Campus Ministry with John and Jessica Payton

Jill Scott   -  

One of the most strategic ministries that a person can give their life to is campus ministry.  We at Christ Community have enjoyed the privilege of partnering with John and Jessica Payton (Navigators) for several years.  Though we don’t often put the spotlight on their ministry at Iowa State and beyond, it is a glorious and joyous fact that the Lord powerfully uses the Navs to change college student’s lives for his Great Commission purposes.  This brings additional life to our worship services, needed volunteers for our church ministries, and opportunities for us to invest in their lives while these students are here among us.

I had the joy last week of sitting down with John at the Café and catching up on his life and ministry.  What follows are the answers he gave to a few questions I asked—enjoy getting to know one of our key ministry partners!


  1. How did you come to faith in Christ?
    • Growing up I was loved well by my parents and I deeply respected and trusted their guidance in my life…still do! We were a church going and moral, God fearing family and Mom and Dad did the best they knew how to introduce me to a spiritual life, though in my HS years didn’t find much relevance.  Instead, I was a driven young guy and on a course to “make a name for myself” through achievement and success.
    • My first night at college at Northern Iowa, I had a choice between hanging out with my new, very large and loud freshman roommate who was already drinking, or to head out on my own and go to something the University was doing called the New Student Bash. So there I was, a lonely freshman guy, sitting on the side of a hill by myself eating pizza, when I was approached by a 5th year senior named Jason who was there “fishing” and invited me to a new Bible Study for freshmen that he was launching.  He only led it for 1 semester before graduating…but God used that to get me started in an environment where I was around other peers who were passionate about Jesus, craved His Word, prayed with urgency, and had a vision for reaching their roommates and friends with the Hope of the Gospel.  I’d say a few months into this, God brought the building blocks of the Gospel of Grace that were familiar from childhood together in my heart with faith.  I began to believe that I was loved, secure and made right with God solely by the finished work of Christ and following Jesus and living for his eternal purposes became my new life ambition.
  1. How did you and Jessica meet?
    • We were both involved in Navigator ministries at different universities. After our junior years we each were asked to serve as Team Leaders for younger students at a Nav summer training program.  It was in this greenhouse environment, observing one another lead and shepherd others, that we connected, expressed mutual interest and began to ask God whether he would have marriage in mind for us.  11 months later we were married.  Now we’re 18 years into a very rewarding (through not without its challenges) life partnership.
  1. Share with us how you experienced God’s calling to serve with the Navigators?
    • Probably less of a specific call to the Navs and more of a general call to obediently engage in Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all Nations.
    • For three years during college a young Navigator staff named Nate personally discipled me. I remember hours reading scripture, prayer walks, sharing the Gospel on campus, and reviewing verses over early morning oatmeal at his apartment. I began to do with younger guys on campus what Nate was doing with me…and loved it.  Nate was purposely helping me mature as a disciple of Jesus who made more disciples.  At the same time I was writing code in the computer science dept and succeeding…but honestly was finding so much more joy in watching God unlock significant truths from the scriptures in the hearts of young guys around me than I got from making the code work.
    • At the same time I was being exposed to just how lost and broken the world is without Christ, how so few have the privilege to be personally discipled or shepherded like I did, and that the Great Commission is my responsibility…to see that the Gospel gets to every people group on the planet. The mission was compelling and urgent for me.
    • Before college I never would have imagined myself in vocational ministry but by my senior year, my life was on a trajectory such that engaging in the Great Commission as a primary focus of my working energy, and doing it with the Navigators just seemed like the obvious and easiest next step.
  1. Tell us the name and ages of your kids. What has it been like for them to grow up around the ministry?
    • God has given us three amazing young men to love, shepherd, and develop. Joseph -14, Jonathan – 10, James – 8.  They are honestly three of my favorite people and I just love doing life with them.
    • Jess and I have really enjoyed the unique opportunity to integrate family and work and ministry, especially during our years leading campus ministry, but still today. They’ve grown up watching and observing so many mature, godly people, both young and seasoned, that have been in our home and sharing meals and laughs around our dinner table. For many years we’d host an 8-week ministry training each semester for new students in the ministry and Joseph especially would sit in and participate again and again.  He knows all that material by heart and it helped to lay a foundation in his young life.
    • Homeschooling has also given flexibility to on occasion, take a kid with me on speaking and training trips to other campuses. We have some great memories traveling together.
    • This fall we just launched a Bible Study group for young couples and singles in their mid-20’s that’s quickly outgrowing our living room. Our boys are all fully engaged in the group so now we try to reserve Saturday mornings to do our Bible Study prep together to be ready for Tuesday nights!  Super fun and you can’t get these opportunities to cultivate a love for God and love for the scriptures back.
  1. What was your initial ministry with the Navs? What is it now?
    • We’ve served with the Navigators since 2002. Early on we pioneered a new campus ministry at Northwest Missouri State that we led for 8 years. Then transitioned to Ames to lead the Iowa State Ministry where, almost from the beginning, we’ve enjoyed a close partnership with Christ Community Church.
    • About three years ago we turned the leadership of the campus over to a younger couple serving with us and began serving in National Leadership roles…1st as the Navigators Director of Training and now as the Associate Director of Staff Recruiting.
    • Recruiting – Our staff recruiting has essentially been flat over the last five years so we’re working directly with one of our senior leaders in a new initiative to try to turn that around. Fun to be doing some direct recruiting of new staff from outside the organization.  Initially a lot of what we’re doing is coordinating and aligning different parts of the Navigators Field Missions and various headquarters functions and processes so that recruiting and onboarding increasing numbers of new staff is easier for everyone and works better.
  1. What is the best book you have read in 2020? Why should someone else read it?
    • Read Jim Elliott’s biography – Shadow of the Almighty with the boys. Fun to bring them into that history.
    • Fan of most any Patrick Lencioni business fable book.
    • Rise and Fall of Movements – Steve Addison.
    • From Megachurch to Multiplication

Editor’s note from Kip:  readers can never limit their best book to just one!  

  1. How has campus ministry changed since you first began?
    • In some ways, freshmen coming to college are still pretty similar. Away from home for the 1st time, making life trajectory decisions, wanting their life to count for something purposeful.
    • In other ways things are changing. Fewer would have grown up around a Bible believing family or church community or been exposed to a basic Gospel narrative.  They are often suspicious of religious activity that may seem unauthentic so inviting to any kind of a worship oriented large group is not always a helpful 1st
    • Many are still very interested in Jesus and intrigued by authentic people who love him and curious enough to explore in small groups or individual friendships.
    • Anxiety, depression, and mental illness has certainly skyrocketed since 2013…with likely direct correlations to lighted rectangles in our pockets and constant social media feeds.
    • We’re all learning as much as we can about Gen Z. – They need older champions to believe in them and speak identity into the broken places of their hearts.
  1. Share one of your favorite ministry stories?
    • Promise of Isaiah 60:22 was burned into my consciousness during college.
    • Now 18 years into marriage and vocational ministry with the Navs, we’re so blessed to have quite a few students who’ve graduated from our ministries and staff we’ve trained go on to serve with the Navs or other organizations both around the US and around the world. So many others are faithfully living as disciples who make disciples in their churches, neighborhoods, workplaces etc.   Certain that through their influence in many other lives that God has fulfilled that promise of “least ones” like us becoming thousands.
    • 3 John vs 4 “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”
    • Our spiritual family is sent and scattered all over. Anytime we go to see or reconnect in some way with one of these and hear how God is using their lives, is a favorite ministry story.
  1. We have a good number of Navigator students who join us for worship at both 9 and 11 a.m. How can we as Christ Community attenders best minister to them?
    • Two words I’d encouragement: LOVE & INITIATE.
    • Wouldn’t it be great if a college student couldn’t get out of CCC without a lunch invitation? 🙂
    • See them as adults who are worth you initiating with. Make them feel seen and known and give them an opportunity for real relationship with mature families.  They are getting incredible teaching and development and community on campus through the Navs that’s laying a foundation.  What they need is personal connection to examples of maturity in their lives that they can aspire to become like.
    • Commit to personally discipling a student or two and invite them into your life in an ongoing way. We’d welcome you to be a part of the Community Discipling Network…Men and Women from a number of local churches who are engaging with students, others in their churches, neighbors and coworkers through discipling relationships. There is always a need for more!  Jess and I and others in the network provide ongoing equipping and encouragement to help you get started and keep going in life-to-life discipling relationships.  Feel free to reach out to one of us if you’d like to get started.