We began this journey with prayer.
With the decision to come on staff with NLCF at Virginia Tech, it seemed like a joke to be planting a church somewhere else, especially this soon. The four of us (Alainna, Curtis, Morgan, and Enrique) felt like Tech was the place we were supposed to be. So we prayed. Is the Lord preparing a new place for us, and if so where? Are we even supposed to go? Are we fit to do this? We prayed more. We prayed intently. And we fasted. Soon we saw the Lord shape our hearts, and not just specifically for the people at Virginia Tech, but for His own heart and for His people. Our original doubt turned into excitement to see the possibilities of the things the Lord could do in and through us, and that fueled much of this process to this date!
So the journey began.
We prayed for a search criteria that would help us to narrow down the enormous list of universities that exist. From there the search began. We knew we wanted to stay at a university with a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) focus simply because we connect well with the students here at Virginia Tech. We also wanted to stay within a 2-4 hour radius from Virginia Tech that would allow for a closer relationship with NLCF as we started our transition. This brought us to 30 schools that would fit within this criteria. So as a team we then began looking at things logistically, along with prayer, in order to shorten the list from the initial 30 schools. We began to research information that included the location, its distance from Virginia Tech, the size of the university, the population of the city or town it is in, the number of Christian ministries present, the size of the campus by acreage, the primary majors, cost of living, the demographics, and the percentage of students who live on campus. Doing this research helped narrow the list a bit, but we really had to rely on the work of the Spirit to get that list down to a group of schools we felt like we could spend an extended time visiting. So for a week the four of us, along with Jim Pace, prayed over these schools without discussing it with one another, and the goal was to land on three we would visit. We met together and almost all of us felt like God wanted us to look at UT Knoxville, UNC Charlotte, and NC State. This was the first of many times we saw the Holy Spirit bring us together in unity!
When it came to visiting these different campuses, there were a couple things we wanted to do and keep consistent. The first is that we would walk around the campus, both individually and together as a group, and pray. During these times we would ask God to show us the things he would want us to see. We would look for things that would reveal the culture of the campus through different sculptures, art, posters, and signs for the different things going on around campus. Was there a place for people to gather like on the Drillfield at Virginia Tech? We would also speak to different people we saw walking around campus, in administrative buildings, and in dining halls. We would try to engage in gospel conversations to check the spiritual temperature of the campus, and ask what they thought about us potentially planting a church. And finally we prayed that we would be invited to a particular university as a direct sign from the Lord.
During Spring Break, the five of us took that as an opportunity to visit these three schools.
University of Tennessee – Knoxville
With all this in hand we set off to University of Tennessee – Knoxville. When we got there we started on our walk together, walking in silence for a bit to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us and to show where we should spend our time. Jim had the idea of trying to get into the football stadium. After finding an open door we made it into one of the upper decks of Neyland Stadium. Something about this made the reality of what we were there for sink in a little more than before. No longer were we researching facts about schools, we were standing in a stadium that would contain over 100k students and fans on game-days, many of whom need Jesus. As a team we spent time in prayer, asking Jesus to guide us, to see the things he wanted us to see, and talk to the people he wanted us to talk to on our trip, and again asking for the invitation. This ended up being a pattern that we would replicate at every school we visited. Alainna and Curtis met some students who were involved in a campus ministry and they invited us to the church they went to. Although we did see a need on campus, it became clear that there were a lot of churches in the area and we were very much deep in the “Bible belt”. People seemed fairly involved in ministries, but the type of student felt very different from Virginia Tech.
After all the talks, prayers, and walks around campus we met back together to talk with one another. We didn’t particularly feel a huge draw to UT, but then again we didn’t really know what that would even feel like, so after two days on campus we set off for UNC Charlotte.
