Katherine grinned slightly as she saw the banner out of the edge of her eye. “Welcome Back Students,” it read. The sign hung above the familiar brick building that, despite the cold, seemed to radiate with warmth and light, as students played table tennis inside. This was Katherine’s campus ministry group headquarters, a place very different from the awkward, often dead, congregation she knew back home. Here she learned to share her faith, and to cry with hurting friends. Here she learned that Christianity was about more than the Southern Gospel quartet tunes and awkward church committee meetings she’d seen at her home church. This seemed like home.
Many college and university students know exactly why Katherine resonates more with her campus ministry than with any particular local church. A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other like-minded believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting. Campus ministries can help equip Christian students to defend the faith, to serve the poor, to be held accountable to one another. A good campus ministry is a gift from our Christ. But it is no church.
The reason many college students identify primarily with a campus ministry rather than with a church is not because of any flaw in most campus ministry organizations. It is because, too often, we evangelical Christians have a deficient view of the church. We assume that it is any gathering of people who believe in Jesus and who do churchly things. Many Christians assume the church exists simply to help us learn more about Christ and pool our resources for missions. If that’s the case, a campus ministry can do all those things, and more. But the Scriptures tell us the church is much more than that.