You’ve embarked on four (or more) years of study. What will you do with your years in college?
Finding a church
Within the first five years after graduating from high school, I moved five times to new communities where I knew no one. I’m not sure I would have survived emotionally or spiritually had I not found good churches to join in each of those cities. The churches differed significantly in size, in denominational affiliation and in many other characteristics, but I’m convinced that each was God’s provision for me. Yet finding each one was no minor matter.
Is it important to find a church during college? A recent survey found that nearly a third of students involved in campus fellowships do not regularly attend a church while at school. While some of those students are not yet believers, many Christians think their on-campus fellowship enough. After all, the programs of your group provide good teaching, worship and ministry opportunities. Is a church really necessary, especially given the time you are likely to be committing to your fellowship?
While InterVarsity fills an important role in students’ spiritual lives, it’s no substitute for the local church. Meeting exclusively with Christians who are basically the same as you (similar in age, education, marital or family status, and frequently social status) does not model the full body of Christ. In fact, doing so can cause quite a shock after graduation when the local church becomes your primary source of spiritual support and learning.
Why go to church?
The diverse body of the church can teach you much, helping you through the transition from adolescent to adult. The impressive spiritual insight of a student leader in your chapter may pale beside the living testimony of a church elder who has been walking closely with God for fifty years (even though that person may lack a high school education).
Furthermore, few campus fellowships celebrate sacraments such as baptism and communion. These sacraments are most biblically celebrated in the context of the broader local church. I’ll never forget being baptized in a cold Michigan river or standing in proud attendance as friends of mine publicly confessed their acceptance of Christ through their own baptisms. And I cherish the opportunity to remember through the Lord’s Supper the enormity of what Christ did on the cross.
Finding your church
Not only do you need the church, the church needs you. As a college student, you can offer a different perspective from that of a family of four. And although you will likely give I-V priority in your time commitment, your gifts and talents may find a good niche in a local church as well. But how does one choose a church? And, as a chapter leader, how can you help new students find one? Here are some guidelines:
Find a church that preaches and practices the Bible. The Bible is the foundation of Christianity. Like the early church in Jerusalem, we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and that of the rest of the Bible (Acts 2:42). Normally you will find one or more churches nearby which uphold the importance of personal commitment to the God of the Bible. These churches may or may not belong to a denomination you’re familiar with. Remember that individual churches within the same denomination may vary tremendously in character and theology.
What if there are no such churches in your town? In that case, your responsibility may be to serve lovingly in a church as an example of a Biblically committed Christian. Beware the temptation, though, of walking in the first Sunday and setting the church straight. The opposition you are likely to receive is not for the sake of righteousness, but for your own insensitivity.
Look for an open and warm congregation. Nothing can detract from a worship service more than the feeling that those around you don’t care how you’re doing spiritually or whether or not you’re there. My present church puts a great deal of effort into welcoming and assisting visitors; I had visited twice when the pastor and his wife invited me to dinner at their home. While openness and warmth may find different expression in different people, genuine Christian love is unmistakable. You can return the favor as well; break out of the group of students that attend to make contact with the other members of the church. Sometimes the easiest way is through the children, who are generally delighted when an adult takes an interest in them. It makes my day to have a four-year-old come running up to give me a hug.
Meet with a pastor. You can learn a great deal about the pastor and the church in a half-hour meeting. One pastor with whom I met always referred to the church body as “they” rather than “we.” That kind of distance between pastor and congregation was a warning flag that might have taken much longer to discern if I only attended on Sunday.
A large church may have an associate pastor assigned to work with college students; otherwise, contact the senior pastor. A few possible questions to ask:
- What does the church believe?
- What are its goals and priorities?
- How can I participate?
- If the church is beyond walking distance, can members offer rides?
Beware of churches whose membership is predominantly students. I know that goes against the gregarious tendency of students, but such churches by nature lack the diversity which is part of the strength of the body of Christ. And, due to the high turnover rate of collegians, they’re often unstable. You can also end up feeling like you’re repeating an on-campus experience, especially if the majority of students in your chapter attend the same church. By spreading out, several local churches can become aware of your campus ministry and get involved with you.
Make a commitment. You’ll probably visit several churches, but once you’ve decided on one, commit yourself there. I maintained membership at my home church while in college, but was at the local church every Sunday; on the other hand, my friend Tom had no home church, and went through the formal process of becoming a member. Some churches offer “affiliate membership” to college students who wish to maintain membership in their home church.
Beware of constantly rotating your attendance among different churches. You might hear a great series of sermons, but the Christian community will never get to know you personally.
Look for chances to participate. Since your energies are probably directed toward campus, you likely want opportunities that don’t require a major commitment of time. However, all churches need the assistance of those attending.
I’ve been in the choir of each church I’ve joined. One of my InterVarsity friends was church pianist while in college (some churches have to pay outsiders to do this). Another taught a Sunday School class, a position perennially difficult to fill and a particularly good opportunity for those considering teaching careers. Others helped in the nursery, or at church work days. All of these activities can be a real help to the church, and can help you feel more fully a part of the body.
If you stay in town over the summer, these occasions may increase — and with the probable shortage of on-campus activities, your eagerness to participate will likely increase as well.
A home away from home
You can gain much from a church—and it can gain much from you. Whether you expect to be at your school for one year or four, you can grow a lot within that church, and you’ll be better equipped to find and join a church after graduation. And remember that your choice will be an example to others in your chapter, both the way you make the decision and the final result. As a leader, it’s vital to show others that you consider church important.
No church will be perfect: It may be smaller or larger than you prefer, you may disagree on minor doctrinal points, or the preaching may not inspire you as much as that of your hometown pastor or an InterVarsity conference speaker. Yet the miracle of the church is that together, children, students and older adults form Christ’s visible presence on earth, each with a unique gift that enriches all the others. Don’t miss out!
—Kelvin Smith, InterVarsity alumnus