Channeling college students' zeal for Christ drew the focus of two panel discussions held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in St. Louis.
The purpose of the panels, which took place on the Cooperative Program stage in the exhibit hall at America's Center, showcased missions and ministry funded by the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists' unified giving channel.
"I've never been more encouraged about the future of the church," said Keith Weiser of Resonate Church in Pullman, Wash., and four other primarily collegiate congregations in three states. "These students, they want to be activists for the Gospel."
In Ames, Iowa, The Salt Company is a collegiate ministry that has birthed student-and-community churches in Ames, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo, Iowa. Another is set to launch this fall in Des Moines, Iowa, and another will launch next spring in Columbia, Mo.
"The university is the gateway to the nation, to our cities, to the world," said Mark Vance, director of The Salt Company. "We have to go where they [students] are."
Both collegiate ministry panels, June 14-15, were moderated by Brian Frye, collegiate strategist with the North American Mission Board. Eleven million of 27 million undergraduate college students live on campus in the United States and attend 403 universities, Frye told Baptist Press. He noted Southern Baptists have started churches related to 70 of those universities. The goal by 2026 is to have churches related to all 403 universities, Frye noted.
The Salt Company and Resonate are leading the charge.
The Salt Company's story starts with Iowa Baptists, who with the help of Cooperative Program dollars started Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames in 1959. With CP support, Oklahoma Baptists started a collegiate ministry in the 1970s on the Ames campus of Iowa State University.
When collegiate ministry directors lost their national funding in 1985, local churches took on the responsibility as best they could. Troy Nesbitt, son of Grand Avenue Baptist's pastor, Tom Nesbitt, became the college pastor of a group of about 50 ISU students. That number grew by 1994 to about 300 each week at The Salt Company's midweek meeting, about 200 of whom participated in Grand Avenue Baptist's Sunday morning worship service. About 200 non-college students also participated.
With the facilities maxed out, Troy Nesbitt suggested to his father that the college students start their own church, and Cornerstone Church was born with 200 students and 24 members of the Ames community, aided by Cooperative Program funding.
"It was a novel idea at the time to plant a 'second generation' church," Nesbitt said.
A year later, Jeff Dodge was called as Cornerstone's teaching pastor, and Nesbitt led the community side of the church, which met in a campus facility for a time. Four years after Cornerstone started, the church had grown to approximately 600 in attendance, and in 1999 a church seating 640 was built. The current worship center seats 1,300.
Mark Aaron was one who emerged from the students first engaged and then discipled by The Salt Company. Aaron took the entire staff of Salt Company small group leaders with him in 2010 when he started a new work on the campus of the University of North Iowa in Cedar Falls.
"We put on a concert and 150 showed up for it, so we jumped on board with that," Nesbitt said. "We wanted to have a church that reached the community and college students. Both reach each other."
Paul Sabino had been called in 2003 to lead The Salt Company collegiate ministry, which had continued separate from Cornerstone Church.
Sabino started Candeo Church of Waterloo in 2013. Candeo is a Latin word that means "to shine." The first year they baptized 20 college students and one person from the community. Today, 800 people participate in Candeo's Sunday morning worship services, including about 200 college students.
"We baptized 100 last year and 200 total since we started," Sabino said.
This fall, a church plant is to start in Des Moines, Iowa, and next year in Columbia, Mo.
"Don't be the last bulb on the circuit" is a pithy statement they use, Nesbitt said. With that in mind, about 30 Salt Company-related students have moved to "Mizzou," the University of Missouri in Columbia, where they will pay out-of-state tuition in order to start a church there.
Resonate's story dates to 2004, when Weiser became Baptist Collegiate Ministries director at Washington State University, he told Baptist Press before the second panel discussion. By 2007, about 50 students were involved in midweek Bible studies. That number initially dwindled to half when the ministry was re-organized into Resonate Church, a church focused on reaching college students. But within a year the new church grew to 200, of which 90 percent were students.
"Now we have 1,200 [in church on Sunday] on six sites and five universities," Weiser said. He listed Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Eastern Washington University in Cheney, University of Oregon in Eugene and the University of Idaho in Moscow, in addition to the original Resonate site in Pullman, related to Washington State University.
"We felt called to multiply our church beyond the Palouse region" of eastern Washington and western Idaho, Weiser said. "Everything we did -- and do -- is to help students understand how to take the Great Commission wherever they go, and that includes every university."
Resonate members and staff make a major thrust each semester to connect with incoming students, Weiser explained during the panel discussion. The initial welcome leads to Connect groups that evangelize and then disciple students, and that also develop leadership skills.
"We ask students to give two years of their life post-college to be part of church planting," Weiser said. "We started this last year and when we asked them to respond, 143 students expressed their desire to plant churches post-college."
Leadership development is key to the growth strategies of both The Salt Company and Resonate, the panelists noted.
"There was always a vision" for expansion, said Sabino, founding pastor of Candeo and a former director of The Salt Company. "We had a leadership track. Leaders attract leaders.
"There's no glass ceiling at The Salt Company," Sabino said. "If someone does my job better than me, let's give it to him."
An important aspect of ministry with college students is the need to let them lead, to let them make the mistakes that teach them what works and what doesn't, said Jeff Dodge, minister of education at Cornerstone Ames. "You have to let go of leadership, of teaching ministry, and instead, let them experience it."
When moderator Frye asked for reasons to invest in college students, the panelists were quick to point out those advantages.
The zeal for the Lord of newly-converted college students is a boon for the local church, said Stan Hayek, to be planter/pastor of Anthem Church in Columbia, Mo., birthed from The Salt Company.
Today's college students will change the culture tomorrow, and if they're not Christian there's no telling what they'll do with the future, said Sabino.
"Pour yourself into the next generation and see the blessing," said Dodge of Cornerstone Ames.
Watch the discussion here: