Who can forget the grainy image of one courageous student staring down a column of tanks? Twenty years ago this month the Chinese government chose lethal force to deal with a swelling student-led movement in Tiananmen Square. That fateful decision appears to have triggered one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in church history. The exponential growth of China’s Church in the past two decades, particularly among the educated elite, is nothing short of miraculous.
The idea that students can change the world is not a new one. King Nebuchadnezzar understood this when he selected Daniel and his three Israelite friends to receive the best education Babylon had to offer 2,600 years ago. The king sought attractive, skilled, wise, and competent youths to be educated for three years. At the end of that time they were to stand before the king (Daniel 1:1-7). We don’t know exactly what was in Nebuchadnezzar’s mind. Can we venture to guess that his primary concern was not the three years these young men would be educated but the influence they would wield over the next thirty to forty years? In the same way, today’s governments, corporations, and advertisers invest millions of dollars each year attempting to influence students and the choices they will make for the rest of their lives.
What about the Church? What level of urgency and intentionality do we give to making disciples and building Christ-centered movements among students today? In our rapidly changing world we must understand these new realities and adjust accordingly.
Reality Check #1: Globally, the number of college students has roughly doubled from sixty million to 130 million in the past fifty years. If taken as a whole, this generation of college students would constitute the world’s tenth largest country. Governments of developing nations have realized that their future depends upon a wellÌ¢âÂåeducated population who can compete in today’s borderless glocal economy.
Traditional physical campuses can no longer absorb the growing student body and have limited new admissions. The fastest growing campuses are those such as the University of Phoenix, which boasts 345,000 students in 204 locations and has seventy-five percent of its students taking courses online. Metro areas—such as Moscow with 1.2 million students, Mexico City with 400,000 students, or Rome with 250,000 students—can no longer be broken down into campuses, but must take into account Student Population Centers, where students commute to class, live at home, and hang out with friends somewhere in the city.
Nikolin Dodaj, Campus Crusade for Christ’s national campus director in Albania, observes that for us who constantly look for future leaders, the incredible growth of higher education has made our job more difficult. Growing numbers make it tougher to identify, select, and invest in truly influential student leaders who can and will change their world. In his words: “We have to work a lot and find little gold.”
Reality Check #2: The Church will probably never have enough full-time staff, interns, or partners to grow movements in every key student population center. Although many countries are experiencing Spirit-led success at launching new movements, progress is not keeping up with the explosion of new campuses. We can take heart as we operate under the deep conviction that Jesus has not left himself without witness and has already prepared key students and faculty on every campus to live, love, and truly follow him. One of our great challenges is to find new ways—both in person and online—to sow the gospel broadly, filter well, identify God’s leaders, and invite them into God’s kingdom purposes.
Reality Check #3: Both church-based and parachurch student ministries must effectively navigate the transition toward an expansive, ministry-to-movement vision. Too often we have substituted evangelistic activities for personal proclamation of Jesus, settled for “having disciples” instead of “making disciples,” and perpetuated staff-controlled ministries rather than unleashing student-led movements that are served by mature mentors. We are not currently seeing enough fruit, effectiveness, and growth to make significant progress among the college students of the world. Simply put: We can’t get there from here.
To reach this unchurched generation, we must reevaluate the effectiveness of our attractional “come-to-us” models and keep pressing toward innovative incarnational “go-where-students-are” models of evangelism and discipleship. Increasingly, this means we must be where they are: online. This is particularly crucial for students living in the shadows of Islam.
Healthy student-led movements of spiritual multiplication serve as a leadership engine for the Body of Christ. Students don’t remain students forever. Within five years most of these 130 million will be on their journey to the marketplace. They will begin leading families and paying taxes. They will shape fields such as government, scientific research, education, sports, and entertainment. Like it or not, today’s students will determine tomorrow’s culture.
Leaders worldwide recognize the time is ripe for change. The next few years represent a significant window of opportunity. If we’re serious about trusting God for lasting societal change, we must—both in ministry philosophy and concrete field application—put college students on our radar and bring widespread effective campus movement launching and building to the forefront of all we do.