Well, it’s that time of year. Thousands of college students all over the country (and the world) will soon be moving into their dorm room or house, eager to get settled in for the new academic year.
High on the agenda for many students will be discovering the best place for live music, finding the coolest (and cheapest!) restaurants in town, or maybe just scoring tickets to the big football game. But for Christian students there’s another agenda item (or at least their should be): finding a new church home.
Now, there’s lots to be said about how to pick a good church. And top of the list are two core theological concerns: (1) Does this church believe the Gospel—that Jesus is the divine Son of God who died for sinners and rose from the dead?; and (2) Does this church believe the Bible—that it is the inspired word of God and the ultimate standard for all that we believe and do?
However, while these two concerns are paramount, they are not all that can be said about finding a good church. There are many churches that say they believe both of these things that still have other serious problems. So, here are some additional considerations that may or may not have crossed your mind:
Accountability. There are a number of church today with big name pastors that have an enormous platform and a big social media presence. These kinds of churches tend to attract college students for obvious reasons—it’s fun to be a part of the big show. But a question that is rarely asked is whether that leader has real accountability. Are there people around him, fellow elders, who can keep him in check and challenge him if needed? Is the church about more than just one man? With the lessons of Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll echoing in our ears, this is more important than ever.
Attitude. While we are quick to examine a church’s theology, we are typically less concerned to inquire about a church’s culture. This is unfortunate because a church’s culture and attitude—assumptions and values that are typically unspoken but just “in the water” so to speak—sometimes have a bigger impact on the life of the church than the stated theological convictions. So here a few culture questions about the church or its leaders: Is the church arrogant and prideful, showing disdain for all other traditions? Are the church’s leaders kind and gentle, or harsh and demanding? Is the church filled with judgmentalism and legalism or grace and compassion? Remember, culture has as much of an impact as theology.
Awareness. As a college student, you will be faced with enormous intellectual, cultural, and theological challenges. Indeed, this is why I wrote my most recent book: Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College. But you will need more than a book. You will need a church, and church leaders, that are informed, educated, and aware of the key theological issues/debates, and can speak warmly and intelligently into those debates. I had a recent conversation with a college student who met with her pastor to ask about Calvinism and predestination (a pretty normal theological question in college). Unfortunately, the pastor was completely unaware of the theological debate, did not understand both sides, and proceeded therefore to caricature Calvinism in ways that were grossly inaccurate. Here’s the point: find a church where the leaders are able to handle complex issues with awareness and nuance.
Access. For a lot of Christian college students, church is just a weekly one-hour experience at most. They show up, sing some songs, listen to the sermon, and then go home without any real connection or awareness of the leadership or the pastors. Sometimes this the fault of the student who refuses to get involved, but other times its the fault of a church that has decided college students aren’t worth their time because they are always coming and going. You need to look for a church that provides college students with a real opportunity to get involved, to serve, and to use their gifts. In other words, find a church that treats you like a real member with all the requisite access to the benefits of that membership.
Action. Finally, I would encourage college students to find a church that is eager to actually do something for the cause of Christ in the world. I have seen far too many churches over the years that say they are about reaching the lost, but instead spend most of their time talking about theology, or congratulating themselves on why their theology is better than everyone else’s. Meanwhile, they exist in a city where people are perishing. Don’t misunderstand: theology matters very much. But true theology leads to action. So, look for a church that is doing more than talking. Look for a church that is busy living out the Great Commission in real, tangible ways.
The above five categories are not exhaustive. There’s much more that could be said about finding a good church. But hopefully that will get you out of the gate. And remember, finding a good church is only the first step. You have to actually go, join, and be a part of it!
While this is critical for all of us, it is particular critical for college students. You will face a lot in the years ahead. The key to survival is to follow what I call my “horror movie advice.” In scary movies, the protagonist always makes the same mistake: they go off alone and in the dark. Meanwhile the audience shouts out, “Don’t do it!”
So, take my horror movie advice. Don’t go off to college and deal with all your questions alone and in the dark. Instead, do what every character in a horror movie should have done: stay in the group, and stay in the light.
And that begins with finding a good church.