Church Planting in College Towns: From Ames, to Iowa City, to the End for the Earth

Cornerstone 1

Mark Vance and Brian Frye

In the last few decades a building angst has grown around reaching college students with the gospel. Church leaders have long seen the importance of making disciples among collegians, but many churches are stymied by the time and resources required to engage universities around them.

Is the college campus a mission field?

History shows that what happens on a campus in one generation, impact the next. Today’s campus trends change tomorrow. From this perspective, it is not just important churches more effectively engage campuses with the gospel; it is essential.

Based on these realities a new ministry is gaining traction in and around college campuses. It’s the concept of collegiate or university church planting.

The Cornerstone – Salt Company story

In 1972, Jack Owens arrived at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, IA to plant a Baptist Student Union (BSU). Owens began sharing the gospel on campus and soon his ministry grew to a dozen students.

Over the next decade the ministry grew, and leadership changed, and in 1986 Troy Nesbitt became the ministry director. Nesbitt and his students began to ask how they could reach the campus more effectively and as a part of their answer, they changed their name from BSU to Salt Company to demonstrate their commitment to living a Matthew 5, salt of the earth and light of the world lifestyle.

By 1994, Salt Company’s growth (200 students) was eclipsing the size of their sponsor, Grand Avenue Baptist Church. Salt Company’s focus on reaching the campus had caused the ministry to get too big, and after extensive prayer, the decision was made to plant Salt Company as a church. Later that year, Cornerstone Church was planted with 24 community members and 200 college students at the first service.

Cornerstone made the commitment “to be a church that puts college students on the front of the bus.” They resolved to “never quit being the church that loves university students,” and embedded in their ethos that they would never fail to “win at reaching the campus.”

Cornerstone flourished steadily and maintained the Salt Company ministry and brand to continue engaging the campus. Nesbit and the church brought on a staff member, Jeff Dodge, to take over the college program, and over the next decade Salt Company grew to over 500 students. As the church grew, Dodge transitioned to Cornerstone staff and students who had been reached through the ministry (Paul Sabino, Mark Arant and Cody Cline) took the helm of the college ministry – breaking through to over 1,000 student by 2012.

Iowa State and beyond

In two decades, Cornerstone has grown from a church plant of 224 to gathering 2,400 in weekly worship. While these numbers are exciting, other data is even more compelling. Over their history, Cornerstone – Salt Company has seen over 1,900 baptisms, sent more than 1,500 students on short-term missions trips and had 76 students spend two years or more overseas.

Eventually, as Cornerstone continued to send missionaries and church planters overseas they recognized that their core value of reaching collegians was unfilled on other campuses in Iowa. In 2010, Cornerstone launched Mark Arant, a leadership team and 80 people from Ames, IA, to plant 140 miles down at the University of Iowa. Currently, Veritas Church is now seeing over 650 in weekly worship and 350 engaged in Salt Company.

In 2013, Cornerstone and Veritas worked together to send Paul Sabino and Stan Hayek plus 80 people out from Veritas to launch Candeo Church and Salt Company at Cedar Falls and the University of Northern Iowa. Two years in, and Candeo is averaging 700 in worship, 300 students in Salt Company, and since January 1, 2015, they have already baptized 108 people.

Cornerstone, Salt Company and Iowa leaders are working diligently to plant churches planted near every college campus in Iowa, and they continue to identify locations and planters in the  Midwest and beyond.

Why this should be happening everywhere?

In many ways, Cornerstone Church has become an unintentional and unusual mega-church. When they began with 24 community members and 200 college students in 1994, their initial leadership team hoped to see God provide enough financial support through community members to continue to see the ministry to college students expand. Out of this relentless focus on reaching the next generation, God birthed a thriving multi-generational church that has reached thousands of college students. Two critical factors to this unusual growth must be noted – location and passion.

Location: Cornerstone Church is in Ames, IA; a simple town that happens to be home of 36,000 Iowa State University students. This strategic location takes advantage of the unique geographic bottleneck where the next generation is most densely clustered.

Passion: From the beginning, Cornerstone resolved to be a church that loved college students. They decided they would die as a church before they stopped reaching college students. Reaching college students was their number one priority.

A strategic location plus a focused passion has equaled amazing results in reaching the next generation. And as this decision to plant churches that reach college students has extended beyond Ames, God’s grace has continued to be seen as more students are being reached with the Gospel.

Throughout our country, college and university campuses serve as a natural bottleneck where the best and brightest of the next generation are clustered into tightly packed geographic areas during a uniquely shapeable period of their life. What might happen if we would seize this God-given opportunity by engaging these strategic locations with a focused passion to plant churches to reach college students?

In the cornfields of Iowa, Cornerstone Church stands as a living testimony that a strategic location plus a focused passion can yield incredible Gospel fruit in the next generation.

If you would like to learn more about the story, systems and strategy of Cornerstone – Salt Company, consider taking part in their free Hitchhikers event, April 14-16, 2016 (details here

For ideas and tools for helping you or leaders in your church engage campuses near you, check out for articles, podcasts, video content and tools.

Published November 24, 2015