The city is a strategic place to plant and cultivate gospel-centered churches. I am grateful for the church-planting efforts in urban centers. I am also thankful for the renewed emphasis on church planting in other places such as small towns.1 From time to time, I even hear about the importance of churches in university towns—but not often enough in my estimation.
Colleges and universities can be found everywhere. New York has several universities and colleges, and so does rural Iowa. But there are some communities that are particularly defined by the presence of one or more university campuses, even beyond their being defined as urban, suburban, or rural.
I happen to live in one such community, as I pastor a church that is between the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and Duke University. We are also attuned to the presence of North Carolina State, Meredith College, North Carolina Central University, Elon University, and several other nearby colleges. This area, the Raleigh–Durham–Chapel Hill Triangle, is not a huge metroplex like Boston, San Francisco, or New York, so the university ethos of our area is more than a minor descriptor—it is a central reality.
Places such as this are important to consider when we look at the practice and the future of church planting. I thought I would reflect on the lessons and joys that have gripped me in the blessed endeavor of planting a church in a community defined by a college or university. Three aspects of pastoring a collegiate community have surprised me: preaching, multigenerational influence, and the art of sticking to the first things.
Students Value Expository Preaching
Expository preaching is growing in popularity again. People are beginning to want content in their pulpit, and they want to learn their Bibles. Sometimes the staff of my church, somewhat smugly, chuckle to one another that we are on the verge of becoming hip (I don’t think we have much to worry about). What has delighted us, though, is that students are coming to our church very much drawn by our commitment to preaching biblical texts in their context, mostly through whole books. In fact, the most fruitful and notable churches in our area are congregations that publicly value biblical preaching. These churches are quite different from one another. They range from mega, multisite, youth-oriented churches to small, nascent church plants. In each case, students are coming to hear expository preaching.
If you are considering church planting, I would like to commend the university town, and I would highly encourage, even insist, that you not be afraid simply to preach the Bible and even to make whole books a regular part of the menu. I think you will find students are hungry for that. Of course, you will have some young adults who want light and topical advice from the pulpit. You will have some older adults who desire that, too. But exposition is not inherently repulsive to moderns and late moderns, and it is often attractive. When offered in the context of a church that is whole in its discipleship approach, meaty biblical exposition will meet with and satisfy a deep hunger. Couple that hunger with what we, in fact, believe about God’s Word—that it is God’s very words—and you have the power of God to disciple those young adults in pursuit of Christ and His glory.
Students Want Older Adults
I’ve also been surprised to find that students want the presence of older people in their lives. The homogeneity principle works for a while. People tend to group themselves based on socioeconomics, culture, and age. But, God has planted something within us that, when allowed to blossom, encourages us to welcome saints of all ages in the faith. When we ask college students why they started to attend our church rather than the very large and slickly produced church in town where thousands of other students attend, we often hear something like this: “You guys provide tangible community, you teach the Bible, and there are older people here.”
Therefore, if you find yourself in a university setting, do your best to cultivate a cross-generational church. I think you will find it is that kind of balance that will set you up for long-term fruitfulness in a collegiate community.
Keep to the First Things
Finally, the best thing to do for any community—be it a city, small town, or university town—is to keep to the first things. Keep preaching the Word. Keep loving your people. Understand your culture, but make it clear that you are about the historic, orthodox Christian faith. Students want authenticity—the sociologists are right about that. One of the best ways to express that authenticity is to keep to the text of Scripture and the well-worn pathways of the church that have been traveled for two millennia. Sing the old hymns along with the new. Don’t worry about your clothes too much (because, among other reasons, it will show if you do). Use production and media for clarity and excellence, but not for impressing and posturing.
Students in whom the Spirit is at work, who want to pursue Jesus, need us and want us to keep to the first things. They want to be discipled in order to grow deep, to reach out, and to suffer well. Don’t sweat the bigger, more slickly produced, more popular churches in your town. Just disciple well the students God gives you and rest in not having to keep up with the ecclesial Joneses.
The church can’t afford not to be strategic in reaching college towns. But that type of strategic ministry rests on the ministry practices that are tested by those who have come before us in the faith. Preach the Word, cultivate older believers and younger believers growing together, and stick to the first things. These are what a university town needs.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on January 17, 2018.
- See Donnie Griggs, Small Town Jesus: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places (Damascus, Md.: EverTruth, 2016). ↩︎