It’s that time of the year.
College students are looking for churches. But what exactly should they be looking for?
After all, when college students talk to each other about churches, doesn't the issue largely boil down to some kind of personal preference?
We prefer one preaching personality better than another? We like one worship style over another? We feel more comfortable at one flavor of community over another?
There's certainly nothing wrong with having preferences. Everyone has their church preferences, myself included.
But maybe it's worthwhile measuring the role of preferences when choosing a church.
Because while it may be natural to desire preferences, it may be something else to be overly dependent or simply be driven by them.
Besides, if we simply choose a church based on mere preferences, not only might we be acting out of our blindspots, but what do we do if/when our preferences change?
So while preferences can play a role, maybe a minor dose of perspective could be beneficial during this season of church searching.
So, here’s my take on a few things college students should give consideration to when looking for a church.
1. Clear Preaching
One of the central things you'll experience in any good church is a 30-45 minute talk called a "sermon."
When the church gathers together, the Sunday sermon is the corporate proclamation of God's truths in the Bible, for the exaltation of Jesus and his gospel.
Yes, this means a sermon must be Bible-based (from the Bible) and yes, it must make Jesus and the gospel, not you, the overarching issue.
But this it must be somewhat relevant, but more importantly, clear. It must make sense to you. You should be able to walk out of the service that day and know what the preacher had actually said. You may not have liked his delivery style, but got his point(s).
I stress this because sermons are formative.
Sermons have the profound ability to form you and an entire church to be a certain kind of Christian. This is why if someone listens to a lot of John Piper sermons, they'll keep talking about being satisfied in God. If you observe someone who listens to a lot of Francis Chan, they'll talk a lot about living out the Bible seriously while putting both hands over their head in disbelief. None of this is coincidental. Preaching paints realities.
But if we continually listen to unclear sermons, you will be formed into ambiguity.
You will be able to say a lot of Christian sayings like, "Trust the Lord," "I am gospel centered," but once someone starts asking you questions about what those terms mean, you'll be surprised by the lack of clarity in your own understanding. And that wouldn't be coincidental, but reflective of the pulpit ministry you sat under.
Now, some of that is on you and I as the listener. Some of us have bad hearts (bad soil) that can't receive truth no matter how clearly it's presented. But some of that is on the preacher(s) and his ability and obligation to make truth sing.
So if you're checking out a church where the preacher is funny, that's a bonus, but if he's continually funny and unclear, feel free to laugh your way to the next church.
As the pulpit rises or falls, so will the people, and so will you.
2. EMPOWERS YOU to Serve (Locally & Globally)
Imagine you find a church with everything you could ever possibly want.
Engaging sermons? Check. A welcoming community? Check. Free food? Check. What a huge blessing, right?
And should you continue down that road, guess what you'll become? A consumer.
A consumer is someone who takes and benefits from all the great resources a church has to offer.
Now, this is real positive. One of the roles of the church is to nourish and strengthen believers. However, that very statement also invites a Christian to be a contributor.
A contributor is someone who gives and benefits the church and beyond, through his or her personal resources (the very resources given by God) be it talent or time.
The New Testament paints a picture of a disciple who receives, but also gives, and counts it more blessed to give than to receive, thereby reflecting Jesus.
The problem is, churches can sometimes tell you to serve and contribute, but not provide a clear pathway for you to do so.
See, this is an empowerment issue. A church that empowers its people will not only encourage the people to get involved, but actually make this possible by providing real opportunities and/or clear first steps.
A church that de-powers its people won't provide opportunities and/or they'll keep utilizing the same volunteers from 5, 10 years ago, signaling to you that they're already a happy family with no room left in the house.
Don't get bogged down at a church that guilts you to serve without creating actual opportunities for you to do so. Instead, look for a church that seeks to empower you to walk into God's ministry for you.
3. Trains, Equips, and ResourceS
Every collegian who lives out his or her discipleship wants to be a faithful and fruitful follower of Jesus. But how does this happen?
