The Palouse is a fertile belt of land stretching sixty by one hundred twenty miles in the southeast corner of Washington and western Idaho.
It is without question, the highest yielding, non-irrigated farmland in North America, and it happens to be one of the richest soils for collegiate church planting in the nation.
Nestled in a hilly landscape much like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Shire from the The Lord of the Rings, Pullman, Washington, is home to Washington State University (WSU) and Resonate Church (@resonate_church), an early innovator in the broadening collegiate church movement.
The idea of Resonate began as Keith Wieser (@keithwieser) asked the question, “How can our Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) reach this whole campus?”
Keith and his wife Paige met and married through the Baptist collegiate work at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas and arrived at Pullman in 2004 to do collegiate ministry at WSU. The Wiesers had been strongly impacted by the Gospel through the work of Southern Baptist collegiate ministry and wanted to share that impact in the Northwest.
When the Wiesers arrived, they inherited a modest ministry program running about thirty-five students, but the lostness of the campus haunted them. Keith and Paige had considered planting a church before moving to Washington. Now they sensed God calling them to transition their BCM into a church plant on campus among collegians.
So with the support of a local SBC church, the Northwest Baptist Convention, the North American Mission Board, and ministry partners nationwide, the Wiesers and a team of student missionaries launched Resonate Church in August 2007. What happened next exceeded all their expectations.
On their first preview weekend, Resonate tripled the number of their group with 190 in attendance. In shock, they scrapped their planned sequence of preview services, deciding to continue the next week. More than 150 came, and by year’s end 230 were worshipping regularly at Pullman.
The following year, church planting catalyst Gary Irby urged the young church to consider expanding to the University of Idaho eight miles away in Moscow, Idaho. Resonate leaders and students accepted the challenge, which proved to be timely wisdom. Seven years later (2013), Resonate is a thriving multi-site collegiate church averaging 850 in worship. This fall Resonate will begin the semester with two services at the University of Idaho and two at Washington State.
Resonate’s passion, however, extends far beyond the Palouse region.
To date, Resonate has inspired and been involved with two more collegiate church plants in underserved areas with little or no Baptist presence, The Branch at Oregon State University (Corvallis, Oregon) and The Edge Church at Eastern Washington University (Cheney, Washington).
Wieser and the Resonate leadership team are now setting their sights on other colleges and universities across Washington and Idaho and into the neighboring states of Wyoming, Utah, and Montana.
The collegiate church concept may appear to be novel; but some collegiate churches date back to the 1980s. About nine hundred miles south of Resonate, for example, another collegiate church is nearing its twenty-fifth year reaching into one of the most prestigious and influential institutions on the West Coast—the University of California, Berkeley.
Gracepoint Berkeley, led by pastor Ed Kang, began as a congregation focused primarily on Korean students. Kang was a part of Gracepoint as a student, and after practicing law for several years, sensed God’s call to lead the church that had been so vital to his own life and to the spiritual vitality of other students at his alma mater. Like Wieser, Kang recognized student’s needs for the Gospel, and he similarly began to ask the question of how to make more disciples at Berkeley.
That question proved pivotal.
Two decades later, Gracepoint provides a strong example of how a collegiate church can look once it has matured. Gracepoint now owns facilities in Alameda, California, fourteen miles from the campus, but the entire congregation maintains a laser focus on reaching the students of Berkeley.
On Sunday mornings Gracepoint families meet for early morning worship at their Alameda venue, complete with childcare and family programming for all ages. Following an early lunch, the church family disperses around the Bay Area to share the Gospel through Gracepoint’s specialized community ministries.
At 12:30 pm, Gracepoint begins its second service in a rented facility adjacent to the Berkeley campus. On a weekly basis, eight hundred college students gather for worship. While the worship gathering is inspiring, the strength and potency of Gracepoint is their small groups, student organizations, and campus activity systems. Gracepoint is dedicated to raising fruit-bearing multiplying disciples.
AN EXPANDING VISION
While Gracepoint has seen success, their vision for impacting collegians with the Gospel is even bigger. When asked whether Gracepoint satisfies the ministry needs for the campus, Kang answered with a resounding No!
“We need another ten churches on campus. We’ve tried to help others start churches here, and we welcome those who’d like to plant at Berkeley,” he said.