Our time at UNC Charlotte was very interesting, and very important. It was probably the clearest discernment we had as a team prior to Penn State. We arrived, walked to the center of campus and did the same thing we did at UT. We spread out, walked the campus, and prayed. It was a very new campus that was well thought out and very nice. There was a clearly defined academic section, student housing section, and sports/research area. Yet, within a very short time of being on the campus, none of us felt like it was where God was leading us. We were all relieved when we came back together and learned that we were all feeling similarly because each of us was worried that the others might feel differently. It was a clear no, but provided more unity in the Spirit. There was also a lot of visible signage for other ministries and several people we talked to were already involved in a church or parachurch. While that is great news for the kingdom, it wasn’t something we wanted to see in a school we were wanting to plant a new church. We wanted to sense a need. Since it was clear this was not where we were going to plant, we found a conference room in the library and started to think through “why”. This was a very formational time for dialing in on some things we would like at the school we planted a church.
- UNCC felt very crowded in the academic side of things. That may sound like a weird thing to care about, but as we were walking around, none of us could picture spaces for students to gather. There were no places that people could stop what they were doing and enjoy a conversation or play spikeball. People seemed primarily interested in getting from point A to point B. Because of that, one of the formational things we took away was that we wanted a school that had open spaces built throughout the campus. We wanted to find an environment where people were already hanging around and areas we could easily meet new people or invite people to join us in the things we are doing. Such areas are sometimes called Third Spaces.
- We wanted a school that had a strong sense of identity or unifying factor. That’s not to say that the people of UNCC weren’t excited about their school, but our research revealed that a high percentage of commuter students. In addition to the campus not being set up well for people to hang around, there didn’t seem to be a driving identity, sports team, or activity for people to rally around. Another formational thing we started looking for was a school that the students were already extremely passionate about (much like Virginia Tech). Now if we had a sense that there was a great spiritual need, this point would be a secondary factor of consideration. But all things equal we figured it would be much more effective to harness a pre-existing excitement towards one’s school for the purposes of Christ than it would be if people weren’t deeply invested and connected to their school in the first place.
Before getting to NC State, our research told us that there were already quite a few ministries present on campus (the most of any school we visited), but with it being such a large school, we thought it was worth a visit since it fit so many of the things we were looking for. After we spent time walking around campus and praying, we met back together and realized we all really liked the campus! It had spaces where students were already gathered. The students seemed to love the school. And the students we were able to talk to could have easily been Virginia Tech students. It just had a familiar feel. We all loved downtown Raleigh and could see ourselves living in the area. It was clear, though, there was already a sense of a larger Christian presence on campus. We actually encountered a man at the center of campus LOUDLY reading the Bible. So, even though this wasn’t exactly our style of ministry, it was hard to forget and left us conflicted. Was there a high need for a new church plant there?
As we got back to Blacksburg we took some time to debrief on what was an extremely tiring, but very revealing trip.
At UT we saw the highest need, but it was the least like Virginia Tech. We just didn’t feel like God was calling us to that campus.
At UNCC we saw clarity. This was such a clear “no” that we truly believed there would be an equally clear “yes”.
At NC State we saw what could potentially be that yes. We could see ourselves living there, we could see ourselves doing ministry there. We would have been much closer to family, but we felt the conflict of if there was a need for another ministry there on campus.
So without anything that was particularly clear from this trip, aside from where we shouldn’t plant, we decided to expand our search radius from four hours away from Virginia Tech to five hours. By doing this, and with some more prayer and research, we landed on three more schools: the University of Kentucky, West Virginia University, and the University of Pittsburgh.
University of Kentucky
We took this trip separately from WVU and Pitt simply because of timing and logistics. And, this was the only trip we made without Jim. But it was amazing how well equipped we felt this time around. Before our first trip we wouldn’t have had a single clue how to utilize our time on campus, but in typical fashion, Jim led us well. We started on our usual rhythm. We prayed in the stadium and around campus and it was beautiful! We talked with the students, and they seemed like they all loved the school. We saw many places on campus where students were already gathering together. It actually had a lot of things we were looking for in a potential location to plant. It had the feel of NC State, but there weren’t as many ministries as NC State. But with everything we saw and experienced, Alainna heard the Lord telling her to be patient and continue on with the rest of the trip. And separately, Enrique had an overwhelming sense of boredom. We were pretty certain we wouldn’t be planting a church at WVU or Pitt, so why should we go? NC State and UK were the clear favorites for where to plant, but with these mutual feelings from both Alainna and Enrique, we all felt it would be a disservice to ourselves and unfaithful if we didn’t go to the places we felt like the Lord had revealed to us. So we made plans for the final trip.
