In many ways, Hillsdale OPC is a lot like many other OP Churches. We have two worship services each Lord's day centered on the preaching of the Word of God. Typically, in the morning the New Testament is preached and in the evening it is the Old. We sing out of the original Trinity Hymnal and have elderly (a 72-year-old widow), young (we baptized a newborn in April) and all ages in between in our worship services. What makes Hillsdale OPC unusual is that September through May, out of the up to 85 worshipers on Sunday morning, 50 of them are students from Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. When I was called to serve as church planter in June, 2008 I knew that the college students were a large part of the congregation, but I did not know just how much of a part.
The church was started in October, 2007 by the diligent efforts of some professors, several students, and one family from the community. Worship services began immediately on Sunday evenings and the search began for a pastor to shepherd the congregation. As one founding elder noted, "We showed up and there was a church waiting for us!" Since then it has grown. We started Sunday morning worship services on August 31, 2008 with over 120 in attendance due to families dropping off incoming freshman.
Our college attendance has more than doubled, as has the number of professors who attend. We have also added some individuals from the local community. All of these additions have been big blessings. While our focus continues to be on seeing this church planted in the Hillsdale community, there is a congregation in need of teaching, visitation and nurture already present ... at least for nine months out of the year. The struggle that I had early on was seeking to be faithful to my call as church planter, getting into the community and making contacts, but also being faithful in preaching and visitation to the congregation that showed up each week. This took some time to figure out. After serving this congregation for a year, I have now had the opportunity to reflect on college ministry.
I say a "college ministry" because, while we are a church, we see the opportunity before us to minister to these students as a very great one. First, I believe college ministry is necessary; not so much a ministry designed for college students but for churches that will actively reach out to college students. If you are not raised with an understanding of Reformed Christianity it is usually during the college years that you ask certain questions about God and theology that easily lead one to Reformed convictions. This was the case with my wife and me. Our sister denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has Reformed University Ministries which oversees local RUF chapters around the country and does a great job on many of the larger campuses in reaching out to students. Currently they have ministers on over 100 campuses. But what of the community colleges and other smaller colleges that do not have an RUF minister? I have become convinced over the past year that church ministry is ideally suited to reach college students. They do not need a "college minded" Bible program. Many campuses offer far more activities than college students can fit into their schedules. We don't want to compete for their time. Our goal and responsibility as a church is to provide a place where they can worship and grow in the faith and knowledge of their Savior. Part of that is providing a community for them to get together. We do this through our mid-week study and special hymn-sings we hold once each semester.
The students at Hillsdale OPC come from diverse backgrounds. We have students from a dozen OP Churches as well as a number of students from the PCA, RCUS, URC and other Reformed denominations. With these students, our opportunity is to provide a place where they can grow in their faith. Going away to college can be a difficult transition for many students (and the parents who send them). Having a church that is similar to their home church is helpful in providing stability during this transition.
Other students who come to HOPC are from non-Reformed backgrounds. Many of these students attend at first because the church is within walking distance and they have friends who attend. This has been exciting because as a faithful Reformed church we "wear our theology on our sleeve." Students notice right away that we are different from many other evangelical churches in the area and certainly different than other Presbyterian churches they have encountered (mostly PCUSA). Through a Sunday afternoon theology group a number of these students have come to embrace Reformed theology and joined the congregation as regular members.
Another group of students who attend openly disagree with our theology and part of our practice but they come because the preaching is expository and faithful. These are our "anomalies." They come, listen, and learn. They might never agree with infant baptism or election but after sitting under expository, covenantal, redemptive-historical preaching for four years they will have to think very hard about where they stand and why. We recently had our first infant baptism since my arrival at the church. Rather than scaring people away who disagreed, we had an influx of visitors from the college because they had never witnessed such an event. It gave me the opportunity to preach on why we baptize our infants. This has continued to bear fruit as I speak with these students.
We see ourselves as having the opportunity to impact future ruling elders, pastors, and conscientious church members in Reformed churches. From our first year, two students enrolled in seminary to prepare for ministry and several more have shown interest. My time with these students is an investment in the future.
Part of investing in the future includes meeting with prospective student families. Outside of visiting students, the prospective families make up a large portion of our visitors. Parents are rightly concerned that their children pick a college where there is a good Reformed church where they can worship. I know that Hillsdale OPC has been a blessing to many Reformed families in this way. We enjoy having the students in our home for lunch and Bible study. They enjoy the break from college life and love to be around a family again.
If I could identify a challenge of focused college ministry it would be the time commitment it involves. However, all relational ministry takes time. The difficulty comes when you consider each young person as a household in the church. If there is a single person or a widow, you don't put them on the visitation schedule less. Visiting college students is time consuming but reaps great blessings both in their lives and in mine. I spend a day on the campus each week, meeting new students and meeting with those who attend the church to talk about anything from theology to counseling concerns. I also have been able to assist in student-led Bible study efforts by providing support and materials for the leaders.
The addition of college students can have a major impact on a small congregation. They can bring life to services simply by their youthful exuberance. They can bring hope to an older congregation that is worried about whether they can be effective in reaching the next generation. We in Hillsdale see ourselves as having the opportunity to impact the lives of what will be—literally—thousands of future church members, ruling elders, and pastors. Please pray with us and for us as we seek to be faithful to our covenant God who is using us to show his faithfulness to this next generation.
Everett Henes is pastor of Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan.