the lowdown on developing a College Student Plan

As you may remember, I’m speaking this morning at the Evangelical Free Church leadership conference. (Please pray for me!) The talk will address

  • the importance of college ministry
  • the difficult state of affairs at present (particularly within churches)
  • and how to turn that tide by developing a strong College Student Plan.

And as I’ll planning to tell the people in my seminar today, you can find much more on those topics (including more pictures!) in one of two places:

  • my free book, Reaching the Campus Tribes. In this case, it’s particularly from chapters 3 and 5 and the “Road Map Forward” final chapter – but honestly, reading the whole thing will give a more complete picture.
  • the resource I wrote for the Building Church Leaders resource, “Ministry to College Students.” Building Church Leaders is a part of the Christianity Today family, so I was especially excited they chose to address our field!

According to the publication agreement, I’m allowed to publish the article on my own site. And seeing as how this is my own site… I’m including that below, even though it’s lengthy.

(Please note: I don’t hold the copyright on this article – they do. So feel free to read it and point others to it here, but no electronic or paper copying, please. And anyway, you should check out the whole resource! It’s solid.)

The College Student Plan for Your Church
by Benson Hines for

If your church decided to begin a missions endeavor among a people group overseas, the first step would probably involve spending time developing the church’s mission plan. The church would get to know the people involved, pray through every possibility for ministry, examine the available resources, look for possible partnerships, consult other churches with similar efforts, and so on. While those with a heart for missions might hope to “jump right in,” wisdom would dictate a more deliberate approach.

Sadly, many churches fail to apply this same wisdom to their work with college students. While their intentions are good, many North American churches—big and small, contemporary and traditional—have failed to establish lasting work among college students. Not only are they ineffective in reaching students on local campuses, even their “home-grown” students are falling through the cracks.

After traveling the country examining its richest examples of college ministry work, as well as situations where collegiate work is struggling, I believe we should take our cues from the way Christians start other ministries among unique people groups. Any church’s first step in college ministry should be discerning its best College Student Plan.

The following steps should help any church find its footing in the tricky—but extremely valuable—work of college ministry.

Put Everything on the Table

Begin by placing every option for ministry on the table for consideration, and don’t jump to conclusions about which will work for you. Without realizing it, a church may miss out on the most strategic approach by making hasty assumptions.  Examples of this include assuming the ministry needs to start with a midweek gathering, patterning a ministry after the leader’s previous college ministry experiences, or too quickly deciding which local campus will receive the church’s focus. By making these decisions without first examining all of the possibilities, a church may miss the chance to discern its best Plan.

Acknowledge the Home-Grown College Students

Individuals who “graduated” from the youth group make up one of the most overlooked segments of a church’s population, even among churches that have a college ministry. While it may seem glamorous or exciting to reach students attending the big college down the street, it is important for a church decide how it will continue shepherding its home-grown members.

Reflect on the Church’s Identity

Instead of assigning a leader to grow a ministry according to his or her vision, the church’s College Student Plan should be formulated in light of what God has already called your church to be. Certainly, methodology will face some adjustment in light of meeting the particular needs of college students, but the church’s overall identity should be reflected in its College Student Plan.

  • What is our church’s DNA? What are the non-negotiable aspects of the church (stated or unstated)? Are there particular methods or a certain structure God has led its leaders to? What are the church’s “personality” and values?
  • What does—or doesn’t—our church have to offer college students? What aspects of your church might be particularly relevant or helpful for reaching out to college students? Certainly, this includes basics like the church’s proximity to campuses, its demographic makeup, its ability to invest in a budget and/or dedicated collegiate staff (now or in the future), and so on. But beyond this, examine what might be particularly attractive or fitting for college students. Are some programs clearly relevant for younger generations? Is your church likely to draw college students—not only to a college ministry, but also to our worship services? Are your church’s older members willing to love and mentor college students? (For more on this, refer to the preceding article [in the Building Church Leaders packet] “A Church’s Strengths and Drawbacks.”)

Exegete the Campus Context(s) You Plan to Reach

Some churches may find that they are only able to connect with students who grew up in their church.  This is perfectly appropriate for a College Student Plan, but those churches hoping to involve students from local colleges in their ministry must get to know the students and the mission fields they plan to reach. “Exegeting” the local campus contexts involves spending time there, prayer walking, discussing campuses with those already ministering there, connecting with present and former students, and researching campuses in other ways.