Though it depends on a (sometimes) mysterious combination of a variety of factors, I believe one reason is training, resourcing, and equipping.
Consider this for a moment. Did you know a lot of people who actively serve in the church and para-church ministries don't have a personal devotional life? And a part of the reason is because they have never been taught precisely how to have a devotional life? But churches can sometimes be guilty of not providing training opportunities for their people.
Think about how many times a pastor has asked you to serve, without ever offering some kind of training opportunity whether it be a workshop or class. The irony is that when you do some kind of internship, they'll train you, but not so much in the church.
It's one thing for you to look for a church that tells you why and what. It might also be worth searching for a church that also instructs you on the how.
One pertinent reason is because this is precisely God's calling for pastors. They exist to equip believers for ministry. But sometimes, pastor can be tempted to simply equip themselves to do all the ministry so that they can attract a crowd and have everyone come and watch. But that isn't the tone or spirit of the New Testament.
When you visit a church, ask the pastor or someone how the church trains and resources Christians.
4. Inter-Generational community
Everyone who goes to church during college wants to find a group of peers they can hang out with. No one wants to be alone at church, right?
But I wonder if focusing only on a peer group may be little shortsighted.
See college is for a season, and like all seasons, it comes to an end.
Before you know it, you may be overseas or working a 9-5 job. You may find yourself married one day and you may even have children. And should these mentioned realities come into fruition, it will have a much longer shelf life than the blip of your college years.
Therefore, while you're in college, it may be valuable to expose yourself to an inter-generational community of believers, who can give you a picture and vision of your next season. It may be valuable to see how different couples handle their marriages, how a mom juggles life with a new baby, and how the family of 5 stays so involved at church.
Now, it may feel a little uncomfortable at first. Worshiping with a bunch of older people sounds intimidating. But what I've discovered is how much college-aged people enjoy hanging around married folks and even babysitting church kids when they give it a chance.
I believe this is because they feel the excitement from the vision of what the future may hold. The future, as murky as it may be, necessitates we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and only then, can we see the distant horizon with greater clarity.
But when we're in a mono-generational community, though it's much more comfortable, it may not be preparing us well for the realities of post-graduation life.
5. Genuine Love for College Students
I'm gonna let you in on a little secret: Not every church loves college students.
There are churches that find college students a little annoying.
It's even entirely possible for churches to have an external veneer of love for college students while having hidden agendas of using the college demographic to increase attendance numbers, expand influence and brand, while leveraging the flexibility of college students for ministry mobilization.
The good news, on the other hand, is there are churches that truly believe in college students. There are churches that are already investing in young people, believing that today's collegians will become tomorrow's church leaders.
These churches don't simply care in word, but it's actually reflected in the church budget. It shows in the available manpower for student care. It shines in the passion of the students who have been empowered to lead their ministry.
These churches have leaders who will gladly absorb life-season-contained immaturities because they believe God is working out maturity according to his own timetable.
Don't settle for a church that's trying to use your generation for its own purposes.
Find a church that genuinely wants your generation to be used for God's purposes.
If you're a college student reading this, please don't look for a perfect church because you won't find one. If you do find one, please know you'll ruin it as soon as you join it.
And as you search for a church, please be patient and give churches the benefit of the doubt. Churches don't simply exist for college students. When you visit a church, please know there will be a ton of other real people with their own issues and needs as well.
And as you hop around, be sure to dive in for a few weeks at a time to get a good grasp of the church culture. Don't judge a church based off of 1 Sunday service.
If you're a church leader or college pastor reading this, please be patient with college students. I know there's a temptation for us to think, "I wasn't that immature when I was a college student." Actually, we were. We may have been worse, we've just forgotten.
Let's also fight to genuinely love and believe in college students. They're not a demographic for us to use when appropriate for our agenda. They're a generation of people who need to be pointed to Jesus and unleashed into the world for God's purposes.