Gospel Shrewdness: Why Churches in University Towns Are Highly Strategic

Al Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, just preached a gripping sermon on what he called “gospel shrewdness” from Luke 16:1-13.   I heard Dr. Mohler speak on this subject in the White House when I worked for the same some years back; his brief remarks then stuck with me.  I had not heard them developed in a full-blown sermon until last week.  Listen to this sermon–it is inspiring and fun.

Speaking of being shrewd in a distinctly Christian sense, I just saw this in the monthly update of City to City, the church planting network of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan:

University towns like Oxford, Cambridge or Palo Alto may not technically be classified as “global cities,” but it’s hard to deny their importance to global culture, shaping the nation’s next generation of thinkers, politicians, and thought leaders. College graduates flock to cities for jobs and become a large part of the center-city population. The questions heard on college campuses are often the same ones heard in places like London, New York, or Hong Kong.

This also makes universities excellent training ground for church planters and evangelists. C. S. Lewis spent most of his life in Oxford, became a Christian there as a result of a friendship with several Christian professors (including J.R.R. Tolkien), and many of his most brilliant insights were sharpened by his academic training.

During the week of February 6-10, the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), an umbrella group of Christian ministries at Oxford which has existed for over 130 years, sponsored “This is Jesus,” an annual week-long outreach of talks and Q&A sessions on some of the biggest questions students have about Christianity. The speakers were Michael Cain, pastor of Emmanuel Church, Bristol, and Timothy Keller, who together with his wife Kathy and son Michael (currently a college pastor in New York) spent a full week meeting directly with students and wrestling with their questions.

I deeply appreciated these remarks.  It would be my own argument, based on my experience at an academically tough and very secular college, that there is a nearly desperate need for church planting and revitalization in university towns.  There is a terrific need in New England, for example; look, for example, at the colleges that belong to the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the so-called “little Ivies.”  Many of these schools have no strong, gospel-preaching church nearby.  There are literally thousands of future cultural leaders on such campuses, and while various parachurch organizations courageously minister to them (see the excellent work of the Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, for example), there are few God-exalting congregations in such locales.

It will take a strong measure of what Mohler has called “gospel shrewdness” to reach such places.  These schools, like the Ivy League institutions and other leading educational outlets, are intense environments.  A strong culture of tolerance pervades many of them.  Academic credentials are highly valued; faculty are graduates of elite programs, and many students are from prestigious prep schools.  Like ministry to Oxford and Cambridge, these places call for wisdom and discernment.

The need of such schools, however, is remarkably simple: the gospel of Jesus Christ, preached, guarded and exalted in local congregations that care for God’s people and offer haven in a secular world.

Are our hearts not stirred within us as we read of the Kellers’ work in the UK?

Are enough young planters and future pastors thinking about their ministries with “gospel shrewdness?”

  • http://twitter.com/chrisblackstone Chris Blackstone (@chrisblackstone)


    I currently live in Ann ARbor, MI (home to the University of Michigan) and I very much echo your thoughts and will, Lord willing, plant churches here someday.

    One of the challenges of a community, like a university town, with few evangelical churches is most outside denoms and networks may see the need for new churches there, but aren’t really being strategic about how to get those new works started and supported. Finding a church here in town that can serve as a place to grow before we plant has been a real struggle. Local churches in university towns need to have a vision to be training, equipping, and sending centers for the gospel in their town and beyond. Imagine the kingdom impact of men and women intentionally discipled in the life of a local church during their college years to then be sent out as missionaries when they graduate.

    I’ve also found a discouraging de-emphasis on ecclesiology among many churches in university towns. This breeds Christians who think the local church as the local church doesn’t have much impact on the life of a Christian and correspondingly these Christians don’t think the Bible has a lot to say about the local church, how she works and functions, what she should contain, etc. Churches committed to robust biblical ecclesiology, particularly in university towns where organizations and structures can be seen as infringing on personal freedom and autonomy, can be a great witness a watching world of what happens when diverse people forsake themselves for the true, eternal good of others.

