The Most Strategic People Group in the World Today
by Steve Lutz
As the western world becomes increasingly post-Christian, every church and network needs a comprehensive strategy on how to make disciples of the next generation. This strategy must include planting churches with and among college students. It’s my contention that college students can not only be viewed as a distinct people group, but that they are the most strategic people group in the world today. This is a big claim, so let’s look at it one phrase at a time.
The Most Strategic
I take for granted that every church, denomination, or network employs some type of missional strategy. The question is not if you have a strategy, but whether 1) you are aware of it; 2) your functional strategy aligns with your stated strategy; and, of course, 3) how effective it is. While our vision for gospel-proclaiming, kingdom-advancing, disciple-making, church-planting movements do not change, we must constantly adapt our strategies on how best to bring this vision to fruition in our time and place.
Led by the Spirit, the early church and flourishing church movements ever since have been intentional in where, when, and how they advanced the Kingdom of God. Paul focused on major cities (especially port cities) to spread the gospel. Our college campuses are not unlike Corinth, Ephesus, and Athens in their cultural, political, and philosophical influence. Furthermore, the history of awakenings and revivals shows us that God’s strategic initiatives seem to always start with the young. In our day, there’s no better place to catalyze kingdom movements than on our college campuses.
While some might balk at applying the missiological term “people group” to college students, it is not only appropriate but necessary. College students self-identify as a distinct group, and reaching them offers contextually unique opportunities and challenges. Each campus functions like a village (or city), with its own elders, cultural norms, language, and rituals. We need to think like missionaries in order to engage them.
College campuses are not already reached fields. On the contrary, many of the campuses I’ve worked with report less than 2% of the student population actively engaged in christian fellowship, particularly in New England, the MidAtlantic, and the West Coast. Since efforts to reach them are generally not sustainable from within, this is verging on unreached people group status.
Whether technically unreached or not, there’s no denying the highly strategic nature of this people group because of who they are, when they are, and where they are.
- Who they are: academically college students are the top 7 percent of the world’s population. In 2006, they were only 1 percent of the world’s population. This is a rapidly growing, disproportionately influential group.
- When they are: they are at the last stop before settling into the rigors and demands of adult life. For many people, the college years are the key decision-making, trajectory-shaping, identity-forming chapter of their lives. The rise of the “nones” indicates that christianity increasingly does not play a part in their formation and development.
- Where they are: they are living and learning in the marketplace of ideas that ultimately shape the direction of the world. They are culturally upstream, a stream that shapes the rest of world. What’s happening on a college campus today will come to a town near you tomorrow. We need rapidly reproducing gospel movements in these places.
These “who, when, where” factors make today’s college students the most influential and powerful shapers of tomorrow. What they believe, value, and esteem as they leave college shapes organizations, institutions, and cultures for generations to come.
In the world
So far I’ve argued that this is the most strategic people group. But they have a global significance as well. Our churches and networks know the Great Commission is our mandate. College students are a people group comprised of nearly every nation on earth. The beauty of college ministry is that representatives of tribes, tongues and nations from all over the world have come to us.
In my college town, it’s easy to spot the mainland Chinese because they often drive the nicest cars: Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Bentleys, Maseratis. These cars might as well have a sign hanging on them saying, “I’m not from here, and I haven’t heard the gospel (yet).”
Many of the international students are coming from countries closed to the gospel. But they come to North America, at this highly formative stage of life. What’s more, many of these students want to know about our culture, practice our language, and see how we live.
But it’s not only international students who will make a global impact. This generation of North American students are more globally aware than ever before. They see themselves as global citizens. They highly value diversity. They embrace travel. Catalytic ministry to all types of students—international and domestic—offers a tremendous missional opportunity.
As former President of the United Nations General Assembly (and Christian) Charles Habib Malik famously said, “The university is a clear-cut fulcrum with which to move the world. The church can render no greater service, both to itself and to the cause of the gospel, than to try to recapture the universities for Christ. More potently than by any other means, change the university and you change the world.”
There’s never been a more opportune time than the present to start and grow ministries to the collegiate mission field. The growing field of collegiate church planting, in particular, has produced multiple movements that are sustainable and fruitful. These movements are relentlessly innovative around evangelism, funding models, discipleship, and church planting.
What can your church, network, or organization do to engage this critically important people group?
- Take the long view. Contrary to popular opinion, reaching students is worth the investment today, if we value the right things. And that value only increases over time.
- Make church planting in collegiate environments a priority. If you’re not sure how to start, support a movement already doing it, like Resonate.
- Begin to raise up planters and teams focused on collegiate environments.
- Partner with local ministries already on the ground to reach nearby students.
- Pray for the harvest!
What is the payoff for planting for (and with) college students today? Setting up this highly influential group on a lifetime trajectory of kingdom-advancing work. Reach college students today, and we will impact people around the world for generations to come. I can’t think of many efforts more strategic than that.