  • What are the unique characteristics of this campus? Every campus is unique. As you get to know a campus, your understanding of this unique “tribe” will grow. Many characteristics—everything from the spiritual climate to the number of students who commute to school—could have drastic effects on the eventual College Student Plan.
  • What are ministries already doing on campus? Churches should get to know other church-based or campus-based college ministries already reaching the campuses, just as missionaries do when working overseas. What are those ministries doing? What types of students attend? Are there any groups of students that seem particularly unreached?
  • What spiritual needs are evident? As you get to know the campus, look carefully for apparent spiritual needs God might want your church to address. While your church might build a ministry that lasts for years or decades, God may reveal immediate spiritual needs to help develop the College Student Plan.

[While not in the original article, Nick rightly commented that the collegiate mission field does – often – extend geographically beyond the campus, into apartment complexes, coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, and other gathering spots. The “campus context” is probably better understood as the “collegiate context,” even though the campus itself is generally one hub of that context.]

Discern Your College Student Plan

After examining the above areas, forming the best possible College Student Plan will require much thought, counsel seeking, and prayer. Take as much time as you need here before trying to build the ministry. In college ministry work, “trial and error” can have a severe cost—both for students and the ministries attempting to reach them.

As you spend time discerning your ultimate Plan, consider these final ideas:

  • Consult with other local college ministry leaders. If you plan to reach out to a local campus, one of the best ways to put the Plan together is to discuss the possibilities with other college ministry leaders there. They, too, love this mission field, and they want more students be better reached. If they believe your church wants the same thing, they should be happy to help your church think about the unique role it might play.
  • Consider potential partnerships. Every church should be open to a College Student Plan that involves partnering with other ministries—either other local churches or campus-based groups. While this won’t be everyone’s solution, it certainly parallels how foreign missions activity often takes place. Partnership can enable college ministries to more easily reach an effective size, display unity to a watching campus, learn from experienced college ministers, and share resources, leadership, and ideas.
  • It’s okay to be small. Many churches make the mistake of assuming college ministry is an all-or-nothing endeavor. But a church doesn’t have to build a full-fledged ministry to make a difference. Anything a church does to close the gap between high school and adult ministry is very valuable! For instance, a church’s College Student Plan might only involve a small teaching time for college students, or it might mean connecting students with adult mentors. At the very least, the church can always connect students to other discipleship and fellowship opportunities on their campuses.
  • Some churches will need to start a brand-new, full-fledged college ministry. Some churches will indeed decide to develop a full-fledged college ministry—with its own leader, fellowship and discipleship opportunities, special events, and other activities. Building a strong ministry begins by formulating a strong College Student Plan. The church must also be willing to invest enough financially to give the ministry room to grow. Once the Plan and leader are in place, the church must be patient; healthy college ministries often take at least two to three years to show much growth or identity.
  • Every church that encounters college students should have its own College Student Plan. It is my hope that many churches who purposefully work out their College Student Plan will arrive at an altogether unique solution for their church. Every college campus is different, and every church is different. So it seems obvious that every College Student Plan should be somewhat different, too. Therefore, even if your church decides on a fairly “traditional” College Student Plan, it should be based on what you have discovered about your church and its unique mission field—not on what anyone else is doing.

Every church that encounters college students must decide how it plans to impact them. Just like a foreign missionary, your job is to discern the very best Plan for reaching particular people at this particular time. As you spend the necessary time to understand your mission field and the practical possibilities for reaching it, God will lead your church to a specific College Student Plan that fits it best.

—Benson Hines; © 2009 Christianity Today International / [So again, please support me and those guys by not copying this article.]


  1. Again, I really like that this gives churches something tangible and intentional, without every church needing to start a traditional, stand-alone collegiate ministry, or merely outsourcing it to someone like me.

    Really good stuff here for exegeting a church and the collegiate context it’s in.

    I would open up the campus contexts section to include non-campus contexts. There may well be a church that, because of culture, proximity, or some other reason, would do much better reaching students in a nearby pub/coffee shop/bookstore/etc. than on campus, or would do best to be amongst a specific subculture of the broader campus culture that will take them on and off campus. This would be a great help to a campus minister like myself, as it would fit nicely under the umbrella of the broader, multi-sub-cultural campus ministry, and could potentially either help us bless and be amongst a subculture we aren’t presently amongst, or help us to disciple a subculture we already know, love, and bless.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Nick. Thanks for that word.

    When college students are places other than the college campus, in my head I still include that in the “campus context.” But it needs to be explained better – I’ll make that change above. The point is to connect with this “tribe” in all the ways we can, so we definitely want to examine what that means geographically, too. And lots of schools – community colleges are the most noticeable, but there are plenty of others – have a very spread-out “collegiate context.”


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