The final trip
We could have gone to WVU first but felt like we should start at Pitt so we did. We were confident we wouldn’t be planting at Pitt because there was already a church within our network doing similar things we do, so if anything we felt like this time could be good to help discern between NC State and the University of Kentucky. We traveled up to Pitt with the hopes of more clarity. As we were driving Morgan saw an animal on the side of the road she thought resembled a “dead lion.” The first time this happened we all thought it was absolutely hilarious, obviously there’s not a dead lion on the side of the road! But then at the very same time Jim felt like the Lord was prompting him to look up. As he did, he saw a sign for Penn State (the Nittany Lions). He asked if we had considered Penn State as a location to plant, but it was outside of our 5 hour radius so it was never a thought. But since we all overwhelmingly felt like we weren’t supposed to go to WVU, and that we were on this trip to seek clarity, we felt like this could be the thing we were meant to see. While we were still on the road to Pitt we collectively made the decision and changed our route from WVU to Penn State.
The moment we stepped foot at Penn State something was different. It felt right.
We spent some time praying in the stadium, it was clear the students had things they cared for in both the school itself and its sports teams. There was a significant number of areas where students were already gathered together. It was a beautiful campus that felt very familiar, like home. It is also a huge school with 46,000 undergraduate students, located outside of the bible belt, and has a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math.
We saw the greatest spiritual need at PSU. Most of the people we talked to were not involved in a ministry – several of us even had the opportunity to have gospel conversations while we were there. Alainna talked about the gospel with a few mormons that she met with an info booth on campus. Curtis talked with someone who was evangelizing on behalf of “god the mother” and by the end of their conversation, the guy called Curtis a heretic and wouldn’t even shake his hand. One thing Enrique would consistently do on every trip was listen to new worship music, for an opportunity for the Lord to speak in a new way. He made a joke about finding a place on campus called the Lion’s Den, only to find that the first song that came over his headphones was “Lion’s Den”. After only walking around campus for about ten minutes, Enrique felt the need to call his dad and ask for prayer because he so heavily felt like this was the place they would plant a church. Everything we were looking for as a team was all there.
The last thing we adamantly prayed for was to be invited wherever God wanted us to plant. As we were meeting up at the end of the trip to discuss our discernments, Jim, Curtis, and Alainna arrived first and shared that we felt this was the place! Morgan and Enrique were delayed because they were chatting with an incoming freshman that was there to tour the campus. The guy shared about his excitement for Penn State because he wanted to party, but that was the full extent of the conversation – the Solorzanos didn’t mention anything about wanting to plant a church or even that they were thinking about moving. He knew they were married and obviously weren’t incoming freshmen trying to pick a college. So it was shocking that as they parted ways and were about 25 feet apart, that he turned around and yelled, “I hope you guys choose Penn State!” The last thing we were looking for and the thing we had prayed for on every trip had been answered and loudly exclaimed! As we all gathered back together to discuss the things we had been feeling and the conversations we had, there was a sense of joy. It was hard to hide the smile that was on all of our faces – trust us, Jim tried.
We took another trip with the rest of the NLCF staff for more confirmation on the things we were feeling and we received even more clarity. Together as a staff team we were able to pray, listen, walk and seek out if this was the place we should plant. And together we all received a resounding yes! This was the opposite side of what we felt at UNCC. The clarity of the “no” opened up the possibility of what the Lord could do as we earnestly set out to seek where the Lord would have us. Where he would send us.
We learned more of what it looks like to be faithful to what the Lord is calling us to. NC State and Kentucky looked like they could each be the location, but without taking the time to listen and be faithful to the subtle push from the Spirit we would not have landed at Penn State. If you were to ask any of us, we are overjoyed!! We are so excited to be with the people of Penn State and State College, Pennsylvania. So, we will be moving to State College, PA in the summer of 2020 and are expectant of God to move in HUGE ways there. The mission will be the same as what we are currently doing at Virginia Tech, but our personal responsibilities will greatly increase. To this day and since we left we have been in prayer for Penn State, just as how this entire journey began. With prayer.