Can the “Failure to Launch” Generation Launch New Churches?

Daniel Clowes cover illustration for the New Yorker

The expectations for college students and recent grads have never been lower in our culture. Observers note the rise of prolonged adolescence, record student debt loads, the lack of learning and critical thinking skills developed during college, and record unemployment for recent grads. 85% of recent grads return home after graduation, an often uncomfortable situation for both parents and child. Pastors like college students to attend church, but bemoan the wrinkled dollar bills and loose change that pass for an offering from these students. Add to that the number of people who leave or shelve their faith during the college years, and it doesn’t seem that college students are ready to do much of anything, let alone make real contributions to the Kingdom of God.

One church didn’t buy in to these assumptions about college students–probably because it is led by college students. Alliance Christian Fellowship (ACF) is a student-led church at Penn State University. ACF is more than a campus fellowship group that happens to meet on Sundays. Like many other local churches, they have elders, deacons, baptism and communion, offerings, supported missionaries, and more. ACF brings in about 350 students, and worships in a highly visible spot at the center of campus, where it’s been for nearly four decades. A connection to the local C&MA church brings some continuity, some funding, and some pastoral leadership, but the church is led by and for students. What these students may lack in age and experience is made up by a great deal of zeal, faith, and energy that puts some older churches to shame.

Several years ago, ACF became passionate about reaching orphans in Peru. They took on a project that would intimidate more established churches. Going beyond the typical spring break missions trip, ACF determined that they would have an ongoing presence among these orphans. They began sending teams down on spring break, after the school year let out, and even on winter break. They saw a need for more buildings to house the orphans, and began raising funds for construction. They commissioned one of their grad students in architecture to design the facilities. Eventually he moved down to Peru for a couple years to oversee the construction. Students raised funds from friends, family, an extensive alumni network, and their own hard-earned cash, eventually totaling over $120,000. (This belies the belief that college students never give!).

A couple years later, ACF took an arguably greater step of faith. They decided to plant a church. Again, their faith overcame what some people would argue they had no business doing. They brought back a couple alumni, Matt Cohen and Pete Horning, to lead the church plant. Matt and Pete entered into a church planter residency, and began raising funds. As an ACF alum myself, and a friend of the ministry, I was happy to provide coaching to Matt and Pete.  They determined that their core team would in large part come from graduating seniors from ACF. These students committed to the church plant before graduation, and shaped their post-college plans around the church that didn’t even exist yet. They looked for jobs and housing in the Philadelphia neighborhoods where the church would be planted (about three hours from Penn State). They took exploratory trips to Philly and met periodically to form their vision and DNA, eventually taking the name CityLight Church

By July of 2011, most of the members of the CityLight Church launch team had relocated to Philly. ACF alums are playing key roles in leading small groups, worship teams, ministry to the poor, and more. They are making great connections with young professionals and college students in several under-reached neighborhoods in northwest Philadelphia. They are demonstrating that the “Failure to Launch” generation is capable of launching new churches. And in doing so, they are one of many churches demonstrating some innovative approaches to church planting by and for a group (college students) that are often seen as difficult and perhaps undesirable, because of high turnover and low giving.

One innovative aspect of ACF’s church planting strategy is that they have effectively reversed the direction of planting. Typically, it’s thought that a more multi-generational church ponies up the funding and staffing to reach college students. In this case, the student church planted the “regular” church. How did they do this?

One crucial factor was their ability to harness the giving of their alumni. After nearly four decades, they have accumulated an extensive list of graduates with fond memories of their time at ACF. Through newsletters, social media, Homecoming brunches, and more, they cast the vision for this church plant. They tell recent grads, “You couldn’t give much during college, so why not give back now that you have some means?” The students themselves have led the way in sacrificial giving, and in a willingness to orient their lives around God’s purpose for them both during college and beyond.

One formula to consider for planting churches in university contexts is 1/4 alumni giving, 1/4 sending church giving, 1/4 denomination/network giving, and 1/4 giving cultivated by the planter(s). Something along these lines has been effective for CityLight. Over time, alumni giving can become an even larger piece of the pie. Here’s to hoping that models like this will lead to more successful church launches by and for college students.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Can the “Failure to Launch” Generation Launch New Churches?

  1. Hi Steve!

    I liked your post, but one question I have is how ACF's approach differs from groups like Navs and Crusade. It sounds as though the difference is the emphasis on church planting, but could you elaborate on that?

    It sounds as though ACF has tapped into a new/updated model for college ministries that other organizations could learn from.