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‘Lostness’ on campuses needs church plant ‘multiplication’

PULLMAN, Wash. (BP) — Rob Warren felt a bit lonely as he trekked from Ohio to Washington State.

A church planter on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Warren joined 85 other collegiate ministry leaders for three days of learning at Resonate Church’s plants at Washington State University in Pullman and the University of Idaho in Moscow.

“Sometimes you just feel alone — like ‘Are we the only ones doing collegiate church planting?'” said Warren, pastor of a church named h2o at the Ohio campus. “You’re looking to yourself to figure out what you should do next, but then you come here and you engage all of these other collegiate church planters and hear their stories. We can swap ideas.”

The “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Resonate” conference was sponsored by the North American Mission Board at one of the fastest-multiplying Southern Baptist collegiate church plants in North America.

Many of those who attend campus church plants learned to drive during the Obama administration. Part-time earners provide a large portion of the tithes. And the plants face a turnover in membership every four to five years.

It’s easy for a collegiate church planter to think he’s struggling through such challenges by himself.

Resonate (experienceresonate.com) — which was featured in a video at last summer’s SBC annual meeting in Houston — began in 2007 when Keith and Paige Wieser and a handful of others started the church to reach the 20,000-plus students at Washington State University.

By the 2013-14 school year, Resonate’s attendance had climbed to more than 800. They’ve also grown to four locations throughout Pullman, Wash., and Moscow, Idaho. This fall, Resonate will launch a church plant on the campus of Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

It’s the church’s focus on growth by multiplication rather than addition that NAMB’s national collegiate strategist Brian Frye (@brifrye) wanted to introduce to collegiate ministry leaders. With 21 million college students in the United States and Canada, growth by addition won’t effectively reach all of them. Southern Baptists are actively connected with more than 75,000 students and have a direct relationship with nearly 300,000 others through more than 850 Baptist Collegiate Ministry centers across the United States. About 10,400 of the students impacted by BCM ministry are from other countries.

God began to open Wieser’s eyes to the need for multiplication when he came face to face with the daunting numbers in the spring of 2011.

“We had some significant growth, but compared to the lostness on our campuses, it’s still not significant enough,” Wieser (@keithwieser) said. “That was the moment where I had to think through reverse engineering. I was thinking how do we grow a church, not how do we reach a campus. Multiplication had to be mandatory — not just growing. I can’t be OK with just growing a church. I have to be OK with growing a church that actually has a chance to reach these campuses.”

The shift was tough, as the staff focused on training students to do ministry rather than doing it themselves. They began a relentless look at all they do — how they make disciples, how they initiate spiritual conversations and how they start small groups (which they call villages).

Multiplication comes with costs beyond dollars and cents, Wieser noted to the collegiate ministry leaders at the conference. For Resonate, it has come at the expense of numerical growth. Although new services have given Resonate the opportunity to give leaders places to serve, it has often meant draining some of the energy and people from existing services. Wieser believes the church would be numerically larger now if it had not started the new services — but it wouldn’t be nearly as prepared for future growth by multiplication.

Leaders also discussed Resonate’s “script” during the March 28-30 conference. Frye said the “script” — a written plan of what it looks like to turn new believers into disciples and eventually church planters — makes church planting a clear outcome for emerging leaders.

“When you script what you’re doing, you’re giving direction as to what comes next,” Frye said. “So many times we don’t tell people how to get involved post-graduation. That’s what is so great about the concept of a script. When students leave, they see getting involved in church planting as a key next step.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Resonate is part of a larger conversation Frye has initiated with collegiate leaders throughout North America. Two similar gatherings are planned for 2015 to help collegiate leaders engage with one another.

A variety of collegiate leaders and church leaders in collegiate contexts attended the conference — including on-campus Baptist Collegiate Ministry leaders, collegiate church planters and leaders from non-collegiate churches in communities with significant student populations.

Even in a more traditional Baptist Collegiate Ministry context at the University of Arkansas, campus minister Cole Penick said what he experienced at Hitchhiker’s Guide to Resonate will help in reaching out to students.

“We’re in the process of moving out of our building,” Penick said. “Seeing what that looked like at Resonate, that swarm of volunteers, seeing them take ownership, seeing the leadership development potential was really affirming of that decision.”
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.
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  • Tobin Perry