Why Focus on College Campuses?

In his book, Center Church, Timothy Keller argues that churches should rally to reach cities. Alongside the obvious reason of population (more people means more people who need the gospel), Keller gives four additional reasons to focus on the city which equate to four different types of people found within cities: the younger generation, cultural elites, accessible unreached people groups, and the poor.

I was a college ministry director when I first read Center Church, and it dawned on me that these strategic “people groups” are also found on the college campus. By identifying these groups and looking at their strategic importance, we can answer the vital question, “Why focus on college campuses?”

The Younger Generation

Cities remain attractive to the young. Forty-five percent of Americans between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four would like to live in New York City.

David Books, NY Times Article “I dream of Amsterdam”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 68.4% of high school graduates will go to college. In the fall of 2021, 19.6 million students attended colleges and universities in America. That’s up from 4.3 million since the fall of 2000, and even factors in colleges that were partially shut down due to COVID!

College campuses are strategic because young people flock to colleges and universities at high rates.

The Cultural Elites

Keller, in Center Church, defines “cultural elites” as those who “have a disproportionate influence on how the human life is lived in a society.” Almost all of these cultural elites went to college before attaining their prominent positions. Not only are young people flocking to universities, they’re doing so to be equipped for (or find out) what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

In an interview, Keller was posed this question: “How are we to engage our cultural moment?” After explaining that his denomination (the Presbyterian Church of America) had lost the ability to communicate to this secular age, Keller pointed to the college campus as a critical way to engage the culture.

According to Keller, if you’re on a college campus, you’re on the culture’s cutting edge. It is, he says, our best leadership development pipeline. By exposing people to the cutting edge of culture where they have to deal with the modern mindset, where they have to deal with non-Christians—that, in Keller’s opinion, is the best way to develop pastors and lay leaders.

Zoe Eller, Keller and Duncan: A More Relevant PCA

College campuses are strategic because people there are the future leaders of America and the world.

Accessible Unreached People Groups

Many people focus on reaching “unreached people groups,” people who are hard to reach and have little to no access to the gospel. This is a good endeavor. Keller argues that the city is key to reaching these unreached people groups: “The currents of history are now sweeping people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life.” Through the world, many unreached people groups are moving to cities. This makes them more accessible, and, possibly, more willing to try new things.

This is also true of the university. During the 2019–2020 school year, there were 1,075,000 foreign-born students on US campuses. Many of these students come from cultures with little to no gospel influence. When I was at Drake University, Campus Fellowship reached out to Malay students from Malaysia. The Malays are considered an unreached Muslim people group, and many were living right here in the United States!

College campuses are strategic because inaccessible people groups are often accessible.

The Poor

Keller points out that many of those relocating to cities are poor. Loving the poor is not only a Biblical command but it also gives validity to our gospel witness. When the church loves and reaches the poor within a city, they become a city on a hill for the entire culture to see.

Although college students are statistically considered a part of the economically poor, college students should not be considered “the poor” due to their potential for upward economic mobility.

A poor medical student who suddenly graduates and moves at once from ‘low income’ status to ‘moderate/high income’ status in one year and soon after that to ‘high income’ status. A similar thing happens, in general, to poor college students once they begin climbing their career path.

Wayne Grudem, Politics

That said, college campuses (especially community colleges and inexpensive public universities) are home to many first-generation college students who can be influencers within their poorer families and neighborhoods. In many cases, these students are second-generation, multicultural immigrants. They understand American culture and the culture of their immigrant or refugee parents. These students can have a significant impact.

College campuses also have a unique idealism. Helping the helpless is sexy on a college campus. Students want to change the world. Lord willing, emphasizing the poor can create a pipeline of future church leaders and lay people who are willing and able to engage “the least of these” with the gospel and good works.

College campuses are a strategic way to minister to the poor and mobilize others to do the same.

A Worthy Endeavor

It’s hard for churches to reach college students. It takes a lot of time, students don’t typically give financially, and, in the end, many of them move away. So, to engage and persevere on the college campus, churches need to understand the why. Churches need to believe in their bones that the college campus is the most strategic mission field in their city. Here are just four reasons, amongst many others. What are we waiting for? Let’s focus on the college campus.

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