the largest 100 churches & the usual


That’s how many of Outreach Magazine‘s 2009 100 largest churches I’ve gotten to visit for a weekend service in the last TWO years. And that’s only a fraction of my total church visits, which number around 250 different churches I’ve attended – for a weekly worship service – since August 2007. Many of those churches have likewise been quite famous, extremely influential, or on similar “lists” within the past several years.

You can see most of those churches right here (though the list is only updated through 2008 right now).

Attending worship services has certainly been one highlight of my road trips around the U.S. Every church I visit – small or big, famous or little-known – provides the chance to see “living Christian history.” It’s also a unique experience as a Church Visitor to-the-extreme – an experience that I imagine few, if any, have ever duplicated in such a short time. There’s plenty you start to notice, get the chance to ponder, and begin to imagine in hundreds of visits all crammed into a couple of years.

But though I’d love to share all those things someday, this is a college ministry blog.

Along the way, I’ve been able to sit with many of those same churches’ college ministers, or otherwise examine whatever College Student Plans these churches might have in place. And sadly, as I write in my ebook,

Right now, the entire practice of building new church-based college ministries seems rather hit or miss, and this is hurting Christ’s cause among students. We need a different “usual.” …

Surprisingly, this struggle for college ministry success takes place even in churches we might think would have specific advantages. Two types of churches in particular come to mind: churches famously effective in other areas and churches that are especially “contemporary.” In both cases, there appears to be no clear preponderance of college ministry success in these types of congregations.

During my trip, I explored the college ministries in many of America’s largest, fastest-growing, most historic, and most influential churches. Only a small number of these churches were presently experiencing clear, long-lasting college ministry effectiveness. But a large number reported struggling in this area, and some had little or no specific ministry to collegians. …

While both highly popular churches and contemporary churches often draw many college-age people, specialized discipleship, ongoing campus outreach, and healthy assimilation are not always evident. (Reaching the Campus Tribes, pp. 29-30)

Don’t get me wrong – it’s still been a pleasure visiting these churches. I’m truly excited about what they’re involved in for God’s Kingdom. And certainly not all of them need to build traditional, full-fledged college ministries – in fact, many of them probably shouldn’t. (I talk about that in my book, too.) It’s just a sad fact that in many of these celebrated churches, instead of forming an (absolutely necessary) College Student Plan, there exists a complete collegiate attention gap.

When that’s the case, even home-grown youth are offered little or no connection as college students – whether they attend school nearby or away. And reaching out to local campuses has proven turbulent at best, if it’s been attempted at all.

Too few churches are willing to go about college ministry in the ways required for success, and college ministers (or college ministries) are regularly disposed of long before they have the chance to build-to-last.

But there are, without a doubt, exceptions. Among the many famous, huge, and fast-growing churches I have connected with, there are several that do seem to have practiced quality college ministry over a long period of time. Yet as we all look for wisdom about how to do ministry better – whether we serve in churches or on campuses – it’s important to realize: There’s simply no clear correlation between church fame and successful ministry to college students, whether home-grown or attending local schools.

In this area, we do indeed need a different usual.

The churches I visited through December 2008 can be seen here.

Additional thoughts along these lines can be found in The Surprisingly Unmissional Approach to College Ministry.


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  1. If college ministry is innately missionary (as you often claim), then wouldn’t it make sense for there to be little correlation between churches that are successful in the attractional/Sunday worship centered/seeker sensitive mode (the sort that end up in a lot of pop Christian books) and those that do well on campus?

  2. Absolutely, Nick – and that’s a great point. But these churches often don’t even have “attractional” college ministry that has shown effectiveness for the long haul. There is always that option; even if it only reaches students who are already attending the church, that would be a benefit. But even by their own measures of success (which I’m not trying to knock here, by the way), they haven’t seen much.

    But to your point, many of those sorts of churches have still had major impact in their cities (missionally) or, well, in missions! Many could establish excellent campus missions… many just don’t.

    Also, my visits have been to many of those churches that are famous for their missional nature, and the above still applies. I just used the 100 Largest as the “hook” for this post since Outreach just released the list.

  3. Yup, no critique of any church’s style implied; merely pointing out that the two categories seemed disparate enough to me that I didn’t necessarily expect to find correlation. Regardless, your point is good and true: churches that are effective in a lot of different ways are consistently not discipling or overtly trying to disciple college students. In a city of 1 million+, we don’t have nearly as many options as we’d like when we want to recommend a church to students that is accessible from campus and has a place for them.

  4. Pingback: surprises from the journey(s) « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

  5. dailycross

    Hi Benson,

    Great post. My name is Zeke McManis. I am just starting out as a college pastor in a fast growing church. Obviously as a new ministry we want to have a quality ministry that makes an impact. You mentioned in your post, “Among the many famous, huge, and fast-growing churches I have connected with, there are several that do seem to have practiced quality college ministry over a long period of time.”

    Do you happen to remember what ministries came to mind when you wrote this years ago? I am looking to do some research of my own in this area and would love to maybe visit those churches myself. I am also going to read your book and have looked at some stuff by Chuck Bomar as well.

    Thanks for your work in this area.

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