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Young & old give church its vibrancy

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (BP)–The collegians are drawn in by expository preaching and accountability, not topical sermons or programs designed to entertain. They linger after services with believers often triple their age for fellowship.

In many ways, the roughly 45 active students and the church’s approach to shepherding them defy conventional notions, said their pastor, Kevin Hash.

These students “don’t want to be treated like a youth group,” he said. “Some pastor friends have asked me what’s in the water.” Too many churches err, he noted, by trying to “out-entertain the world.”

Hash, 32, was asked to lead Burton Memorial Baptist Church, a small countryside congregation in Bowling Green, Ky., nearly five years ago by a search committee concerned about the church’s future.

“We looked around and a lot of us have grey hair,” deacon Ron Nelson, 67, said.

The challenge was to reach out to and assimilate the students -– the majority of whom attend Western Kentucky University -– into an older congregation without resorting to what Nelson calls a “Reader’s Digest” approach to the Bible.

Hash said he takes cues from pastors on the national stage, like Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., who embrace expository preaching and church discipline.

“Sadly, 90 percent of Baptist churches have not seen redemptive discipline done,” Hash said.

Some students joined Burton in part because of its church-discipline covenant. While the practice has its detractors among area Baptist leaders, Hash said it freed people from specific sins in the two instances it has been used at the church.

Burton Memorial has attracted students from a variety of religious backgrounds outside the Southern Baptist Convention, from nondenominational settings to never having attended a church.

“We’ve not tried to compete with bigger churches,” Hash said. “College students will be used [at Burton] -– you don’t sit on the bench here.”

The church doesn’t earmark even a dollar for college ministry, he said, explaining that the students still come and are actively involved in church ministries despite having no one but themselves to organize their social activities.

Haley Smith, 21, said she became a Christian at a campus group’s Bible study during her freshman year. She started attending Burton as a sophomore after becoming dissatisfied with teachings from her Catholic past.

“In the Catholic Church, especially, they say a lot of things, but they’re not backed up with Scripture,” Smith said. “[Hash] preaches the texts and he backs up everything he says with Scripture. He hits everything and he doesn’t skip topics.”

Burton’s smaller size -– relative to several area churches -– makes it tougher to “slide in and out every Sunday morning and not get involved,” she said.

Smith also enjoys being sharpened spiritually by the church’s wealth of wise, older members; their presence typifies a striking difference “between being involved in a campus organization and a church,” she said.

The warm welcome they extended to her left little room to doubt whether college students could feel at home at the church.

“You could just tell that they really cared. You come back the next week and they remember your name,” Smith said.

Another student, Dan Wilkinson, 23, concurred with Smith’s assessment.

“Three words: Peanut Butter pie. They feed me well,” he said of the times when the church fellowships over a meal.

Wilkinson said he decided against blending into bigger churches he had visited before joining Burton, where he soon started leading worship services. One morning service a month, his worship band performs mostly hymns using several instruments, such as a cello, a mandolin and a saxophone.

Traditional hymns have made a comeback among the younger generation, Hash said, and Burton is a beneficiary of that trend. He said he doesn’t fear losing church members due to musical preferences. “The college students have really met the older folks halfway,” he said.

Carol Calamaio, 55, said a genuine love for God is the common bond for the church’s distinctive groups.

“God is using [the students] in a dramatic way,” she said, citing the mentoring her 11-year-old daughter receives from college girls.

Calamaio said her daughter once idolized Britney Spears, but now she emulates the college girls. She said they often demonstrate their faith by boldly initiating conversations with the lost.

God uses Hash’s expository preaching to draw students to the church, said Marilyn Mitchell, 61, and then they’re blessed by a congregation teeming with spiritual grandparents.

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  • Doug Waters