On Being a University Church


Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Unite the pair so long disjoin’d
Knowledge and vital piety
 — Charles Wesley, 18th century

One of the reasons my husband and I chose to live in a university town is that we wanted to be a part of a university church.  That desire comes from three formative experiences in my life that shape my vision of what that means. As a teenager bound for college, I heard my Methodist pastor say in a sermon,  “Don’t be afraid of what you’ll learn in college. All truth is God’s truth. A faith that can’t grow, can’t entertain doubt, can’t be open to new learning is no faith at all and it’s not worth having.” Later I discovered that not all my peers had been taught that.  Instead, some of them had been told to fear what they might learn in a biology class or even a religion class, where a “godless professor” would try to dismantle their faith. 

On registration day at Pfeiffer College (now University), I met my advisor, the eloquent and persuasive Dr. J. Griffin Campbell, chair of English Department, son of a South Carolina Methodist pastor, soldier in  General Patton’s army, actor, and Lutheran layperson. As I best I recall, on that day he told me I’d be an English major. I didn’t argue. I signed up for his English lit course and didn’t look back.  In my four years at Pfeiffer, I took every course he taught, and although I learned a lot about literature and writing from him, what I most appreciated was seeing how knowledge and faith were integrated in him. He united–in the language of Charles Wesley — “knowledge and vital piety.”  He was a living example of what my pastor had taught.

The third influence was part of the experience of being a campus minister at James Madison University.  The first week I arrived, Jim McDonald, the United Methodist campus minister and Wesley Foundation director at the University of Virginia, showed up to welcome and orient me, and he was, and is, yet another living example of what my pastor had taught.  From him, I learned that, at its best, campus ministry engages the whole university. It does a whole lot more than provide encouragement, space, and faith formation for a group of students who identify with a program and a building. It seeks to unite faith and learning, “knowledge and vital piety.” 

My home church, Pfeiffer University, and the Wesley Foundation at JMU were not quite the same as a university church, but they did form my vision of what a university church can be.   Being located near a campus is only prior requirement, an opportunity, not a defining characteristic. 

A university church is engaged with the campus.  Members of the congregation attend events on campus; pay attention to the concerns of faculty, administrators, and staff; and use the resources of the university. The congregation is  intentional about having a mutually enriching relationship with the university.

A university church is geared toward intellectual life. That could mean providing book studies that are challenging and providing occasions for dialogue about the relationship of faith with science, with the arts, and with technology. It could mean inviting faculty to be guest speakers at programs   

A university church is culturally and socially aware.  Sermons address current issues, social justice, and ethics.  Clergy in university churches are able and expected to preach on issues like immigration, climate change, health care, racism, poverty, economic inequality, and other topics of social concern.  

A university church is welcoming and diverse. Being a Reconciling Congregation is a good indicator of that stance.  Another indicator is a church’s intentional use of inclusive language in worship services.  Long ago I attended a retreat about being a welcoming congregation, and the leader told of a church that had a coffee hour.  The coffee and cups were in plain sight, but only the insiders knew where the sugar and cream were kept. Some signs of hospitality are physical and visible–accessibility, signage, bulletin-board messages, location of sugar and cream–but others are more subtle and complex.  A university church has done its homework and is intentional about what and how it communicates welcome to the academic community.

In October, the Pew Research Center released a report on the dramatic decline in religious affiliation over the last decade.  One finding is the percentage of “nones” — those who answer “none” on a survey of religious preference — has risen to 26%, up from 17%  ten years ago. Many of the “nones” are millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, cites these reasons for this decline:  decreased social pressure to attend; the clergy sexual abuse scandal, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church; changing attitudes toward sexuality and gender; and the alliance of religious conservatives with right-wing politics.   A university church is interested in what nones have to say about institutional religion. [For a short introduction to what nones are saying, watch “Rise of the Nones:  Diana Butler Bass Extended Interview.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEu2MH3J0qg]

From my observation as a campus minister, a college teacher, and a writer about religion and current affairs,  academic communities hunger for having an authentic and intentional university church across the street. United Methodists are blessed with long tradition of intellectual freedom and honest inquiry. Our founder, John Wesley, encouraged early Methodists to seek learning.   His brother, Charles Wesley, wrote in a hymn, “unite the pair so long disjoin’d, knowledge and vital piety—learning and holiness combined.”  Ours in a tradition that honors both spiritual growth and intellectual rigor as mutually beneficial and necessary. That’s the reason Methodists have established over 110 colleges and universities in the U.S.  We have a long commitment to learning, and it is the unique privilege and responsibility of congregations near college and universities to hear that call and strive be university churches.