growing the branches of college ministry

I believe I first outlined my classification of the “three branches” of college ministry in a post way back in February 2008 (written only a few hundred miles south of here, during the yearlong road trip). I had variously referred to those three branches before and since, including in my book:

  • Campus-based college ministry (including parachurch, denominational, and independent ministries centering their activity on the local campus)
  • Church-based college ministry (ministries overseen within individual churches)
  • Spiritual development at Christian colleges (the specific people or departments in Christian colleges dedicated to student discipleship, often called “spiritual life” or “chaplaincy”) (from Reaching the Campus Tribes, pages 17-18)

Those branches are distinguished, in my mind, by a few major things:

  • Campus integration (the connection of the ministry to the college campus, including where it centers its activity)
  • Oversight (who tends to hire, govern, and evaluate a ministry’s leaders)
  • Function (the way the ministry operates and “feels,” particularly to students)
  • Field reception (the lines the college ministry community has tended to draw between these areas)

While any of these factors might be clearer or fuzzier for an individual ministry, I do feel they fairly well delineate between the various branches. So using this terminology has been really helpful to me.

But as I continue to explore and ponder, I always want to be open to tweaking my approach! One question has especially led me to consider adding a “fourth branch” to my classification (it’s the first question listed below). But while I’m at it, I figured I would ask for further input. So if you’ve got any thoughts on these things, please fire away!

The big questions:

  1. Collegiate Church Planting is a major strategy employed on a significant number of campuses. Should it be considered a fourth branch of college ministry, or does it fit better under one of the present branches?
  2. Should campus-based ministry be split into two branches: denominational / church-related and fully parachurch?
  3. Should ministries run entirely by students be considered a separate branch of college ministry?
  4. What’s the best term for Branch #3? “Spiritual development at Christian colleges”? “Chaplaincy”? Something else?
  5. Any other adjustments you would make to this system?

Please feel free to weigh in – I’d love to hear your thoughts, arguments, questions, additions, or concerns!

written from my 7th Motel 6 in 9 days (in Vallejo, CA)


[Click to comment or see any comments on this post!]

Road Trip 13: Day 9 recap
exploring Cal State Chico, and then down to the Bay Area
T-shirt: the Fighting Illini of University of Illinois
today: Stanford and other Bay Area fun


  1. I don’t think being student led is enought to qualify you for a whole different category, but I could definitely see adding one for campus based churches and church plants. We have a student church on our campus, and it doesn’t quite fit the campus-based or church-based categories.

  2. 1. I think that collegiate church planting can go under church-based. I say this because often times, even if you are primarily based on the campus, you are going attract other people to the church as well. I have seen this at University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their church building is practically on the University of Cincinnati’s campus and they do attract a lot of student because of that. But they also have quite a number of non-college students. I will say from my few visits it didn’t seem like there was a lot of different generations in the church, however, I have little experience at that church besides visiting.

    4. As a Bible college student, I normally refer to branch 3 as “Spiritual Life [at a Christian college]”. I use the word life rather than development, just because we use other terms like “student life” and a lot of times if we were to say development, a lot of classes would be included, but at least where I am “Spiritual Life” refers more to our small groups, mentoring relationships, chapels, floor devos, etc.

  3. A couple of great comments so far – thanks, friends.

    Betsy, in response to your thought on #1, the big question is if a “classic” church-based college ministry (where the college ministry is simply one part of the larger church) is significantly different from an entire church that is purposely planted primarily for the sake of reaching a campus. But good thoughts – and that’s why I’m asking!

    As for #4, that’s definitely a good call – Spiritual Life really is probably better than Spiritual Development, for the exact reason you stated. Thanks!

    Keep the thoughts coming…

  4. Benson,

    #1 – I would agree that a collegiate and/or a campus church is a separate species using the four distinguishing areas you mention. They have a different “feel”, their governance/oversight is different, and though their integration probably looks more like the “church-based”, the proximity to campus and whether or not the church “emerges” from the campus ministry or is “planted” and the connection of the staff to the university (chaplain role, faculty, etc), can have a lot to do with how connected to campus it becomes while have an influence in the broader community.

    #2 – I would not create new “branches” for the denom/non-denom on campus. But, they do function as subcategories. I would also create a “chaplaincy” sub-category here. The chaplain role is certainly a way of doing campus ministry slightly different though from within the denom/non-denom affiliations.

    #3 – No, purely student led groups would not be a significant category for a branch Christian fraternity and sorority groups might need to be considered. Or I know there are a significant number of the ACM ministries that offer student housing. This might be a different branch.

    #4 – Christian College-based (seems to me you are looking at the locus of power/staffing/influence when you use the word “based” for the other branches). This definitely opens up subcategories like chaplaincy, spiritual life director, etc.

    In Boston, we are operating somewhere between/within the first two. I’m not sure our local church partner would consider that they have “farmed out” their college ministry. Nor would we consider ourselves a “church-based” ministry. We’re advocating for more of a nuanced hybrid of the first two.

