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Southern Baptist student ministry celebrates diamond anniversary

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In a small office overlooking the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn., something started 75 years ago that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of decisions for Christ, at least that many young people becoming involved in career or short-term missions projects and millions of dollars being raised for international and North American missions.
That “something” was Southern Baptist work among college students, a ministry the late Frank Leavell launched with two desks, a typewriter, a stenographer and a dream.
The dream got a name two years later when Baptist college students agreed on the title “Baptist Student Union” for their on-campus organizations. What began as a presence on a dozen campuses in the South grew into a ministry that has touched all 50 states and dozens of countries around the world.
“I’m convinced student ministry is one of Southern Baptists’ best-kept secrets,” Bill Henry, director of the Baptist Sunday School Board’s national student ministry (NSM), said. He is celebrating student work’s diamond anniversary Aug. 10-15 with students and leaders attending Student Week conferences in Glorieta, N.M., and Lake Junaluska, N.C.
“Most Southern Baptists don’t realize they have the largest collegiate ministry in the nation,” Henry said, adding the program is bigger than Campus Crusade, Navigators and InterVarsity combined. Last year alone, more than 237,000 students on nearly 1,000 campuses were reached through SBC student ministry.
“But it’s not the size of our ministry that excites me,” Henry said. “I’m proud of the difference that is being made in the lives of college students. Thousands are finding Christ, growing in their faith and acting on it in their everyday lives. This is an incredibly important investment for Southern Baptists.”
Henry said SBC student work in 1996 resulted in 5,500 professions of faith. In addition, students gave $3.2 million to support missions, sent out 27,000 student missionaries and helped start 362 new churches or missions.
Supporting missions is nothing new for Southern Baptist college students. In fact, Henry said some historians have credited collegians with saving the Cooperative Program.
Faced with two embezzlement scandals, the stock market crash and the approaching depression, the survival of the SBC in the mid- to late 1920s was in doubt. The Cooperative Program was launched in 1925 to promote denominational unity and channel church offerings for missions.
The CP was slow catching on until Leavell ignited a fire in the hearts of college students. By the thousands in the ’20s and ’30s, they delivered inspirational messages in Southern Baptist churches across the country, urging support for the program and greater loyalty to the local church.
It worked. The Cooperative Program became a Southern Baptist success story that continues to support thousands of missionaries around the world.
According to the book, “Southern Baptist Student Work, A History,” by Lynn E. May Jr. and A. Ronald Tonks, the financial crisis of the late 1920s also resulted in Southern Baptist student work being transferred from Memphis to the Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville. Publisher of the ministry’s magazine, “The Baptist Student,” since its inception in 1922, the BSSB was instructed in 1928 to accept all financial obligations for the work and serve as the “official agency for student activities of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Since that time, Southern Baptist student ministry has experienced many milestones, including the following which were listed in a special 50th anniversary issue of “The Student” magazine in January 1972:
— 1934: Beginning of worldwide cooperation with student work through the Baptist World Alliance.
— 1936: BSU work begun in China and Japan during a visit by Leavell.
— 1939: BSU work begun in South America during a visit by Leavell.
— 1947: BSU-sponsored student summer missions initiated.
— 1948: 20,000 students enlisted to do Vacation Bible School work.
— 1949: Student summer missions to foreign fields begins; Leavell dies.
— 1950: G. Kearnie Keegan named secretary of the Student Department.
— 1953: On-to-College Day initiated as a way for churches to recognize graduating high school seniors planning to attend college.
— 1960: Circulation of “The Baptist Student” reaches 30,000; Keegan dies.
— 1961: David K. Alexander named secretary of the Student Department.
— 1968: SBC authorizes a three-year study of student work.
— 1969: Charles M. Roselle named secretary of the Student Department.
— 1970: “The Baptist Student” is changed to “The Student;” student department changed to national student ministries.
— 1972 50th anniversary of Southern Baptist student work.
According to Henry, the ’70s was a decade of “tremendous growth” for BSUs across the country. The number of on-campus ministries exploded and, by the mid-’70s, the number of BSU directors totaled almost 900.
Two other items of note in the ’70s were “Mission ’70,” the first in a series of national missions conferences held every five years, and the creation of “Friendship International House,” a hospitality and ministry program which places international students in the homes of Southern Baptist families during the holidays.
Charles Roselle retired in 1983 and Charles Johnson, then state campus ministry director of Missouri, was chosen as his successor. Johnson’s 12-year tenure was marked by the creation of a National Evangelism Task Force (NET Force) which creates student evangelism programming on an annual basis and an increased emphasis on local church ministry to college students.
The ’80s and early ’90s also were a time of rethinking the purpose and structure of student work, Henry said, adding economic pressures also resulted in staff cutbacks at NSM and in many state conventions. Student ministry suffered another painful loss earlier this year with the deletion of “Student” magazine due to declining sales.
But Henry, who took over as leader of national student ministry shortly after Johnson’s retirement in 1994, is optimistic about the future.
“Sure we’ve had changes, but we have to be willing to change if we’re going to survive and thrive in the 21st century,” he said.
Toward that end, NSM has announced plans for “CrossSeekers,” which Henry describes as “a bold new initiative calling college students to a transformational discipleship that will enable them to change the world for Christ in the 21st century.”
CrossSeekers has three primary components: 1) a grassroots discipleship emphasis, 2) a series of “catalytic” discipleship events and 3) a publishing venture.
Another key to the success of SBC student work in the future, Henry said, is making sure Southern Baptists know and understand the value of the ministry.
“Corporate America values college students,” he said. “I attended a national marketing seminar earlier this year where business leaders talked about the millions of dollars that are being pumped into reaching college students with their products.
“We have the best product of all — the gospel. It has eternal results. We have to continue making an investment in students. We can’t afford not to.”

The National Student Ministry logo is posted in the SBCNet News Room. Photos from the Student Week conference in Lake Junaluska, N.C., are posted in the BP Photos Library on SBCNet.

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  • Chip Alford