Churches minister to students seeking communitycomment (0)
August 9, 2012
By Joseph Rhea
With the end of summer fast approaching, upcoming college freshmen are getting restless and excited as they anticipate a new phase in their lives. They pack up clothes hampers, funky storage units and coordinated twin-size bedding. They choose the belongings from their rooms that will make the transition to become part of their new “domestic” life in a dorm room or an apartment. They schedule classes, find new Facebook friends, secure jobs — they begin plugging in to their new lives in their new towns.
They go to college for an education, certainly. They go to prepare themselves for adult life and work. And they go ready for that transitional period between having their lives governed by their parents and making their own futures. After 18 years, even a young adult with a fantastic relationship with his or her parents is hungry for that autonomy.
But what else are they hungry for? What is it that these students will go to school wanting?
College students are hungry for community above all else, said Trace Hamiter, college minister for First Baptist Church, Opelika. More than pizza dinners, more than a place to do laundry, students will come to college looking for a place where they belong — where they know that they are known and accepted.
And everything that seeks their attention on campus will promise, explicitly or implicitly, to satisfy that hunger. The elite, familial bond of a fraternity or sorority. The roaring vicarious passion of a stadium’s student section. Arts programs, study groups, academic communities — all of them whisper or shout, “You belong here; we know you and we want you as you are.”
Incoming freshmen, Christian and non-Christian alike, are especially hungry for community, said Chad Cossiboom, university minister at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills. They want to be “connected and invested” somewhere.
Michael Pierce, associate pastor and college minister of Moffett Road Baptist Church, Mobile, described it as students’ desire for a “family.” If anything, incoming freshmen are more sensitive to a feeling of community because they have just uprooted themselves from their previous life.
That is why it is absolutely essential for incoming freshmen to actively seek community in a local church, these college ministers said.
“Solid Christian community … is what the church is supposed to be,” Hamiter said. True Christian community is Christ-glorifying and gospel-centered, focusing attention on the one thing that is ultimately important. Communities centered around other things, whether sports, personality or academic success, risk leading students away from Christ if they are not rooted in a community of faith as well.
“There’s so much growth that happens in that first year of college,” said Allen Tate, college pastor at Highland Baptist Church, Florence.
“One thing we emphasize is, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God … and all these things will be added to you,’” Pierce said. Students need not be anxious about relationships or grades; rather, they ought to trust God for those things and commit to a God-ordained community, he said.
Many of the difficulties in finding Christian community as a freshman stem from distraction, Hamiter said. Going home over a weekend, late Saturday night hangouts and studies can make students unwilling to get up on Sunday mornings for church (Hamiter included his freshman-year self in that group). Cultivating the discipline to go to bed and wake up is necessary, or a student will find that Sunday after Sunday gets eaten away until the semester is over.
Another potential difficulty is the feeling that college is a temporary place and not a home. That sense can lead students to think that they need not bother getting involved in a community of faith that they will likely leave behind in a few years.
“Four years is not a small time of consequence,” said Blake Jenkins, associate college minister of Calvary Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa. The college years are an incredibly important time for personal development. And in one’s relationship to Christ, “if you’re not moving forward you’re drifting backward,” Jenkins said. To live as a Christian is to move “against the current” of the world, and having true Christian community is essential for that, he noted.
“Some (students) think they’ll be hurting their home church’s feelings by joining a church” in their college town, Hamiter said. “But any good church will want just the opposite!” A church that genuinely cares about its members will want them to be fed God’s Word and be encouraged by community wherever they are, he said. And because students are usually at a college for at least four years — including some of the most important formative years of their lives — it is all the more important that those years include deep, edifying relationships with other believers.
A third difficulty is finding a suitable church. How can students figure out which church community is most worth joining?
The first thing that all of the ministers recommended was to find a church “that preaches the gospel faithfully,” as Cossiboom expressed it. Hamiter described it as “teaching saturated in the Word of God,” as opposed to non-expository teaching or “flashy but empty” preaching.
They also recommended students look for a church with an active ministry in which the students could engage. “They’re adults, not children,” Pierce said. “It’s not time for them to sit back, but to plug in in worship and Bible study so they can be used for the Kingdom.” The church should be “passionate about discipleship and evangelistic missions,” Cossiboom said.
The ministers also recommended finding a church with genuine community, especially with older generations.
“Ministries need to be relational,” Pierce said. Loving community will feel like “a home away from home,” he added.
Cossiboom added that the potential for genuine relationships with older people is “one of the things only the local church can offer.” Students can benefit from a family that temporarily “adopts” them in the classic senses of providing a place to do laundry and an occasional meal; but far more importantly, the familial love that is part of a genuine local body of Christ is a sign that God is present there and will benefit students far more.
The ministers recommended that students avoid joining churches that thrived on hype, entertainment or style.
Hamiter warned that sometimes a flashy or trendy exterior may mask a weak or nonexistent biblical core.
“Look beyond the show,” he said.
Cossiboom advised students not to be overly particular about style and not to reject a church because it does not match one’s tastes entirely.
Pierce recommended that students not seek out simply the most entertaining church. “Our student ministries are often focused on events and entertainment, and it shouldn’t be about that,” he said. “It’s about a relationship with the living, breathing God of the universe.”