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How College Students Can Belong to the Church

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In college, students can be caught living between two different worlds. For example, I spend half of the year at home in Dallas, Texas, and the other half in Birmingham, Alabama, where I attend school. This dichotomy sets up unique challenges, but one challenge has affected me and my friends greatly—belonging to the local church.

Over the past year and a half, I have been asking myself how I could belong not just to the college ministry at my local church but to the church as a whole. In fact, one of my friends recently told me that he was struggling with this very same question. How can college students belong to the entire body? He expressed that he either feels disconnected from the college ministry or unfamiliar with the adults in the church.

I’m guessing that many college students have or are currently feeling the same. I’m curious, how did you overcome this struggle? Based on Scripture and the wise counsel of other believers, I’d like to suggest three ways that college students can overcome this sense of feeling disconnected from the church as a whole.

Submit through Membership
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). 

The first step to belonging to a church is to join the church by becoming a member. My friend Nnanna Okafor provides helpful insight to college students on this very point: “You may only be in your college town for a few years, but God has still called you to submit under a body of elders and be committed to serve in your local church.”[1]  

It is helpful to remember that belonging to the local church is not something that begins when you graduate college. Rather, your entire life should be lived under the authority of a gospel-preaching local church. 

One of the main reasons to join a church is the accountability that it provides a believer. For much of my high school years, I lived as a Christian without a church home. I attended church each Sunday, but my involvement stopped there. But now that I’ve experienced the kind of biblical community that provides spiritual accountability, I have sought to foster environments where others can experience the same. 

While the campus ministry that I lead provides accountability for students on our college campus, spiritual accountability belongs primarily to the local church. You will graduate and leave your campus ministry behind, but you will never outgrow the church. 

At Redeemer Community Church, my church in Birmingham, I have brothers that I do life with. Together we live under the authority of elders that God has placed over us; we seek to encourage each other; we partake in the Lord’s Supper with the rest of our church family; we attend corporate worship gatherings on a weekly basis. Our shared covenant membership leads to a unique bond that cannot be easily broken.

 Surround with Mentors
“Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).

Although joining a local church is a blessing that most college students don’t experience until they graduate, God has called us to far more than simply having our name on a role. He has called us to surround ourselves with older, wiser, and more mature believers who can walk alongside us.

For much of my life, I didn’t see the need for mentors. Arrogantly, I thought that I could walk with God without the wisdom of those who were older than me. While this “lone ranger” mentality is dangerously popular among young evangelicals today, the New Testament presents a much different picture. 

For example, look at the relationship between Paul and Timothy. In 1 Timothy 1:2, we see the depths of discipleship and mentorship when Paul calls Timothy his “true child in the faith.” Paul has a father-like affection for Timothy. As college students, we should surround ourselves with mentors who care for us like parents.

Mentorship isn’t limited to mere advice but includes an imitation of his or her life. In 2 Timothy 3:10-11, Paul says to Timothy, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings….”

These verses make it clear that Timothy patterned his life after Paul, and he gives us an example of what it looks like to surround yourself with mentors who display qualities worth imitating. Biblical mentorship is not simply about receiving counsel but also a pattern of life.

Serve in Ministry
“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).

As beautiful and helpful as membership and mentorship are in the church, all children of God are also called to serve within the body of Christ. In the Protestant tradition, ministry is defined more broadly than other religious traditions. In fact, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was a foundational aspect of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformer Martin Luther put it this way:

The priest is not made. He must be born a priest; must inherit his office. I refer to the new birth—the birth of water and the Spirit. Thus all Christians must become priests, children of God and co-heirs with Christ the Most High Priest.

While we typically think of priests serving in a particular location, the “ministry” of believers isn’t confined to the “sacred.” It overflows into the “secular,” that is, into all of life. As Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and Prime Minister, stated, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” 

Serving God through the local church involves serving the world around us. One of the ways that I serve my local church in Birmingham is through our Gardening Team, where I serve alongside deacons who are talented in landscaping, agriculture, and gardening. Under their servant leadership, I am able to serve those in our community who are most vulnerable. Even though a tool such as gardening is not inherently Christian, it can be a fruitful avenue for ministry.

If you find yourself bouncing back and forth between churches or parachurch ministries and do not have a local church to belong to, I would encourage you to find one. When we submit through membership, surround ourselves with mentors, and serve in ministry, we put ourselves in a position to experience community the way it was intended to be enjoyed.

[1]Nnanna Okafor, “Is Church Membership a Requirement?”

Cole Shiflet is on the Communications Team for Radical. He is a junior at Samford University studying Journalism and Mass Communication, Social Entrepreneurship, and Greek.
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