From my very first week at college until the day I graduated, I was heavily involved in a campus ministry. I had grown up in church, and I jumped at the chance to be part of a huge gathering of college students who had the same passion for their faith that I did. It was exciting to come together every Friday night to worship and grow together, and I can’t imagine my time in college without that community.
It was fun, it was encouraging, it was supportive… but it wasn’t the same as church.
“A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other likeminded believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting,” Russell Moore says in his latest article for The Gospel Coalition. “A good one will help equip Christian students to defend the faith, serve the poor, and be held accountable to each other. A good campus ministry is a gift from God. But it is no church.”
Some differences between college ministries and church are obvious (mainly that one has a very small age range represented while the other is more diverse) but some are more subtle.
Moore gives many examples from Scripture that illustrate what church truly is:
“In the Bible, a local church—with all its ridiculous flaws—is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Eph. 3:6). She is in a one-flesh union with Jesus such that, as in a marriage, everything that belongs to him belongs to her (Eph. 5:22–33). A congregation, in covenant with one another as an assembly of Christ’s people, is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23), a preview of what his kingdom will look like in the end (1 Cor. 6:1–8). Where there is a covenant among believers—a disciplined community of faith—the Spirit of Jesus is present among them, just as God was present among the people of Israel in the temple of old (Matt. 18:15–20).
When the church judges a repentant sinner to be a genuine believer, the congregation is speaking with the authority of Jesus when they plunge him beneath the waters (Matt. 28:18–19). When the church judges an unrepentant sinner to be persistent in his rebellion, it’s with the authority of Jesus that the congregation pronounces him to be a stranger to the people of God (1 Cor. 5:4–5; Matt 18:15–20). When we gather for worship as a congregation in covenant with one another, we’re not simply fueling our individual quiet times with praise choruses. We’re actually ascending to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all of his angels on Mount Zion (Heb. 12:18–29).”
While being involved in a campus ministry is an incredible experience for college-aged Christians, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) replace church entirely. I know I personally found the zeal of my fellow students to be energizing and inspiring every time we crowded together in our university’s auditorium, but I still both needed and wanted to be among believers of other stages in life, other levels and depths of faith, and other backgrounds as well. It wasn’t just enough to get pumped up with people my age-- I needed the balance of a bigger church body alongside me to point me to Jesus and help me grow. There was so much more to the church than I could find in my campus ministry.
There were times that church seemed more boring in contrast to the high-energy gatherings on campus, but more and more I realized it wasn’t that the service was dull, but that it was just different.
I needed church just as much as I needed to among like-minded students.
Moore gives five helpful suggestions as college students seek to avoid an “unchurched spirituality” and find balance between campus ministry and church:
- “Resist the temptation to keep your membership in your home church.
- “Find a church where some people will know your name, and will know if you aren’t present.”
- “Spend some time with people in your congregation who aren’t in the same place of life as you.”
- “Humbly pester the leaders of the church for some way for you to exercise your gifts in the congregation.”
- “Find a campus ministry that seems to work alongside the church.”
To read more about these suggestions, find Moore’s full article here.
To every college student heading to campus this fall, let this be an encouragement to you to both get involved in a campus ministry AND a church body. The Lord can and will move in mighty ways through both, even when (and especially because) they’re so different from each other.
Tell us: what were your experiences with campus ministries and churches in college?
Publication date: August 25, 2016
Rachel Dawson is the editor of BibleStudyTools.com