  5. Benson, as always you are stirring the waters… good questions in the midst of some murky water!

    Here are some thoughts:

    Considering College-Church Planting… It sounds like a hybrid between your first and second branches… and I’m not so sure that it’s a good thing. It’s my growing belief that ALL campus ministry initiatives should be connected to, or point towards, the local church. This kind of “college-church” environment seems like it would keep college students on/near campus and connected primarily to one another… and I think the local church could/should offer them a different environment, surrounded by individuals of a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, ages, education levels, etc. College students need exposure to communities of faith off campus… and local (multi-generational) congregations need the passion, authenticity and flavor that ONLY college students can bring to their congregations. To create a church for JUST college students seems like a bad idea to me. I think we need to continue to see ourselves as “arms” of the local church (or missionaries from the local church) that are reaching on to campus and connecting with students right where they are at… with the hope and goal of eventually getting them into the local church. This does not mean that we stop ministering on campus – providing opportunities for worship, discipleship and outreach that are specifically and uniquely designed for college students – but that one of our primary goals should be to help students make their faith their own and become a part of a local church body.

    Considering Campus-Based Ministries (FDOs or Faith Development Organizations as we call them on our campus)… we do not separate them, but instead see them all as “affinity” based groups, or groups that come together based on something they have in common – a denominational identity, sports focus, particular style of worship, etc. Interestingly enough, on our campus, these groups are typically open to everyone, attract people outside of their “target group,” and operate in a way that make them all very similar and much less unique or distinct in regards to the name/s that they hold. The only exceptions on our campus are our Catholic community and our RUF chapter.

    Considering ministries run entirely by students… I think this is a great model for the spiritual formation and leadership development of students… but I don’t think it makes for a strong ministry model… if that makes sense. Every branch of our ministry at BU (worship, discipleship, outreach) are heavily led and directed through the leadership of students. But students leave. Their interest and commitments change. If left solely in the hands of students, even the best of student leaders, it will be hard (but not impossible) for that ministry to have any longevity. Not to mention that the student leaders would likely lack much needed accountability and mentoring the comes from trained, equipped, called and “seasoned” ministers who are not trying to juggle a full course load, social life, part-time job, etc. in the same way that most (but not all) college/student leaders do.

    Regarding an appropriate name for branch #3… possibly “institutionally-based”? Something that gets at the fact that these ministries are not just accepted on campus, but embedded in the fabric of the institution.

    I’ve said a lot here… and these are just my opinions given my experience/s.

    Thanks, Benson, for creating space for thinking and conversing!

  6. Thanks Tim (naccm) and Guy for some excellent thoughts!

    Guy, besides the concerns about collegiate church planting and student-led groups, do you feel either of those is “unique” enough to warrant its own branch (for the sake of classification, not endorsement)?

    While I agree that collegiate church planting might be considered a hybrid of church-based and campus-based, it seems to function pretty differently from either (at least along the axes I mentioned). But an even bigger key to my consideration of calling it a “fourth branch” is simply how widespread it is. It’s the major strategy employed by Great Commission Ministries and a major strategy employed by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, not to mention plenty of other plants scattered throughout the country.

    (Does anybody know of any other organizations using this as a MAJOR strategy? As far as I know Acts29 hasn’t done a bunch of collegiate church plants, but I could be wrong…)

    So my main concern (in this post, at least!) is wondering the best way to speak about our field. Any more thoughts?

  7. Yeah, saw this yesterday and have been giving it some thought. Wondering if it might be more useful to begin categorizing ministries in terms of missiological approach? Are they using a missions approach? Or not?

    Identifying ministries that are using a missional approach would help in terms of knowing who to study, and, on the flip side, who to encourage to evaluate their approach.

    Just a thought.

  8. Brian Kiley

    Great questions, Benson.

    Regarding #1: Yes, I think collegiate church plants are unique enough to qualify as a fourth branch. They are similar to the other three branches in various ways, but they are also distinct. It seems to me that a collegiate church plant is most similar to a parachuch ministry, but even then it would probably have a different infrastructure and a different connection to the campus. I share Guy’s skepticism about the value of collegiate church plants in that they can potentially isolate students demographically, but at the same time I could see how they would be potentially exciting for students (particularly the more entrepreneurial and/or mission-minded types).

    Regarding #3: Student-run ministries are not the same as parachurch ministries, but I don’t know that they require a separate category. The primary difference is obviously staffing, but aside from that I don’t see much difference. Perhaps student-run ministries could be a sub category of parachurch ministries. That being said, I do think there are some student-run Christian groups that don’t necessarily fall into the parachurch category. I was a member of a Christian fraternity at UCLA, and while we did have a ministry to the Greek community, we didn’t consider ourselves a parachurch ministry. We were, in a sense, an outside entity that supported various churches and parachurch ministries with the participation of our members, use of our facility for events, etc. For the members of the fraternity, the fraternity was a sort of spiritual supplement to go along with our participation in another ministry. I don’t think Christian fraternities and sororities warrant their own category, but they are a type of Christian on-campus organization that doesn’t fit neatly in any of the aforementioned categories.

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