Why do campus ministers make such good church planters?

Ricky Jones  |  June 28, 2017

I have been asked this question dozens of times in different forms over the years. So much so that I think I actually have an answer. First let me give a little caveat: nobody really knows why anybody is successful in the church. We planted RiverOaks Presbyterian Church almost 12 years ago, and all I know is this: I worked really hard and God built a church. Sometimes he used that work, and sometimes he shocked me with unexpected windfalls.  I thought this “not knowing” was my little secret for years, but recently I have had the courage to come clean about my ignorance, and every church planter I know agrees. We don’t really know why some church planters “succeed,” so we just give thanks when they do.

That being said, over 75 campus ministers have left RUF to plant churches and most of them are still thriving. That success rate is impressive, so let’s look at some commonalities that might explain it.

RUF campus ministers have experience building a group. When you walk onto a college campus as an RUF minister, ultimately, everything is on you. If you have a group at the end of the year, it is because of something you have done. If you never get traction, then you need to learn from those mistakes, and you have no one else to blame. The great news is, in a few months you get another semester to try again. This experience teaches the campus minister three important skills.

The campus minister learns to deal with pressure. I have done everything I can to surround myself with good colleagues, elders, mentors and friends, yet all of that safety net does not insulate me from one fact: the success of this church depends upon me more than any other mere human. Campus ministry provides the only place I know where you can both experience this entrepreneurial pressure to build something or fail, and yet give you a safety net to learn from your mistakes.

Second, he learns to preach in a way that communicates. In all my experience preaching in churches I have noticed one thing, even if the sermon is terrible the crowd comes back. They come back for the worship, the community, and a sundry of other great spiritual reasons. RUF students do not share that characteristic. If you waste a college student’s time with a vague, impractical, or hard to understand sermon you probably will not get a second chance. This fact does not mean you have to become an entertainer. Students want to hear what the Bible has to say, but you must learn to say it clearly, succinctly, and practically. That knowledge changes how you preach; it makes you preach to the real people sitting in front of you. It makes you a better pastor.

Third, he learns to develop leaders. Once your ministry starts growing, its size will be limited to the number of people you have doing the work. If you want to reach more than a handful of people, you have to train students to do ministry. The college campus also has quick turnover, a whole new student body every 4 years. So the necessity of training leaders never stops. This essential skill faces the church planter in his first year of work. The RUF experience teaches you how to identify, train, and mentor leaders who will do the work of the ministry.

Finally, RUF campus ministers get experience off the campus too. They learn to raise support. Raising support from donors is a very emotional and difficult job. Asking people for money is humbling, and requires effort in maintaining relationships. Church planters have to raise at least $250,000 to get started, often much more. That task terrifies people who have never done it before. A campus minister understands how to love and pastor the people who provide for them. He understands how to communicate with donors and when to know that you have overextended their grace. Without that skill, the pressure of raising money alone is enough to paralyze many ministers with dread. Again, thankfully RUF teaches you to do it on a smaller scale so you are ready to do it for bigger stakes.

I am sure there are many more reasons why campus ministers seem ready to be church planters, but ultimately I think it comes down to experience under pressure. They have experience relying on God to build a group, and to raise money. Those two skills ultimately define a church planters success.