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Does Your Church Have What It Takes to Reach College Students? Part 1

There are three well-established facts regarding Christianity and college students that ought to capture the attention of any gospel-loving pastor: a) college is a time of unprecedented openness to all things, including the gospel; b) many of the great “awakenings,” both major and minor, in our history have started through college students; c) there is a disturbing absence of this age group in many of our congregations.

The following contains the 1st 3 points of a 9-point article that will ultimately be posted on The Gospel Coalition Blog.We certainly do not have this subject all figured out, but anywhere from 1/4 to 1/3 of our congregation is college/graduate students, and so we’ve had to learn many of these things by necessity.

1. Whatever you do, don’t shy away from depth or hard truth:

Students are not dumb, nor are the college professors filling their minds 5 days a week. These students are being presented with deep questions, and simplistic answers not only fail to persuade them, but make them increasingly skeptical of Christianity. So take them deep, and do it often. In almost every sermon we try to have an “apologetic moment,” where I explain how this or that biblical truth counters the cultural norms they absorb in their college. The most popular series we have done have related to straight, deep answers to challenging questions.

Furthermore, teach the hard stuff—like what the Bible teaches about gender roles, sexuality and divine punishment. Most students already know generally what evangelical Christians believe about these things (if for no other reason than that we are spoofed by their professors and SNL), so we gain no ground by pandering around it, ignoring it, or apologizing for it. Speak truth convincingly with clarity and grace. Recently I had a practicing lesbian student tell me that she comes to our church because we at least teach the Bible clearly, even though it angers her sometimes. She said, “I don’t want someone just telling me what they think I want to hear. I know what the Bible says. I’m trying to decide if it’s true. I want someone to explain to me what it says and tell me why it’s true.”

2. Preach the Gospel:

The beauty of the gospel, as well as its outrageous claims, intrigues most students. It engages both believer and unbeliever. It exposes the root idolatries that drive our behavior, and reveal God’s radical agenda for the world that calls for a dramatic response. The gospel “secret” is that all the things we want to see produced in students, things like “radical generosity” and “audacious faith,” are produced not by telling them what they are to do for God, but by exalting in what God has done for us. (For more on this, see perhaps my Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. Sorry for shameless plug.)

3. Love on display is often the most effective apologetic:

Francis Schaeffer first said that, I think. Strike that. Jesus first said it (John 13:34-35). We often think the way to convince unbelievers is to show that our smart guys are smarter than their smart guys. True cynics are convinced more, however, by the beauty of Christ’s character in us than they are meticulous logic of our apologetic. (This is not to diminish, at all, the vital role of giving intelligent answers to hard questions). Note that it was when the first church “shared all things in common” and “there was no need among them” that Luke says they had “favor with all the people” and “God added to their number daily those that are being saved.” The church’s greatest persuasive power is in her serving (cf. 1 Peter 3:15; 4:7-11).

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.