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.
In the Bible, a local church–with all its ridiculous flaws–is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Eph 3:6). The church is in a one-flesh union with Jesus so 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 the Kingdom of Jesus 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 is 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 are not simply fueling our individual quiet times with praise choruses. We are instead actually ascending to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all of his angels on Mount Zion (Heb 12:18-29).
The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discern on our own. The church–not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with the lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful comb-over hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you–is flesh and bones of Jesus. It is His Body, he tells us–inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph 5:29-30; 1 Cor 12:12-31).
Saying “I love Jesus” but hating the church is as irrational as saying to your best friend, “I like you–I just can’t stand being around you.” Your attitude toward the church tells you–simply–your attitude toward Jesus.
It is easy for a campus ministry to seem more “spiritual” than a local congregation. Sometimes a campus ministry is filled with people more zealous for the mission of Christ than some church members. Sometimes young Christians mistake youthful idealism and, frankly, erotic charge for the spiritual gravity of a moment. A church made up of people from all different life-stations, economic classes, and racial backgrounds is bound to have friction. And a church that is not aiming to “reach” a particular age group is bound to seem, as often as not, to be sluggish, dull, or misdirected to people in that age group–whatever age group it is.
Does the centrality of the church mean that campus ministry is irrelevant or redundant? No indeed. Should you be involved with a campus ministry at your college or university? Yes indeed. So how do you avoid the spiritual dangers of an unchurched spirituality?
First of all, resist the temptation to keep your membership in your home church. Join a church in your college town, as soon as you find one with a commitment to Christ and the Scripture. Second, find a church where some people will know your name, and will know if you are not present. Find a place where someone will ask you, “Where were you?” if you miss a week. Third, spend some time with people in your congregation who are not in the same place in life as you–a lonely senior adult, a harried thirty-something Mom, a sarcastic fourteen year-old kid. Fourth, pester the church leaders of the church for some way for you to exercise your gifts in the congregation–and let the leaders recognize and encourage your gifts. This means submitting yourself to serve the Body in whatever way the church deems necessary. Most often, this will be something more Christ-like than glorious, such as cleaning toilets or restocking cookies and juice-boxes for Vacation Bible School. Fifth, find a campus ministry that seeks to work alongside the church. Look for a ministry that wants to enhance what is already happening in your life in discipleship and spiritual growth and mission in your congregation. Be very wary of a campus ministry that isn’t constantly asking you, “Where are you in church–and what’s happening there?” And be very, very wary of a campus ministry that seems to resent the time you spend with your church as “competing” with their ministry.
There are lots of campus ministries like this out there. Be sure you find one. Be sure you pour yourself into whatever ministry your campus group can empower you to lead or serve. Be sure you and your fellow campus ministry group members are out among your unsaved fellow students with dynamism and compassion. But make sure that you are, first of all, an active, identified, and accountable member of a local church. It may seem a little slower-paced than your campus ministry. It may not seem relevant to twenty-first century culture. But it is part of the unfolding mystery of the universe. And Jesus is there. So what other kind of spirituality do you need?