The nation’s largest church-based student movement was started 44 years ago by a small Baptist church in Iowa.

About 13 years in, 30 to 50 students from nearby Iowa State University met regularly as the Baptist Student Union. Ten years later, close to 200 students attended regularly, and Grand Avenue Baptist Church realized its campus ministry had grown so large “it became the tail wagging the dog” and threatened to overwhelm the congregation.

In response, the congregation planted a new church to run its campus ministry, and both took off. Today, more than 22 years later, the Salt Company reaches around 1,400 students every week at Iowa State University, while Cornerstone Church sees about 2,400 people on Sundays.

The twin ministries—to community and campus—have since reproduced themselves at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa; they’ve grown, too, seeing about 450 students a week. This fall Salt spread to the University of Missouri and Drake University, where roughly 100 students gather each week. The University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin are slated for 2017.

The campus ministry’s strongest asset—and their distinctive feature—is their close tie to the local church.

Salt leaders point to strong Bible teaching, a solid foundation of leadership, a focus on relationships, and student leadership as reasons for their success. But their strongest asset—and their distinctive feature—is their close tie to the local church.

Bible Teaching and Faithful Leadership

“Honestly, nobody is more shocked at what God is doing here in the cornfields of Iowa than we are,” said Jeff Dodge, who ran Salt for seven years before becoming a teaching pastor at Cornerstone.

But he can identify some reasons why students are attracted to Salt.

The first is simple: substantive preaching from the Bible. “Often people look at the university and think we need to teach students how to find a good life partner, or how to manage their money, or how to stop being sexually active,” Dodge said. Salt does teach on these topics, but they aren’t the main focus.

“We believe in preaching the full gospel of Jesus Christ, and getting the Bible into everybody’s hands,” he said. Cornerstone gave away 3,000 paperback English Standard Version Bibles in an effort to promote greater biblical literacy among the church.

When Salt meets on Thursday nights, some aspects feel like Sunday morning, Dodge said. “They’re seeing the Bible open a lot. We’re driven by expository Bible teaching.”

Another boon for Salt has been its strong leadership, said Cody Cline who, like Dodge, ran Salt before becoming the community pastor at Cornerstone. “In 44 years of ministry, we’ve had seven directors.”

All seven of Salt’s leaders are still involved in the Cornerstone network in some way, Cline said.

But Salt didn’t explode out of the starting gate. “Some of those guys worked and persevered through some not-so-glorious days. Jack (Salt’s founder) worked 13 years to get 30 kids. That foundation is priceless.”

After years of slow but steady growth, by the time Cline inherited Salt, “it was really easy,” he said.

He’s not sure what caused Salt to take off. “It’s 95 percent luck—or rather, the blessing of God.”

Relationships and Student Leaders

But Cline can identify what works well. Like most college ministries, Salt is highly relational.

“It’s a small feeling, even though it’s a big group,” Cline said. The ratio of spiritual influencers to spiritual seekers has remained about 20/80. Cline said, “Whether it was 200 or 1,400, someone is always looking to invest in you and get to know you.”

Salt’s goal is to get about 70 percent of attendees into small groups co-led by students. This year, about 120 groups house around 1,000 students. 

That reliance on student leadership is another part of Salt’s potency, said the ministry’s associate director, Kendra Gustafson.

“We want our paid staff not to be the ones who are doing all the ministry,” she said. “Instead, we want our paid staff to equip and disciple our students to see themselves as missionaries living on campus.”

The students are the ones who have natural relationships with other students who aren’t Christians, she said. “They’re the ones reaching out to their peers and people in their classes, drawing people in.”

We want our paid staff to equip and disciple our students to see themselves as missionaries living on campus.”

Salt’s 280 student leaders lead Bible studies of around 8 to 10 people in dorms or apartments.

“We encourage 19-year-olds to open a Bible and lead,” Cline said. “They aren’t ready for it, but leadership is a learned ability. They love it, and they’re way better at reaching their peers.”

Campus ministries tend to focus on one area, such as evangelism, or global missions, or discipleship. “Every one of those ministries has shaped the way Salt thinks,” Cline said. “We emphasize evangelism. We are also all about global missions—we’ve sent around 2,000 students overseas over 44 years.”

Salt gets to focus on that entire range of ministry, he said, because its niche is being anchored in the local church.

