Planting University Churches: An Interview

How is planting a church near a university unique? How can churches minister effectively in these contexts? Following are some ideas from three church planters located near major universities in their cities:

Tuck Bartholomew is the pastor of City Church, located a few blocks from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His church is about six years old.

Charlie Drew is the pastor of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, near Columbia University and Manhattan School of Music in Manhattan. The church is twelve years old. 

René Breuel is planting Chiesa Evangelica San Lorenzo located in central Rome, next to the metro hub and La Sapienza, which is Europe’s largest university with 150,000 students. His congregation is less than a year old, with a large proportion of seekers considering the faith.

1. Why is planting churches near major universities strategic?

Tuck: The university season of a person's life is among the most spiritually formative times. Students that were raised in Christian homes are beginning to make their faith their own, and students previously unexposed to Christianity are often more open to exploring faith. Strong churches located within university communities are missionally preparing students and faculty to be relocated to the major cities of the country and world. I also noticed when I was a pastor in New York City that many of our strongest leaders had been involved in student ministries while in university.

René: University churches are striving to engage the world’s centers of expertise, and when this type of dialogue and faith presence is done well, it helps to enhance the intellectual credibility of the wider church too. People see knowledgeable Christians who can interact with other views thoughtfully at a culturally strategic location. Some of our best apologists, like C. S. Lewis, came out of a university setting.

Charlie: Major universities deeply influence the thinking of their students, who will go on to be cultural leaders.  This is particularly obvious when it comes to the international students we have from China—they would never have made it to a place like Columbia unless they were talented and bound for leadership positions back home.

2. What makes university churches unique? How does it impact your philosophy of ministry, preaching and apologetics?

René: For me, this environment stretches us beyond simple answers and makes us acknowledge the role of ambiguity and doubt as a part of the journey of faith. We try to give people space and time to consider faith, and to voice their doubts without fear. The constant interaction with inquisitive people makes us strive for excellence in our preaching and public presentation. I guess it makes us humbler too.

Tuck: We do not want to "preach" at persons - rather we attempt to open a conversation and dialogue with them. This shows up in stylistic decisions about preaching - we embrace a more conversational style, but it also shapes the content of a sermon or lesson.  I have a weekly discussion of the sermon text with staff and lay leaders in the community in order to talk about the text itself, but also to try to understand those aspects that will sound most odd to non-believers. A person that has been in or around the church for a season will begin to take many things for granted - I want to anticipate that and even draw attention to that in a sermon. This helps the non-Christian sense that we are truly open to a conversation, but it also helps the more seasoned Christian learn to be more humble and engaging in their private conversations with neighbors and colleagues.

Charlie: University churches are exciting places to minister because students are young and open to new ideas. They are also unstable places. We lose 25 – 30% of our people every year. This means that finding, building, and keeping leaders is a challenge. Our rapid turnover leads us to lay strong emphases on (1) welcoming, and (2) commitment. They need to sink their roots into community quickly if they are to benefit spiritually from their relatively short time here.

3. What are some of the concrete ways with which you have engaged the university next to you and its students and faculty?

Charlie: We have sought routinely to befriend, pastor and encourage campus ministers and Christian faculty. When we have had interns we have always devoted a portion of their time to campus work, and we are working towards having a university pastor on our staff within the next 2-3 years.  I speak 3-4 times annually at university campus gatherings and devote a significant portion of my time to international student ministry (I have led a weekly Bible study and English language conversation group for 4-5 years now).

Tuck: 45% of our church congregation has some affiliation with the University of Pennsylvania. From the beginning we have sought to engage the different student ministry groups, and several campus ministry staff are part of our congregation. Two years ago we hired a campus minister in partnership with a Pittsburgh based campus ministry who hosts weekly dorm discussions and a monthly Sunday evening dinner for students in his home.

René: We’ve co-sponsored two debates with campus ministries like InterVarsity and Agape on campus this year where I debated two atheists. For seekers, seeing a local pastor debate instead of a visitor helped them transition into joining a church.

4. What are the challenges this setting presents to your sustainability and growth?

Tuck: The greatest challenge is the need for creative fundraising given the transience of our community. We realize that growth will be slower when our population is young and unstable. We are six years old, but only recently entered the process of selecting and training elders and deacons.

Charlie: Students are young and spending (rather than making) money. They cannot be counted on to support the church financially or as leaders. For this reason we have from the beginning devoted a great deal of energy to being more than a university church. One of our first part-time hires was a director of children’s ministry. We knew that we needed to find and cultivate families and young professionals if we were going to be able to sustain our ministry to students. 

René: We also try to maintain a core of professionals and families who are here long-term. But it is important also to assimilate and empower new arrivals quickly too, and make this flow of people arriving and sometimes leaving for other places a celebrated dynamic in the church. As Charlie said, when someone moves away, we see that not so much as a loss than as an opportunity to share of ourselves and bless other places.

5. What would you say to church planters considering planting a church near a major university?

Tuck: Consider it. Planting in university communities is strategic and invigorating, but it also has its own brand of fatigue. Identify other people doing this type of work and shadow them as part of your self-assessment and planning. We started a church planting residency this year that we hope will help young pastors learn more about pastoring and preaching in contexts like ours.

Charlie: For one thing, they should brace themselves for the pain of departures year after year. For another, they should seek not to be a “university church” but rather to be a “community church in a university setting”—reaching students but building a broader constituency. This is crucial not only because students cannot form a financial or leadership base, as we mentioned, but also because students need to be introduced, while they are still at university, to the larger church world that they will inhabit when they leave school. One of the downsides of campus ministries is that they are artificial social environments made up of the same sort of people in the same season of life. If students do not discover the diversity of the wider church while at school they won’t know how to embrace the real church when they get out.

René: It is a big and strategic need, go for it! I would love to see a new generation of churches that engage major universities and through them the wider culture. Don’t cut corners on your education and preparation, but don’t feel intimidated by the environment either. The gospel really is powerful to redeem people. And a practical thing: if being relational is not your gift, make sure you have good people on your leadership team that connect well with others.