Fruitful Campus Ministries

One of Campus Outreach’s founders, Curtis Tanner, talked often about multiplication, laborers and missions. In the early 80s Campus Outreach made a logo of a C with an O in it representing the world. The staff sought a mission statement to match the logo.

Curtis said, “Building Laborers on the Campus for the Lost World.” Everyone loved it. It was quickly adopted. Curtis gave a staff training talk saying, “If it doesn’t have to do with building laborers on the campus and doesn’t advance the gospel to the world, we don’t have anything to do with it.” 35+ years later, it’s been tweaked but the core remains.

The statement is anchored in Scripture. Matthew 9:35-10:1 is our missional foundation. Christ traveled to different places and people. His love motivated His action. He focused His ministry on His disciples. He showed them the harassed souls and how few laborers there were. He commanded them to pray for workers.

He also commissioned them to carry on His personal ministry more broadly than He had done. He multiplied His ministry. He set the perfect example.

This mission statement serves as a north star for CO. Years ago CO Birmingham was declining. Our leadership team met, writing the statement on the whiteboard. Everything else was negotiable. We fasted and prayed and rethought everything else. This anchor held. Abandoning it was abandoning who God has called us to be. Going to the campuses and building leaders to reach the world in many different ways is our slice of the Great Commission. He blessed us as we’ve stayed true to this.

CO has matured in many ways since this statement was written, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed, nor should it. Focus on building fruitful campus ministries must stay center cut. The only thing that is more central for us is loving God. We never want to be “Martha” saying we are “serving God” in ministries, while really serving our own egos.

When we walk humbly with God, one of our main expressions of loving Him should be serving Him by building laborers. In CO, our main “neighbors” to love are the staff around us and the students we serve. When we love and disciple them well, we also love the lost world well because we are helping them grow into the laborers that God will use to reach the world far beyond the campus one day.

There was a day when CO didn’t have area directors, women’s shepherds or mobilization directors. Most regions have all three now and are glad we do. They serve our movements well to grow in fruitfulness. But we can never get the cart before the horse. It’d be silly for a brand new region to spend a ton of time and energy trying to hire a mobilization director and form church planting partnerships for future graduate teams when they hadn’t even led one freshman to Christ on campus yet.

The point is this: as we continue to focus deeply on building fruitful campus ministries by building laborers on the campus for the lost world, all the other fruit will come. If we ever start to take our hand from the plow to focus on secondary issues, not only will our primary calling suffer. In the end, all we do will suffer because practically speaking, fruitful campus ministries is the wellspring that leads to all the other good we are enabled to do.

Times have changed since when CO was founded 40 years ago. They’ve changed since 2000 years ago when Christ told the 12 to pray for laborers. That command is still applicable today. The college campus is just as strategic today as it was 40 years ago. The only other places I can imagine having as much focused time with the same group of people would be a prison, a retirement home or the military. All three of those places are great places for ministry, but all come with some severe limitations the campus doesn’t have.

Sometimes when we talk about the strategy of college ministry, some get uncomfortable. They think about all the down and outers around the world asking, “Shouldn’t we be loving them?” Of course we should. The reality is, as we target leaders, we are loving those people. You rarely if ever hear of someone coming to Christ in prison or a homeless ministry and later starting a ministry to college students. But I’ve heard many stories of people saved in college who later start mercy ministries to prisoners, orphans and the homeless. Ministering to people “upstream” in society does not mean you love them more. It is a strategic way to reach the world eventually.

The college campus has unique potential to reach many leaders, early in life at a most impressionable time. The best thing campus ministers can do is focus on multiplying fruitful campus ministries. The challenges may seem tougher today. But with Christ guiding and empowering us, no hurdle will be too high.

CO started with two white guys in a fraternity at a Baptist school in Birmingham, Alabama. Through multiplication CO is now on every continent other than Antarctica. There’s a team in Thailand (with many unreached people groups) of almost all Thais. There’s a team in South Africa of almost all South Africans. Look at how far the ministry has already gone! What might God do in the next 40 years?

Let’s all put our hand to the plow of ministry and faithfully persevere on campus, in our target group. Let’s pray to the Lord of the harvest. Let’s see what He will be pleased to do through our small yet faithful efforts over the next 40 years.