Universities in the United States are often filled with campus ministries and organizations that provide opportunities for Christians to grow in their faith. These ministries provide a great way for Christians to share the gospel on college campuses, build friendships with fellow students, and serve the local church in specialized ways. Unfortunately, many college students begin to participate more on campus than in their churches.
How is the Local Church Different than a Campus Ministry?
The Lord has not called campus ministries, Christian sororities, or evangelistic events to replace the local church. The local church is the evangelistic and discipleship “program” set up by God to save the lost and grow his people. The local church is special. Our desire is for every college student, and Christian for that matter, to belong to a healthy local church.
Four Ways the Local Church Differs from Campus Ministries
The local church is the primary context for discipleship to Jesus.
In the life of Paul, we see that it was in the context of the local church that Paul and Barnabas were set apart for the work of the ministry to which they were called (Acts 13:1). Paul was already called by Jesus Himself and bestowed with apostolic authority to take the gospel to the Gentiles!
When we look closely at the text, we see how the Spirit does not issue this command individually to Paul and Barnabas, but rather collectively to the church (Acts 13:2). Even though Christ had already commissioned Paul to be an apostle, he used the church to set Paul apart for this specific assignment. The apostle was not acting independently.
Following the Missionary Journeys of Paul
As we follow Paul’s missionary journeys, we see Paul continue in submission to the local church. In Acts 15:1–3, when the dispute regarding the false teaching of the Judaizers breaks out, it was “the brothers” who determined that some should go to Jerusalem to meet with the church there, and Paul and Barnabas and a few others are “sent on their way by the church.” This was likely the church in Antioch that had commissioned Paul and Barnabas. He was not only sent by this church, but he also continued to work closely with them and receive their directives.
Finally, it is worth noting that Paul and his missionary bands gathered new believers together into churches everywhere they went. Once there were believers in these churches who had reached sufficient maturity, some were appointed as elders and called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:3). Accordingly, the flock among them was to “obey [their] leaders and submit to them” as ones who were “keeping watch over [their] souls” (Hebrews 13:17).
In the same way today, we are called to obey our leaders and submit to them in the church first and foremost. That is not to say that there is no place for spiritual leadership outside of the church, but rather that Christian leadership outside of the church should not supersede authority within the church. This would be out-of-step with the teachings of Scripture and therefore outside the will of God.
The local church is led by biblically-qualified elders who protect the congregation from false teaching and promote sound doctrine.
In the New Testament, the Greek words for “elder” and “overseer” are used interchangeably to refer to the office of men who shepherd and govern the congregation. Today we often refer to this office as pastor. Lay and staff elders serve the congregation by proclaiming truth and modeling holy living in their character, shepherding, and teaching. These are men marked by godly character and able to teach.
Whereas campus ministries may choose to set their own leadership standards, leaders in the church must meet the qualifications laid out in Scripture (1 Timothy 3:1–7). Elders are men who are above reproach and have first demonstrated their ability to shepherd in their own family. They recognize that preaching is not an inspirational message or an interesting speech. They are able to publicly examine and explain a biblical text while exhorting the congregation to respond to its teaching. Through their preaching, they ought to protect the congregation from false teaching and promote sound doctrine.
The local church protects believers by providing them accountability through church membership.
Church membership is one of the key distinctions between the local church and campus ministries. Whereas most campus ministries do not have formal membership or accountability, these are indispensable qualities for a church to be a church. If there’s no official membership list, then there’s no way to distinguish this gathering of believers from the world.
As Christians, church membership doesn’t begin when you graduate college. Rather, your entire life should be lived in the context of a gospel-preaching local church. One of the most important aspects of joining a church is the accountability it provides. Accountability in the church protects us from our own sin. It puts measures in place to help us flourish in our faith.
The local church is given the right to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism initiates believers into the congregation and the Lord’s Supper unifies the congregation with one another. Bobby Jamieson wrote, “Baptism is how we publicly profess faith in Christ and the Lord’s Supper is how we regularly reaffirm our commitment to Christ and his people.”
Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper should be practiced within the context of the local church.
What is Baptism?
Baptism is an external expression of an internal reality. When we are baptized, we are declaring to the world that we have experienced the saving grace of God in our lives. We are declaring that we have gone from death to life. Yet, this isn’t all that happens when we are baptized. When we are baptized, we are being endorsed by the congregation that we are baptized into. The congregation around us and the elders, who lead it, baptize us into the family of God. By agreeing to baptize us, they are publicly endorsing our faith.
What is the Lord’s Supper?
The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the sacrificial atonement of Christ. When we take the bread and the wine, we are reminded that Christ’s body and blood were broken for us. Christ was crucified on our behalf to make us right before God. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we observe this sacrament within the context of the local church. The Supper is administered by the elders and serves as a way of publicly affirming our own need for Christ. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for God’s people to gather around to reaffirm our commitment to Christ and to remember his sacrifice for us.
Encouragement to Join a Healthy Church
One of the best parts of coming home, is that I know my parents are going to cook outstanding food. It is unlike anything I can find away from home. We have the best time laughing about memories we have made and enjoying each other’s presence. It is the norm. It is the way my family operates when it comes to time around the dinner table.
In the same way, God expects us to love, serve, weep, and rejoice with one another as the norm. He calls us to give and to receive in this spiritual family called the church. It is where Christians affirm one another by welcoming each other at the front door (baptism) and by gathering around a spiritual meal (the Word and the Lord’s Supper).
To avoid this spiritual family is like showing up to your own family gathering filled with great food, laughter, and fellowship, and isolating yourself in the bedroom. If that happened, questions and concerns would arise. It would indicate something is out of place.
God’s Plan for the Local Church
How much more do Christians miss out on when they isolate themselves or substitute the local church for other programs? Healthy churches are God’s plan for believers’ discipleship to Jesus. Other programs or meetings are only supplemental.
Again, the Lord has not called campus ministries to replace the local church, but to serve it. Christian, consider joining a local church in your city where you can grow in your love for the Lord and one another.