to find a new “church home away from home” because what we offer on campus is meant to be “above and beyond” what they receive (and give) in the local church context.

    Ultimately, I believe that local church leaders and campus ministers need to grow in their awareness of, and relationship to, one another so that we can see each other as members of the same team and not in competition with each other.

    It takes time, yes, but our approach to reaching college students during these incredibly formative years of their life can and should be much more intentionally connected between the local church and the para-churches that all desire the same end goal…

    to see college students become the men and women of God that He desires them to be and to be equipped to use the talents, gifts and passions that He has uniquely created them with to go out and meet the needs of a hurting world!

  8. I’ve found that a mix of the two worlds has to be considered. A few of my students who live in the dorms have found a real longing for community in families and friends outside of the university world. It seems that as much as the university setting tends to be a “liminal” state where “communitas” can be experienced among peers, there’s a desire and a reality that students know exists – out in the “real world.” Somehow, to reach the campus there needs to be an identity, but at the same time, to reach a community, a city, where they will be forced out into upon graduation, there needs to be a sense of real world living too. There definitely exists a tension between the two. (Liminality and communitas are discussed in detail in the book Exiles by Michael Frost.)

  9. Guy and Julie, thanks for your good words. I think you’re absolutely right about the need to connect students into that real world experience and to adults (and, lest we forget, little kids as well).

    And that’s just it – the way you guys (clearly) are approaching it is to apply that much-needed discipleship area to college students, on purpose and with purpose. It’s when churches act like students are already “transitioned,” as though the world they’re in doesn’t need to be considered a “Point A” that comes before the “Point B” (or by that time, maybe Point C or D) of the Real World – that’s when I’m concerned.

    (And to the original point, students also miss all the Point A Mission that is available.)

  10. I lead a local church based college ministry. Our approach is simple, but requires a lot of relational work. People in the church are involved in mentoring, or gathering a few together as “disciples” in the same fashion as Jesus did. The intention is to bring students to spiritual maturity, and equip them to form their own groups and mentor students themselves. This has the advantage of students moving in both worlds of the church and the campus.

    Historically, we know that this model was practiced by the Apostle John who gathered a group of disciples of which Polycarp was a part (Bishop of Smyrna and an early martyr of the the faith). Polycarp formed a group of disciples of whom Irenaeus was a part (a huge figure in the early church whose theological impact is still felt today). Irenaeus formed a group of whom Hippolytus was a part (another Big Dog in the early church). And on it goes…

    This is a rhythm of gathering and sending. Getting into this groove is what it is all about for us.

  11. I am a missionary to university students in France. I have been here since 1995. For my recent MTh thesis, I developed a church-based model. As you found in the USA, Benson, here in France there are various models, campus-based, parachurch, denominational, but the church-based model is yet to be adopted. Therefore, the local church is not concerned at all with reaching university students as a “tribe.”

    The local church has no approach to reaching the university world. The church, especially in large university centers, has to be sensitized to the mission field of the university. This is what I am working at doing through teaching, modeling, casting vision.

  12. Thanks so much for sharing that, Suzanne! I certainly don’t claim to know much about college ministry outside the States, so it’s good to learn more. But I’m sorry if churches there aren’t seeing the strategic and discipleship importance of reaching the “campus tribes”!

    Thanks for working to help that change!

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