The vision of Gracepoint extends well beyond Berkeley.
“Gracepoint labors to see an Acts 2 church in every college town. And so we focus on college ministry, planting churches in college towns, and encouraging every one of our members to live in loving, sacrificial service, and ministry,” Kang said.
That vision is being realized with churches planted at the University of California, Davis, the University of California, Riverside, the University California, San Diego, the University of Texas, the University of Minnesota, and in Hsinchu, Taiwan. In the fall Gracepoint will launch another church at the University of California, Los Angeles.
AN EMERGING COLLEGIATE CHURCH PLANTING MOVEMENT IN NORTH AMERICA?
Collegiate church planting is not exclusively a West Coast phenomenon. Collegiate churches, made up of a majority of college students, university staff, and other members in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, can be found in Canadian cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, in Eastern cities like Amherst and Lowell, Massachusetts, and Harrisonburg, Virginia, and across the Midwest in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
Steve Lutz argues that reaching college students is strategically important for three reasons (Collegiate Ministry in a Post-Christian Context) :
1. Because of “who they are”—academically they are “the top 1 percent of the world’s population” and they are the group who will lead and influence tomorrow’s world.”
2. Because of “when they are”—other than the first five years of life, the college years are in the most formative life stage before one settles into the rigors and limits of adult life.
3. Because of “where they are”—they are living and learning at the hearth of ideas and innovation that significantly impact the direction of cultures and societies globally.
Like Lutz, collegiate church leaders Wieser and Kang understand the vital role the university experience plays in shaping the trajectories of students’ lives and see the influence that college graduates play in shaping culture. They understand that, in many ways, as goes the campus, so goes the world.
Because of this reality, they are leveraging their lives and ministries to plant churches on or near college campuses. Ultimately, their goals are to send pastors, staff teams, and a core of students to plant new churches on campuses throughout North America.
ARE COLLEGIATE CHURCHES THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE?
Currently, Southern Baptist Collegiate ministries nationally are seeing over seventy-five thousand collegians “actively engaged” across more than eight hundred collegiate ministry groups.
But when compared to the over 20.7 million collegians in the United States and Canada, many of whom attend universities with little or no evangelical witness, it’s clear that a tremendous need still exists to reach and disciple students through the addition of more ministry units.
While early in its development, the collegiate church planting concept provides another strong channel to start and multiply collegiate reaching units, especially in areas where no Southern Baptist churches currently exist.
Combined with current collegiate reaching strategies like Baptist Collegiate Ministry, Christian Challenge, and church-to-campus ministries, collegiate church planting offers another valuable method for reaching university students with the Gospel.
COLLEGIANS AT THE EPICENTER OF GOSPEL MOVEMENTS
History shows that college students are frequently at the epicenter of spiritual awakening and evangelistic movements.
In 1806, for example, Samuel Mills and a group of four collegians initiated an international mission movement known as the Haystack Awakening.
Eighty years later, two hundred students gathered at Mount Hermon, Massachusetts, for a month of prayer and Bible study. From that gathering, individuals like Luther Wishard and John R. Mott emerged calling for “the evangelization of the world in this generation” through the Student Volunteer Movement (SVM).
More than twenty-one thousand students eventually went out as missionaries through the SVM. In response to SVM and its impact, Southern Baptists began establishing Baptist Student Unions on college and university campuses across the South.
COLLEGIATE CHURCHES AS THE NEXT COLLEGE REACHING MOVEMENT
Perhaps God is preparing Southern Baptists and the broader evangelical family for another student-led movement.
Maybe in the next few years a collegiate church planting movement will burgeon, and a collegiate church plant may appear on a university campus near you.
When that happens, if that happens, let us pray that Southern Baptists will be involved at the local level, celebrating what God has done (and continues to do) through our combined efforts to reach and disciple college students.
At the same time, let’s pray that God will give Southern Baptists the resolve to embrace and champion all viable means to share Christ with and make disciples of the 20.7 million collegians in North America.
Article and sidebars by Brian Frye, collegiate evangelism strategist with the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio, national collegiate strategist with the North American Mission Board, and a member of Lifepoint Church, Lewis Center, Ohio.