Reaching College Towns and College Students

As I begin FWIW again this year, I thought I would post an adaptation of an article I wrote for a Christian publication several years ago, reflecting on the strategic ministry we have in our location. As we pray for revival, may God have great plans of renewal through us to the campuses that surround us.

The city is a strategic place to plant and cultivate Gospel-centered churches. I am so grateful for Tim Keller, his ministry, and his life example, as are many others. I am also thankful that recently there has been a renewed emphasis on church planting in other place, like small towns. From time to time, I even hear about the influence of the university town, but not enough in my estimation. Universities can be found everywhere, though. New York has several universities and colleges, and so does rural Iowa. So, to speak of a ‘university’ or ‘college’ presence can be more like an added element of an otherwise strong demographic. But there are areas, both large and small and in the middle, that are particularly defined by the presence of one or more university campuses. I happen to live in one. I am a pastor at 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 (an HBC campus), Elon University and several other colleges. Because Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle is not a huge metroplex like Boston, San Francisco, or New York, the university ethos of our area is more than a minor descriptor; it is a focal reality. Places like this are also strategic as we consider the place of church planting and what follows from that, namely, long-term faithful presence. I thought I would reflect on the lessons and joys that have gripped me in this blessed endeavor. Three aspects of faithful presence have surprised me: preaching, multi-generational influence, and the art of sticking to first things.

Expository Preaching Is Valued by Collegians

There has been a spate of blogs and articles on the topic of the return of expository preaching. People are beginning to want content in their pulpit, and they want to learn their Bibles. Students historically have come to our church very much drawn by our pulpit commitment to preach Biblical texts in their context, mostly through whole books. In fact, the most fruitful and notable churches in the Triangle are congregations that publicly value Biblical preaching and are conspicuously gospel-centered. Each of these churches is quite different in certain ways. The range goes from mega, multi-site, youth-oriented churches to small, nascent church plants. In each case, students are coming, and they are being pulled by a value for exposition.

If you are considering church planting, I would like to commend the university town and I would highly encourage you, even insist, that you not be afraid to simply preach the Bible, even to make whole books a steady part of the menu. I think you will find students are hungry for that. Yes, of course you will have young adults who want light and topical advice from the pulpit. You will have older adults desire that, too. But exposition is not inherently repulsive to moderns and late moderns. When offered in the context of a church that is whole in its discipleship approach, led by godly and emotionally mature men and women, and the church seems to really love its place, you will find a deep hunger for meaty Biblical exposition. Couple that with what we in fact believe about God’s word – that it is God’s word – and you have the power of God to disciple those young adults in pursuit of Christ and His glory.

Students Want Older Adults

Another place of welcome surprise has been that students want the presence of older people in their lives. The homogeneity principle works for a while. People tend to flock within bandwidths of socio economics, culture, and age. But there is something writ into us by God, that when allowed to blossom, encourages our dispositions to welcome elders in the faith. When asked why they started to attend our church, rather than good options nearby, some where thousands of other students attend, we often hear something like this: “You provide tangible community, you teach the Bible, AND there are older people here.”

Now, aren’t students who want expository preaching and the influence of older believers simply mature, and is there a risk that we will not reach those who need milk for a while? My view on this applies to every age group and area of the church. I think when a local church has a critical mass of mature believers, not just among the staff and elders, then you have the ingredients to reach non-Christian and new Christians. The power in true attraction is love and truth, not production or enacted hipness.

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 a long-term and faithful presence in your community.

Don’t Sweat the Flavors of the Year, Just Keep Preaching and Loving

Finally, this leads me to summarize this with the simple notion that the best thing to do for any community, be it a city, small town, or university town, is to just keep to first things. Keep preaching the Word; keep loving your people; be contextual but make it clear you are about the basics. Students want authenticity. The sociologists are right about that. One of the best ways to express that authenticity is to keep things to the text of Scripture and the well-worn pathways of the church that have been travelled now for two millennia. Sing the old hymns along with the new. Use production and media for clarity and excellence, but not for impressing and posturing.

Students, in whom the Spirit is at work, who are wanting to pursue Jesus, need us – and want us – to keep to 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 produced, more popular churches in your town, especially the ones that seem like the flavor of the day or decade. Just disciple the students God gives you well, and rest in not having to keep up with the ecclesial Joneses.

Friend, be faithfully present. Preach the word; cultivate older believers and younger believers growing together; and stick to first things. That is what a university town needs. It is quite surprising how much.

Jay Thomas, Lead Pastor