Sometimes we need to take a break from the books to see the sky and the little things in the grass at our feet.
A graduate's search for a church
During college, Sunitha Chandy was deeply involved in her campus fellowship group and loved the intimate community, spiritual vitality and constant activity it provided. When she graduated, she searched for a church that would provide her with a new spiritual community. It was not an easy adjustment. In this interview, Sunitha shares what she learned in her journey from a campus fellowship to a new church home.
Sunitha lives in Los Angeles and works at Harbor UCLA Medical Center helping children adopted from foster care. She is a 2002 graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. After graduation, Sunitha was tempted to look for a church community that met all of her needs. “I’ve come to realize that church is not all about my needs,” she admits. “It’s about God’s desire to be worshiped and to let others see his glory in our community.” Sunitha was interviewed for FLUX, a free publication for recent graduates.
FLUX: What fears did you have about finding a new spiritual community after college?
Sunitha: I think my biggest fear was not being able to plug into a new community easily and quickly. InterVarsity is such an intentional community that knows how to target college students extremely well — how to get them involved and keep them involved. I can’t even remember how many times my small group leader came knocking at my door, trying to get me to come to a barbecue, a special event, or even a Bible study. In contrast, not all churches are able to operate with that same intensity, and they often do not have the time or resources to target new people in the same way InterVarsity does. I feared it might take a bit more effort on my part to become involved in a new community.
FLUX: As you transitioned, did you find those fears to be valid?
Sunitha: Yes! Honestly, I think InterVarsity spoils us. We are surrounded by staff members and student leaders committed to creating a fellowship to meet the specific needs of college students. So they approach us in a comfortable way, and give us events and services that match the way we worship and communicate. Churches, on the other hand, often don’t have a targeted age group but, rather, they are a broad community reaching out to groups of people in different situations and stages of life. Because of that, a church tends to have ways of reaching out, teaching or developing community which often look very different from a college-based fellowship. Therefore, it really was a transition to learn the ropes of a new community and find how I fit into that community. It has not been a quick or easy process, like it was plugging into InterVarsity.
FLUX: After college, why did you choose to get involved with the specific church you did?
Sunitha: I ended up joining the church that I did because I sensed that God told me to. Really, that was it. In many ways, I didn’t want to join this particular church. When I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, I knew there would be a Mar Thoma Church there, the denomination I grew up in. The Mar Thoma Church is an Indian church, established when St. Thomas came to India. I knew going back to this specific denomination would mean returning to a more conservative, monocultural community which followed a liturgy — all the things I had avoided when looking for a spiritual community at college. But I felt God calling me to get involved in this church, and my first few months were torture. I felt disconnected from the worship and the community. But I stuck with it, and slowly I started making connections and getting involved. After four years, I feel like I am a part of the community, and I have learned how to be spiritually challenged and motivated in new ways. I feel my relationship with God and with the Christian community greatly benefited from my struggle to become a part of the community.
Apparently, God knew exactly which community I needed for the next stage of my journey. It was not the one I would have chosen, but it was exactly the one I needed.
FLUX: What advice would you give to someone who is transitioning away from one spiritual community to another?
Sunitha: Community takes time. It is easier to build deep relationships in college because you eat, sleep and live with people in your InterVarsity chapter. It’s rare to find that same community overlap in a church. Expect that in the outside world, building trust and community takes time, effort and patience. So pray that God will give you patience in finding a community and the boldness to take initiative in friendships and going to events. Don’t wait for someone to invite you. Invite yourself! Ask to meet with the pastor or a Bible study leader to find out about the church, the vision of the church and ministry needs.
I would also suggest looking for a church with problems and imperfections. We often are on the hunt for the perfect church, with the right worship, right outreach and right community, or one that looks like the InterVarsity chapter we just left. But, honestly, you will never find it. So pray that God would show you what community he wants you to join.
And go where he tells you. Joining a community that didn’t run the way I wanted not only challenged me to see the good things about non-InterVarsity ministry strategies but also, as trust grew between me and my new community, it gave me a great role of being a catalyst for positive change. God has a specific community in mind that you need — and that needs you. Take a step of faith and go where he calls you.
For tips on how to transition into a church, see the following resources:
Life After Church by Brian Sanders (InterVarsity Press/Likewise, 2007)
Thinking About Church Life (The Everyday Faith eSeries) edited by R. Paul Stevens and Robert Banks (InterVarsity Press eBook, 2004)
For additional resources, contact InterVarsity’s Alumni Department. You can order the free publication, FLUX, and additional material for recent graduates, including “From Where I Stand: A Pastor Talks About Finding Community After College” by Brian Wallace.