  • http://www.umich.edu BC


    You have a good point, at least regarding larger college towns (e.g., Ann Arbor). But, do you think that it is equally valid for smaller places, such as NESCAC towns (e.g., Williamstown, Ma. and Middlebury, Vt.)? These are small and (more so for Middlebury) rural places with longstanding mainline and RC congregations.

  • owenstrachan


    Interesting thoughts, as always. You may have forgotten that I’m more explicitly evangelical and Protestant than some. Many mainline churches don’t preach the gospel, or at least not as robustly as I think is needed for salvation from hell. The RC is another matter altogether. As you no doubt know, I believe that nothing less than the gospel was recovered writ large by Luther and the Reformers. The Council of Trent with its condemnation of justification by faith alone seemed to pit the RC against the Reformers. No doubt there are believers in the RCC, but I know of no substantial doctrinal reason to see as having switched its position on “sola fide.” Vatican 2 represented a thaw of sorts, and Ratzinger wrote some interesting things about Luther, but sadly I could not consider a standard RC congregation as gospel-preaching.

  • http://www.umich.edu BC


    I was thinking more, actually, about the dynamics of small towns, i.e., with populations of fewer than 10,000, that also contain distinguished colleges and whether the church planting that you describe would be effective there. My broadest point is simply that a Middlebury or a Williamstown is very different from an Ann Arbor or, for that matter, an Amherst. In large college towns you will see student-oriented churches ring the main campuses. Admittedly, these are generally mainline churches. But they are there, and they are there precisely because the universities were there first. And they endure, I imagine, in no small part due to the dynamism of the universities nearby. I don’t really see that same level of activity (especially year-round) at a NESCAC town.

    • owenstrachan

      I see. Well, yes, that does account for the mainline churches. They have historically been more likely to target the campus because it’s perceived that they are more in step with the prevailing thought on the campus. I see no reason, I guess, why staunchly evangelical churches can’t thrive in university towns, even with the factors you mentioned being in place. You’re quite right, though, that ministry to NESCAC or “Little Ivy” schools will by no means be easy. It will not.

      It will take a lot of “gospel shrewdness.”

  • http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/ Wisdomforlife

    I couldn’t agree more! 27 years ago, we planted a Church in a State University town in Millersville, Pennsylvania. We’ve had the privilege of impacting thousands of students in those years. We’ve had specific ministries that show how much we care for them (Friday night fellowships, adopt a student, finals care packages, recognition for grads, Relationship 101 class, counseling, Chaplaincy for athletic teams, etc….) Beyond these, students have been very involved in teaching children in the Church! When I came to the town, I cynical pastor of another Church said, “You have to do weird things to get students to come to Church.” This was probably his excuse for not impacting the campus. But we have had the privilege of mastering the weird (whatever that is). Actually, authentic love is what is needed. The town rumor was: “We don’t want them in the pew if they can’t put it in the plate (offering plate).” I was so saddened by this that I made a commitment to God: “We’ll do everything possible to fill the pews with students and trust you to fill the plates.” Within a few years, the pews were packed with students and we received almost 2 million dollars from an anonymous source! Looking back on 27 years, I strongly affirm the need to give more focus to Church planting in college towns! Thank you!

    Steve Cornell

    • owenstrachan

      Good word Steve, and a very inspiring story. Thank you.

  • http://www.JesusAtIU.com Jacob Mentzel

    I’m new here, but I hope you don’t mind me bringing some of my own experience to bear on showing “gospel shrewdness” in university communities. I’ve lived in a college town (Bloomington, IN–home of Indiana University) for nearly ten years now and currently serve as a college pastor to a reformed and evangelical congregation.

    The problem with churches reaching out to the university community is bigger than money–although money is a real obstacle. It’s also time, effort, and energy. College students are some of the most needy members of your congregation.

    They’re coming from all over the country and the world; they’re unchurched or badchurched; they have broken and dysfunctional homes; many have been molested as children; they’re making the most crucial decisions of their lives (major, spouse, career path, etc.); they’re deeply trapped in sin–they’re a mess. The pastoral attention they require is intensive, and the return (seen superficially and without the eyes of faith) is minimal. This is especially difficult when the university town you live in is poor, as most are.

