Chad Stillwell said he was at a low point the day he walked across the commuter parking lot at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was offered a Coke.
“I wasn’t in church and was very far from God and depressed,” said Stillwell, who was a pre-med student at the time.
When students from UAB’s Baptist Campus Ministries offered him a free drink, he asked what the catch was.
“I said, ‘Do I have to sign up for a credit card?’ And they said, ‘No, we’re just here to let you know God loves you and He has a plan for your life,’” he said.
That struck Stillwell. Before he knew it, he had gone back with some of them to the BCM building to talk about it more.
“Within days I was attending Bible studies and worship, and within months I was a summer missionary going out to serve,” he said.
Within years, he was serving on the BCM student leadership team and wrestling with a call to full-time ministry. His Baptist campus ministers talked him through that, just as they had talked with him about his faith in Jesus the day he took that free soda in the parking lot.
Now Stillwell serves as director of collegiate ministry for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, leading the same type of ministry that changed his life years ago.
“I’m completely grateful to Baptists in Alabama who sacrificed and gave and continue to provide ministry so college students like me could hear the gospel and grow as disciples and figure out God’s calling on their lives,” he said. “There’s this four-to-five-year window in our culture where people make most of the decisions that chart the direction of their lives. It’s critical we reach them with the gospel during the years when they decide what careers they’ll have, who they’ll marry and what they’ll do for the next 30, 40 or 50 years.”
That’s exactly why Steven Thompson — who was one of Stillwell’s campus ministers at UAB before moving on to Auburn University — has also invested a large share of his life in campus ministry. He believes in it.
College students, he said, “are at a vulnerable age and most open to learning about themselves and the world.”
Wrestling with faith
Thompson, who retired in summer 2022 after 26 years as senior Baptist campus minister at Auburn, said some of the most joyful times have been watching students come in as freshmen, wrestle with their faith and discover what faith in Jesus is to them personally.
“It’s also been fascinating to see students come to grips with ‘how can I harness this vocational calling — teaching, medicine, whatever it might be — how can I leverage that for spreading the gospel?’”
Mike Nuss said those joys have been repeated over and over in the century since collegiate ministry got its start in Alabama.
Finding their feet
“In general, one of the things I’ve loved most is seeing students get it. I love when you see the lights go on,” said Nuss, who also retired in summer 2022 after 22 years as director of the office of collegiate and student ministries at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. Before that, he served 22 years as a campus minister.
For him and Thompson, their early years of serving with Baptist Campus Ministries — or Baptist Student Union, as it was previously called — involved helping students who grew up in church find their feet in their faith and make it their own. It felt familiar — it had been Nuss’ own story as a student.
While studying at the University of Montevallo, Nuss — who grew up in church — was mentored by a Baptist campus minister and shown what it looks like to take an active part in ministry. He continued to see that as a primary spiritual need for students as he began his work as a campus minister.
And he saw that illustrated at the University of Alabama BCM’s 100th anniversary celebration in April 2022.
“They asked in the meeting, ‘If you were a summer missionary here, stand up.’ And a lot of folks stood up. ‘If you met your spouse here, stand up.’ Lots of folks,” Nuss said.
But then when the group was asked to stand if they were saved through BCM, not as many stood.
“I think the focus on evangelism has evolved more in recent years, not just under my leadership, but I think Dr. Lance is a key factor in that,” he said.
Rick Lance, SBOM executive director, said the college or university campus is “one of the most important missions fields.”
“Students from numerous countries come to Alabama campuses for a college education. Through collegiate ministries, we have an opportunity to help their lives find a Christ-centered direction,” Lance said. “Our collegiate ministers are dedicated to the cause of sharing the gospel with students, training them to share their faith and helping collegians from all walks of life be discipled in Christ. There is no greater calling than to reach people for Christ, especially young adults in this very important time in their lives.”
It’s become a critical calling to a “critical missions field” — Nuss and Thompson both said they’ve seen more and more students who have never had any exposure to the gospel.
And Nuss said he’s heard statistics that show that as much as 95% of college campuses are unreached.
“Not to disparage missions work in any other part of the world in any way, but I think we have our work cut out for us right here, with 300,000-plus college students in Alabama,” he said. “If the statistics are true and even 90 to 95% of those students don’t have a relationship with Jesus, that’s a pretty overwhelming task.”
As Nuss and other leaders have watched the need grow, they’ve also watched the resources for collegiate ministry shrink at the national level.
“I’m praying that Southern Baptists understand the critical need for us to be on the campus reaching students, discipling students, mobilizing students,” he said.
Now the collegiate ministry assignment at the SBC level rests with the North American Mission Board, and Southern Baptist collegiate ministry happens in a grassroots organization of campus ministers, state office leaders, the mission boards and Woman’s Missionary Union who do the best they can without a specific funding source for this ministry.
But Nuss said in Alabama, collegiate ministry has been well resourced, and he’s grateful.
“Things are going great here,” he said. “The support of Alabama Baptists through the Cooperative Program has been phenomenal.”
For the 17 Baptist campus ministers scattered around the state, that means they can focus on ministry and not have to take time to raise support, he said.
It also means Nuss and his team have been able to continue to adapt conferences and resources to help high school students connect with Baptist campus ministers before they go to college so that they aren’t lost in the transition.
“More recently, I’ve loved the advent of collegiate church planting,” Nuss said.
For instance, in 2015, Highland Baptist Church in Florence turned its college worship service — called The Well — into a church plant called The Well Church Florence. In the years since, several other churches have been planted in The Well Network, with the goal of having 16 locations near campuses around the state by 2026.
“The Church at the Oaks in Tuscaloosa (a church plant in The Well Network) baptized 22 students in 2021, and that was I think the largest number of baptisms from a new church plant in Alabama,” Nuss said.
He said he’s “really enjoyed being a part of helping churches and associations understand the need for more churches who are missionally focused on the college campus.”
The SBOM collegiate and student ministries office now has a contract worker who focuses on resourcing those church plants.
It’s important to have all the different ministries — BCMs, missionally focused churches, new church plants — working together because “there are still thousands of students who need to be reached,” Nuss said. “You can’t rest on your laurels in this ministry, it changes fast. What students are doing and what students need is constantly changing. You have to have campus ministers who are a bit entrepreneurial in their spirit who are willing to push against barriers, and sometimes that’s uncomfortable.”
He said he’s thankful for Alabama Baptists investing in this ministry for the past century, because it’s part of the Great Commission, and tomorrow’s church leaders are found on college campuses, he said.
He’s also excited about the Timothy Initiative, which just started its second year and focuses on training college juniors and seniors for ministry and missions.
“We want to mobilize them for service,” Nuss said.
Ben Edfeldt, current director of the SBOM office of collegiate and student ministries, said he and others across the state are seeing that happen, through Timothy Initiative and other means.
“When we think about Alabama BCMs, we want to see students discipled and mobilized,” he said. “We know of students who when they walked on campus didn’t have a relationship with Christ, and God used the ministry of BCM and their fellow students through His mercy and grace, and now they feel compelled to go and proclaim to people beyond their campus.”