(Originally published in Christian Renewal)
In his chapter in To You And Your Children, Mark Sumpter (pastor of Faith OPC in Grants Pass, OR) observes the declining commitment of twenty-somethings to the church and argues that the problem begins with the nature of their relationship to the church before they leave: “We lose our youth in their young adult years because the church never had them” (252). His point is that we often keep our young people and college students on a separate track of church life – including their own Bible studies, their own activities, and their own leadership structure – such that they are never really integrated into the broader community life of the church. When they leave, it’s because they were never really there.
If we are going to reverse this trend, then we need a renewed vision for what it means to include our children, young people, and college students in the life of the church. The Reformed tradition gives us the theological resources we need to do this: the doctrine of the covenant, a high view of the church, our inter-generational unity as the body of Christ. But we need to be more consistent in how we express those great truths in the way we live together. This series of articles is intended to illustrate how that might be the case in one particular area of the church’s life: the relationship between college students and the church.To be sure, this vision for church life in college raises all sorts of additional questions: what role should the location of a church be in choosing a college in the first place? How should our churches order their life together in order to encourage this sort of involvement of young people and students? Furthermore, while this article addresses students in particular, this vision for church life is important for everyone. A love for the church and a desire for spiritual growth in Christ should cause churches and students to share a vision for life together. This is a vision for life in the church that we need to be instilling in our young people before they leave for college.
We begin, then, with a challenge to college students: you need the church. If you are going to stay Christian in college, if you are going to grow and mature as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, then you need a rich and robust relationship with a local congregation. The remainder of this article will suggest a number of ways in which you can pursue this sort of commitment and growth.
Do not assume that this matter is less urgent because you are going to a Christian college.
The temptations to neglect the church can be even worse when you are at a Christian college, or when you have a bunch of Christian friends on campus. This situation may make your parents feel better, but you are in fact in great spiritual danger. All of the chapel services, hall Bible studies, and campus ministries can tempt you to think: I don’t really need the local church.
While all of those things are often very valuable, they are not the institutional church. They are not the means God has promised to use to nurture you in your faith and cause you to grow in your Christian walk. You need word and sacrament on the Lord’s Day, formal accountability, and the diverse live of a congregation of people who are different from you.
The students at the large state university are likely to feel from day one that they need the church. But when you go to the small Christian liberal arts college you need to be even more careful to remember: you still need the church.
When you do connect with a local congregation, don’t begin by seeking out the young-adult ministry or the college student Bible study.
This is the most important moment in the process of committing to a church. It all starts here: do not, as your first step, seek out the group of folks who are just like you, a group of other college students who are worshiping with the same congregation.
You need to be integrated into the real life of the congregation, not cordoned off in your own section of the church. Attend worship, build connections with those who are different from you, go to the church fellowship events. Attend the prayer meetings and Bible studies and classes that involve people who are different from you, who are older or younger than you, who are in different situation in life than you are. That is what real life is like, that is what the real life of the church is like, and that is what your relationship with the church should be like while in college.
This is, of course, a bit of an exaggeration. The young adult ministry or college student Bible study can be a real blessing. But it must not be the center of your relationship with the church. This can be difficult, to be sure, since not every church has structured its programs such that it will be easy or natural to integrate with the rest of the congregation. This means that you may need to put that much more work into welcoming others into your life.
Practice hospitality. Yes, that’s right, practice hospitality as a college student.
This sort of commitment to the church of course means attending worship faithfully on Sunday. But it means far more than that. It means embracing and following the commands in Scripture regarding the church’s life together: “show hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).
This is the advice I’ve often given college students in our own congregation as a measure of whether or not they are really plugging into the church as they should: You need to have friendships and relationships with people, not because you attend the same college or are the same age, but because you are part of the same congregation. You need to be able to say, during your college years, “I am friends with this junior high student, and this young couple, and this single mom, and this older gentleman, simply because we are part of the same congregation.”
So, how can you pursue this? Practice hospitality. It’s true, of course, that you probably don’t have a home into which you can invite somebody or a kitchen to prepare a meal. But you can still self-sacrifically, in a self-giving way, involve somebody else in your life – and that is the heart of hospitality. Invite an older couple from church to join you in the campus dining hall for a meal. Invite folks from church to your concerts and drama productions and sporting events. If you have a favorite coffee shop, ask somebody from your congregation to meet you there for fellowship. Go to a friend’s child’s piano recital. Sit with a young mom in church and help her with her squirming children. The possibilities are endless.
In short: be a real, self-giving part of the church. Love the church, serve the church, and you will grow and flourish in ways you probably haven’t imagined.
Seek formal accountability.
Would the pastor or elders or members of the church notice if you failed to attend on a Sunday? If the answer is no, then this is another sign that your spiritual health is in danger. We need accountability, and we need it within the defined committed body of a congregation. The college years are no exception.
The best way to do this is to seek something like a student (or associate) membership. You keep your membership in your home church, but establish a formal relationship of accountability with the church where you will be worshiping on Sundays.
It’s not enough to “go to church.” You need to be the church, and that means having a pastor and elders who are looking out for you, who are available for counsel, and who can then invite you into their lives as a committed part of their congregation.
None of this is easy. Churches often fail their college students in many ways. The next articles will address some of those problems. But don’t let the church’s failure keep you from being and doing what you need to be and do – both for your sake and for the sake of the congregation.
It’s not just that you need the church. The church needs you. Don’t ask what the church can do for you; ask what you, as part of the church, can do for others. Seek to be a mature, vital member of the congregation, practice hospitality, and welcome accountability, and God will use his church – with all of her strengths and weaknesses – to be a blessing to you and to allow you to be a blessing to others.