    It’s also dangerous and risky. Many of the young men and women you’ll bring into your church and homes as you minister to the university will be trapped in sexual sin. Some will be homosexuals. Many (I should say most) will be addicted to pornography. Some will be predators. All of them will need love, tenderness and discipline. And the families of your church will need to be extra diligent in guarding their children.

    In the eyes of many people in your congregation, you spend 4 years equipping students to move somewhere else at great personal risk. Other churches around the country and world reap the fruit of your work–both financially and spiritually. And as you’re saying your hard goodbyes to these students you’ve invested in, you’re dealing with a continually new crop of students that have all the same pastoral demands.

    The work never ends. That’s hard for a congregation to give itself to wholeheartedly without feeling burned out over time. After all, we have our own problems to attend to.

    This is why so many parachurch campus ministries thrive in these contexts without any connection to a local church. Churches resent college students and don’t want to bear the responsibility for their discipleship. Others see the churches as failures in reaching out to university students and take it on themselves to bear that weight. Sitting in judgment on the churches, they leave and start their own works rather than strengthen feeble hands. Discipleship gets outsourced from the local church to specialists.

    This is one of the many reasons why university communities will always be wanting new, strong biblical churches that are committed to reaching the university. And that’s not even beginning to address the negative impact a liberal, secular university has on the surrounding churches and campus ministries that are committed to reaching a large number of the students that attend there. As Owen points out in his post, the pressures to cave on crucial biblical issues are intense and it calls for a lot of wisdom and discernment–as well as a staunch commitment to remain faithful–on the part of pastors and elders in university communities.

    The truth, however, is that college students need a faithful local church. They need “the gospel of Jesus Christ, preached, guarded and exalted in local congregations that care for God’s people and offer haven in a secular world.” Some campus ministries and campus leaders are committed to this vision, but they’re precious few.

    Pastors of parachurch leaders need to cultivate a much larger vision for discipling college students than teaching them how to share the four spiritual laws with their dormmates. How do you help a repenting homosexual if that’s all you know how to do? They need real pastoral care. We have had the privilege of working with repenting homosexuals in our congregation. It’s hard work–work Jesus has called and equipped the church to do.

    Pastors of churches in college communities need to cultivate the willingness of their congregations to spend and be spent to impact the world for God’s kingdom in ways that they’ll never see. We need to constantly be strengthening our people for the work, setting their hope on Christ, and showing them what fruit God allows us to see. Pastors planting churches in college communities need to work hard from the beginning to build a culture that embraces the responsibility of developing leaders for the kingdom at great personal cost to the church. It may take longer to buy property or build a building. It may mean lower pay for you as a pastor. That’s fine. Spend and be spent. It’s our calling and our privilege.

    Our church has embraced this role from its foundation and we’ve had the privilege of seeing a number of men go on to serve the Lord as pastors and missionaries–much less as lawyers, business men, musicians, and more. And even more beautiful, many healthy families have come out of broken homes and sexual sin. What a testimony to the power of the Gospel lived out in the life of a local church!

    In recent years we’ve even started our own campus ministry and have begun planting churches in areas where former students live and work. This is our calling in our particular context. And God has been very, very kind to allow us to serve Him in this small way. It is immensely humbling in every way.

    And I would point out that as we’ve embraced that calling we’ve also found that college students aren’t so fruitless while they’re here, after all. Discipling them means integrating them into the life of the church and giving them work to do. So our students play in our band, care for our children in the nursery, sing in the choir, teach Sunday School classes, give time and energy to serving the community in the name of Christ, care for our church grounds, and much more. They bring energy and zeal for the lost, the poor, and the unborn, and are constantly keeping us on our toes.

    And we get the constant privilege of seeing doofus freshmen grow into men and women who love God and are strong leaders. That brings strength, faith, and vitality to the life of our congregation. And some of them stick around and want to start families in the church that nursed them to faith (or maturity) in Christ. It really is a lot of fun–if extremely painful at times. Our church needs its college students.

    And the truth is, as Steve points out above, God has always provided for us financially–from grateful and godly parents to grateful former students who have moved on and want to show their appreciation for our love, care, and discipline of them during their college years. Spend and be spent for the Kingdom.

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