I did not grow up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC).  I did not grow up with John Calvin, the Three Forms of Unity, Abraham Kuyper, sphere sovereignty, or common grace.  And, yet, I now find myself serving and worshipping in this denomination.  

The question is: Why? 

The answer is similar to that given by Dr. James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in an essay entitled, "Buried Treasures?" In it, Smith describes a bit of his own pilgrimage to the Christian Reformed Church, writing:

What attracted me to the Reformed tradition? It was not any one thing.  Instead, it was a kind of seamless cloth of related emphases that, I think, are the unique "apostolate" of the Reformed tradition, and the CRC in particular.  That is, the CRC is a unique expression of the Reformed tradition that holds together an array of gifts that in other places are separated...Covenant, creation, culture, and catholicity--these themes drew me to the Reformed tradition. And I was surprised to find that one denomination held all of them together--no mean feat! Again, it was like discovering buried treasure. [1]

Concepts like covenant, culture-making, and the Kingdom of God; people like Abraham Kuyper, Herman and J.H. Bavinck, and Alvin Plantinga; and historical creeds, confessions, and forms of worship all worked together to draw me to the CRC.  Serving as campus director at Iowa State University, I feel our ministry--one that is both biblically and theologically rich, as well as intellectually rigorous--is uniquely positioned to reach out, minister to, and equip students, faculty, and staff for lives of faithfulness wherever they may go.  

And this leads me to the point of this article: church planting.  I believe that just as our campus ministry, Areopagus, is unique amidst the buffet of ministries at ISU, I also believe that we, the CRC, have a unique opportunity for church planting in the university context.  That is, I believe a strategy of university-based church plants could allow the CRC to flourish, not to mention, serve the good of the university.  

Now, when I refer to church planting in the university context, I do not mean emulating the pseudo-church model of many para-church ministries.  No, the approach I am suggesting would require the formation of intergenerational covenant communities worshiping on or very near campuses, under the leadership of a council, with an eye for engaging the wider university community.  By meshing the riches of our ecclesiology with our high regard for the university, justice, and common grace, we could provide an attractive third way between similar churches that fail to engage the university, and para-church campus ministries that, though well-intending, fail in emulating the local church.  

To do this, though, requires us to take risks and re-evaluate how we define the "success" of a church plant.  Churches planted in university contexts will, more than likely, never be property owners, but rather, renters (of campus space or other campus-side churches). Similarly, these covenant communities will probably not grow as other churches, but rather, will be more fluid, relying on a core group of faculty, staff, and community members to lead and provide the consistency amid student turnover.  And such plants will necessitate members to be more proactive in outreach and evangelism--making the invisible Kingdom of God visible to the wider campus community through the proclamation of the gospel and works of loving service and hospitality--with an emphasis upon those things that make a CRC church unique.  

These challenges make university church plants risky, and, yet, their potential impact could be great.  But this, too, requires a shift in perspective; in particular, a shift in how we define "success."  Measuring the success of these church plants requires looking at the larger picture of the Kingdom of God and our calling as a denomination.  In embracing these things--faith formation, global missions, gospel proclamation and worship, mercy and justice, and servant leadership--university church plants serve as embassies of the Kingdom of God, with the extraordinary ability to impact not only the local campus and community, but also numerous other communities and countries by sending Kingdom-desiring disciples with a reformed world and life view to all parts of the globe.  

Just as there are many different kinds of plants, there many different ways to engage in the work of church planting.  But as we look to the future and consider how we are being led to engage in this noble work, with the goals of advancing the Kingdom of God and bringing about human flourishing (especially in the younger generations), I can think of few opportunities with as much potential as planting in university contexts.  By God's grace, I believe our distinctiveness as a denomination, with its concern for, and commitment to such things as creation care, vocation, justice issues, politics, higher education, and vibrant confessionally reformed theology uniquely positions us to see much fruit.  

May we listen to the call of our Father, and faithfully respond in whatever way(s) it is that He leads us. For His glory and our joy.       

 

[1] James K.A. Smith, "Buried Treasure," The Banner, January 2011, p. 32-35. 

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