5 Reasons Most Churches Don’t Reach College Students

There are over 384,000 evangelical churches in the U.S. today, and there are some 5,300 colleges and universities, if you count everything from beauty schools to Harvard. The college campus is a relatively small percentage of the population, but it is a powerful percent that influences the culture at large. The college campus is a bottleneck through which almost every leader of this generation will pass at some point. Even though the number of college students at any given moment is a small percentage of the overall population, the amount of people who pass through the campus is amazing.

The sad reality is that most college campuses are filled with thousands of lost young people who are broken and searching for direction with only a handful of under-resourced college ministries seeking to make an impact on the campus. The harvest truly is plentiful and the laborers are few. Many college campuses in our nation are less than 2 percent reached, which missiologists would qualify as an unreached people group.

It would take a whole series of articles to list the reasons college students are so strategic, but here are three quick thoughts.

First, they are incredibly open to the gospel. People often come to Christ in trouble and transition. Going to college is the first major transition in someone’s life. Students are also increasingly troubled and depressed. We have discovered that almost every student on our campus is open to the spiritual conversations if approached in a relational and intentional way. God is already working in so many students’ lives. This school year our college ministry saw 160 students indicate decisions to follow Jesus using simple and relational tools like gospel appointments.

Second, they have the time and desire to be mentored and trained as leaders. There is a hunger in this generation to be mentored, and they have more time for that now than they ever will in their life.

Third, colleges can become a “leadership pipeline” for future church planting and missions. College students have their entire lives ahead of them.

In an interview with Exponential on essentials for movement in a city, Tim Keller said, “You have to have a leadership pipeline developing, and that usually happens through campus work. You have to have really dynamic college ministry. You have to have a campus leadership pipeline. Otherwise the church planting doesn’t continue.”

God is calling many students in our ministry to dream big dreams for advancing the kingdom, including becoming long-term international missionaries, planting new churches and starting new college ministries. This generation is looking for a cause worth living and dying for, and we have the greatest cause on earth.

So why don’t most churches invest in reaching college students?


1. Churches are thinking more about addition than multiplication.

Most church leaders don’t fully understand the ripe opportunity and exponential benefits of reaching college students. Churches that are focused on reaching college students have not traditionally been celebrated as models to follow in books and conferences. Reaching college students is not one of the keys to building a suburban megachurch. What I have noticed, though, is that having a vibrant college ministry is almost always one of the elements of a church that is constantly sending out new church plants and missionaries. It’s the difference between addition and multiplication.

In an interview with Outreach magazine, J.D. Greear shares that a turning point for the Summit Church was when they started reaching college students. One of the keys to their vision of planting 1,000 churches in this generation is the training and mobilization of the college students in their congregation. They are currently focusing on sending out new church plants to college towns to further accelerate the multiplication of new churches, because college students are a secret sauce for church multiplication.

Churches like Antioch in Waco, Texas, and Cornerstone in Ames, Iowa, started by primarily reaching college students but have multiplied into rapidly multiplying multi-generational church movements. Other campus-based churches like Resonate Church in Pullman, Washington and the Collegiate Church Network are seeing rapid church multiplication as they send teams of recent graduates to plant new churches on college campuses.

Resonate Church is pursuing a vision to plant 21 new churches on college campuses in the Northwest by 2021, and they are on pace to do it. Traditional collegiate ministries like the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at University of Oklahoma, led by Max Barnett, have been used by God to multiply churches and ministries, with at least 100 new college ministries being started during Max’s career.

College students may not grow your church, but if they are trained well they can multiply disciples around the world. “One-fourth of the world’s college students are in North America, and they represent the most reachable, recruitable, trainable and sendable category of persons on the planet. College students will go where others won’t. They will believe it can be done when others doubt. They are waiting for someone like you to love them, serve them, look deeply into their eyes and say—with Steve Shadrach, author of The Fuel and The Flame—“Would you join me in reaching the entire world for Jesus Christ?”

2. It’s not easy to get started.

It takes an equipped leader and a lot of time to get the first batch of student leaders ready to carry the vision forward. My wife Christy and I started our college ministry from scratch 9 years ago, and we toiled the first two years to get 12 student leaders who could start laboring with us on campus. Once we had a solid batch of equipped student leaders, our impact on campus doubled that year, and has multiplied since then.

This year we are seeing our student leaders lead new students to Christ almost every week. We used a variety of missional methods to reach students from the start but it was a battle every step of the way. The cost was great, but the rewards are greater. College ministry leaders must learn to think more like missionaries than pastors if they are going to see lost students come to Christ on campus.

Starting a college ministry can be very difficult, but it doesn’t have to be complex. At the end of the day it’s about building relationships, sharing the gospel broadly and discipling deeply. With some training, someone in your church could do it. That is why I wrote the short ebook Tips for Starting A College Ministry with key principles on which to focus when starting a ministry. Starting a college ministry can be a great first ministry assignment for someone exploring a call to church planting or missions. If you have someone that might want to start a college ministry, I would love to help train them. Email me.

3. Churches are thinking short-term.

The honest reason many churches don’t invest in college students is that it doesn’t make short-term financial sense. Reaching college students does not immediately add to the church’s financial bottom line. There is an endless number of financial needs a church has, and college ministry, quite simply, falls to the bottom of the list.

However, there are creative options for funding a college ministry. A church could pursue a partnership with national campus ministry organization or they could consider a “hybrid approach” and start their own church-based campus ministry, and have their leaders raise support through the church.

More and more churches are realizing that they don’t have to play by the traditional rules of how college ministry has been done. As our college campuses become more and more of a “blue ocean,” the turf wars that sometimes have defined college ministry have become less of an issue. I have noticed a growing trend of churches raising up college ministry staff who raise support to work on campus alongside a specific local church. Often this results in a direct funnel of students they are reaching on campus into the local church.

Many church leaders are unfamiliar with or skeptical of the biblical model of support raising so they are reluctant to adopt this proven strategy for funding a college ministry and raising up staff. Nine years ago, my wife and I decided to start a college ministry in partnership with a smaller church, and raise our support so that we could focus on reaching the campus full time. God has provided in supernatural ways and now we have 12 full-time staff who raise support, and the church has doubled in size over the course of that time.

If it’s God’s will, it’s God’s bill. There is a growing number of alumni from our ministry who are tithing to this local church as well as serving as key leaders in the church. Starting a missional college ministry will not immediately help the budget or even the attendance numbers, but long-term will produce a pipeline of leaders for the church.

4. Churches assume that the parachurch has got it covered.

God is using parachurch ministries in amazing ways to reach, disciple and send students to the nations. They also do an excellent job sharing their stories and ministry impact. The downside of this is that churches can get the impression that the parachurch organization doesn’t really need their help (besides giving and prayer, of course).

Most leaders of parachurch campus ministries I know long for meaningful partnerships with local churches. Pursuing a meaningful partnership with a campus ministry organization can be an excellent way for a church to get involved in reaching college students.

Campus ministries have some of the most committed long-term leaders and proven strategies and systems that will help accelerate your ability to reach students. The problem comes when churches assume that if they simply give a little bit of money to a campus ministry that this will automatically result in students flocking to their churches. That is not how it works. It takes true partnership, a relationship with campus ministry leaders and a healthy church culture that is actually attractive to college students.

There are many stories of meaningful partnerships between local churches and campus ministry organizations that are producing amazing fruit. Partnering with a solid parachurch organization may be the perfect way for your church to reach college students.

5. Church leadership culture treats college ministry as a junior varsity calling.

The sad reality is that being called into college ministry is not celebrated in the same way as someone called to be a pastor or a church planter. Several times people have asked me, “When are you going to become a real pastor?” They mean it as a compliment, implying I am too gifted to still be doing college ministry.

The truth of the matter is college students are some of the most unreached and strategic people on the planet. The church needs some of its best troops focusing on one of the most strategic battlefields.

“The university is the clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world. More potently than by any other means, change the university and you will change the world.” —Charles Malik, former secretary-general of the United Nations

Many seminaries and church-based training programs don’t have a track for those called into college ministry. It is rarely even presented as one of the options when someone expresses a call into vocational ministry. We need more college ministry leaders who become “lifers;” who don’t see college ministry as a steppingstone to becoming a “real pastor.”

We need more leaders who can become examples and mentors to younger leaders in college ministry. The field of college ministry is very siloed and underdeveloped. There are only a handful of books and websites aimed at helping the church reach college students. That is why I am so passionate about networks, like Collegiate Collective, that are encouraging and resourcing those who are called to reach college students. It’s my prayer that college ministry would become an increasingly celebrated calling as more and more churches get in the game of reaching the campus.

Which of these reasons for not reaching college students does your church struggle with the most?

What can your church start doing in order to reach college students?

Paul Worcester is founder and director of Christian Challenge at Chico State University in Chico, California. Paul helps lead Collegiate Collective and Campus Ministry Today, and is the author of the free eBook Tips for Starting A College Ministry.

Paul Worcester
Paul Worcester

Paul Worcester and his wife, Christy, lead Christian Challenge at California State University, Chico, where they seek to introduce college students to Jesus and raise up multiplying disciples. Paul recently founded Campus Multiplication Network with the goal of training leaders to multiply ministries and churches around the world. Paul is the author of Tips for Starting a College Ministry and the co-author, with Steve Shadrach, of the new edition of The Fuel and The Flame: Igniting Your College Campus For Jesus Christ.