Being the Local Church

More than anything else, Salt leaders credit their strong local church connection for their success.

“There’s something about it,” Cline said. “It sits right with our students. It’s not solely about them, it’s not just playing this four-year game, but knowing how to do local ministry over the course of our lives.”

The students see themselves as an integral part of the local church, he said. “They want to prioritize the church when they leave here.”

More than anything else, Salt leaders credit their strong local church connection for their success.

Salt is a ministry of Cornerstone, and operates under the headship of its elders.

“When we speak about controversial issues, or even on baptism and things like that, we don’t pull any punches,” Cline said. “I can lead with boldness because I feel the full backing of the church behind us.”

Students like the multigenerational feel of a local church, and their church in particular likes having college students around, said Cline. “The 50- to 60-year-olds here are saying to them, ‘Don’t ask me if I like the music. Do you like the music?’”

No one at Cornerstone comments on unusual hairstyles or informal dress. The community members see the students as their ministry, Cline said, and they welcome spiritual seekers. On a given week, about half of the students who show up to Salt on Thursday evenings come back for Sunday morning worship at Cornerstone.

Opening up to carloads of college students every week isn’t always easy, Cline said. “[The students] always want change. They’re always going to keep pressing. They don’t pay the bills. And if anybody is going to break something, it’s typically them.”

Though Salt does some fundraising, community members at Cornerstone have to be more financially generous to help make up the gap left by students who typically don’t tithe but require space and programs, he said.

Cornerstone has also adjusted in other ways. Sermon series are planned with an eye to the school year, so students don’t miss out. The Christmas program is scheduled for early December, before students leave for break.

The church ministers to everyone—there are women’s programs, men’s programs, children’s programs, special needs programs, and ministry opportunities for anyone, both locally and internationally. But the college ministry is a driving focus; the students “sit at the front of the bus,” Gustafson said.

That deliberate outreach to students separates Cornerstone’s church ministry from others, said Chris Sarver, a millennial ministry field staffer for Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ). Sarver works to help churches and ministries that want to connect with millennials in Indianapolis.

“In my view, and generally speaking of course, confessional evangelical churches near U.S. universities have by and large not engaged in the rigorous contextualization efforts a ‘successful’ collegiate ministry would require,” he said. “Many such churches have been content to ‘host’ Christian students within their congregations and leave the serious efforts of evangelism and initial disciplemaking to specialized parachurch ministries (e.g., Cru, InterVarsity, Navigators). This isn’t because these churches lack desire, but because they often don’t possess the financial resources and/or expertise.”

However, Salt is part of a reverse trend, he said. “I have noticed an increasing number of missionally oriented, theologically confessional congregations seeking to engage the students on university campuses.”  

Port City

Cornerstone is willing to sacrifice because young people—the next generation’s leaders—bottleneck at universities, Dodge said. “We’re here because these guys are going to come through here, perhaps be impacted by the gospel, and take it with them to lands unknown. That’s our vision—to be a port city.”

Cornerstone and its church plants know the seeds they’re planting will be harvested by other churches as students scatter after graduation. “They’re heading out to Minneapolis and Kansas City and Chicago, and we don’t want them to be looking for another college ministry experience,” Dodge said. “We want them looking for a local church.”

‘They’re heading out to Minneapolis and Kansas City and Chicago, and we don’t want them to be looking for another college ministry experience,’ Dodge said. ‘We want them looking for a local church.’

The partnership is so important that Salt and Cornerstone plant simultaneously. (Except in Cedar Falls, where the campus ministry at the University of Northern Iowa took off so fast that it was a year ahead of the church plant. Three years later, more than 1,000 attend each week.)

In the last six years, the Salt Network has spread to six locations, with two more set to go live next year.

Despite the growth, there’s more than enough work to go around. At Iowa State, where Salt attracts 1,400 students each Thursday, the student enrollment was more than 36,600 this year.

“We’re the largest student organization on campus,” Cline said. “[But] we only reach 4 percent of the student population. Every time a new campus ministry pops up, we say, ‘Great! We need 30 more of us!’”

Editors’ note: Join us next year in Indianapolis for The Gospel Coalition 2017 National Conference, “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” One of the workshop options will be “Ministry for a Short Season: Hardships and Triumphs in College Ministry,” led by Jon Nielson, Kori Porter, Chris Sarver and Courtney Wisted. The student rate for the conference is just $99. Register here.