College students, as you return to campus this fall or make your way there for the first time, I have a few words of advice for you. As you load your Amazon cart with books, map out your class schedule, and dream of the cleverest intramural team names, make plans to join a local church.
I spent a decade in college ministry, and I love campus ministries. They do a fantastic job helping students grow in their faith, but many college students can mistakenly think that because their college ministries provide them with solid teaching, discipleship, ministry opportunities, and fellowship, membership in a church isn’t really necessary.
But no matter how great your campus ministry is, it has an expiration date. There will come a day when you are no longer a college student, and one of the strongest determining factors for someone walking with God after college is whether they plugged into a local church while in college.
While more could be said, I pray that you will see that the church is a family and the church is a body, and that you will make every effort to join a local church as soon as possible.
The church is a family.
My Uncle David and I are nothing alike. As far as I can tell, apart from a common ancestry, we have almost nothing in common. When people draw caricatures of folks from Alabama, I imagine they (unintentionally, of course) accurately draw a picture of my uncle. He was an RV salesman, a dirt-track racecar driver, and an aspiring Christian Country music artist who lived on a sprawling farm with chickens, hogs, and horses. I grew up in suburban Atlanta, listened to rock and hip-hop, and only cared about baseball. We may not have common interests, but several times a year we spend time together. Why? Because we are family, and families stick together through all the ups and downs of life.
No child gets to choose his or her father and mother and sisters and brothers; every person is born into a family. Church membership isn’t like joining the Rotary Club or becoming a booster of an organization; it is not simply uniting people under a common interest. We are those who have been bought and united by the blood of Christ to have God as our Father (2 Cor 6:18; Matt 6:9) and Christ as our brother (Heb 2:11; Rom 8:29). We are, therefore, no longer strangers, but we belong to one another in the household of God (Eph 2:19).
In the West, we have been invaded by the notion of individualism, and we can tend to bring this mentality into the church as well. The Christian faith is not less than “me and Jesus,” but it is infinitely more. Being united to Christ means that you are united inseparably not only to Jesus Himself but just as equally to the church, because every time Jesus saves, He also gathers. When you “choose” Jesus, you always also choose His people. They come together as a package deal.
First, think of the benefits of this arrangement! Just imagine getting to learn from men trying to lead their families in truth, sitting with moms fighting to stay in God’s Word while chaos ensues at home, and having conversations with people who have walked with God for a half-century or more! How much more prepared will you be to navigate the joys and sorrows of life alongside these saints? I urge you to find a church that faithfully teaches God’s Word, that rightly administers the sacraments, and that is led by elders who practice church discipline; but also a church where people—who are not your peers—will know your name and you can ask to be a part of their lives.
Second, remember that the world is meant to know that we are Christians by the way that we love one another as a family (Jn 13:35). The world is meant to be shocked by the way you, a college student, are invested in lives of those in recovery, the busy moms, the snot-nosed kids, and the seniors in your midst. The world is meant to be awed that you are not building relationships like they do. As you say to the Syrian refugee, the Somali businesswoman, and the Haitian builder, “You are my brother; you are my sister; what is common between us is infinitely more important than that which would separate us,” it’s meant to be evidence to the world that there is something profound, wonderful, and mysterious about Christ and His gospel.
The church is a body.
As mentioned earlier, Christ didn’t just die to save a random assortment of individual believers; He gave His body to make a body. You are the limbs and organs of one another. You and I have been created to be profoundly interdependent (1 Cor 12:12-17; Rom 12:4-5).
Humor me for a moment to further explore this metaphor: the brain hatches an idea and sends messages; the feet walk; the eyes see what’s needed; the hands and arms coordinate and begin cooking; the ear hears the timer go off; the nose smells whether the ingredients are properly balanced; the mouth opens to ingest; the stomach and intestines digest; the blood stream carries nutrients; the liver and kidneys do their work. All so you can live: every organ is nourished.
As John Donne has written, you are not an island unto yourself. You are a part of the main. When the church baptizes a child, that action concerns you, for that child is thereby connected to the body of which you are a part. Paul is saying that your growth in maturity is inextricably connected to others’ growth and maturity—and not merely those you would choose but those whom God has organized together as a body.
In other words, your church membership isn’t just for you. The Lord has organized the church not only so that you may benefit from its teaching, practice of discipline, administration of the sacraments, and gifts, but that it might benefit from yours. As Tim Keller has written, there are some needs only you can see and some hands only you can hold. College student, the church needs your service, whether you’re singing, changing diapers, or helping park cars.
While your local church may have more obvious flaws than your campus ministry, the clear message of the Bible is that our God broke into history to rescue and be forever united with his people, the church. Christ has never left or forsaken His bride or failed to work for her very best. He is whole-heartedly committed to us and our good, and He is likewise calling us to be whole-heartedly committed to the good of His church as He is to us.
Therefore, college student, our body’s, our family’s brokenness ought to lead us not to pride but to humility, prayer, and hard work. It ought to lead us to be slow to criticize, quick to encourage, and quick to lend a hand. Join a church so that her strengths might work for your good, and that your strengths might be used for her good.