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FIRST-PERSON: Both/and: Campus ministry & a local church

NASHVILLE (BP) — May is graduation season. Thousands of high school graduates are getting ready to go to college. This includes many Christian students, for whom a move to a new city means being away not just from the comforts of home, but from their home church.

Away from the gathering of Christians they’ve known for years, many students will look to their campus ministry to fill the void.

A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting. Campus ministries can help equip Christian students to defend the faith, serve the poor and be 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 is because, too often, we have a deficient view of the church. We assume it is any gathering of people who believe in Jesus, do churchly things, and pool our resources for missions.

A campus ministry can do all those things. But the Scriptures tell us the church is much more than that.

In the Bible, a local church — even with its earthly flaws — is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Ephesians 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 (Ephesians 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 (Ephesians 1:22-23), a preview of what the Kingdom of Jesus will look like in the end (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). The spirit of Jesus is among them, just as God was present among the people of Israel in the temple of old (Matthew 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 (Matthew 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 Corinthians 5:4-5; Matthew 18:15-20). When we gather for worship as a congregation in covenant with one another, we ascend to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all His angels (Hebrews 12:18-29).

The Scriptures reveal 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 1970s-era audio system and kids banging Tonka trucks on the pew in front of you — is the flesh and bones of Jesus. It is His body, He tells us — inseparable from Him as your heart and lungs are from you (Ephesians 5:29-30; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

Saying “I love Jesus but not 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 reveals 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. 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.

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, 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, 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 30-something mom, a 14-year-old kid.

Fourth, pester the church leaders for some way to exercise your gifts — and let the leaders recognize and encourage your gifts. This means submitting yourself to serve in whatever way the church deems necessary. Most often, this will be something more Christ-like than glorious, such as restocking cookies and juice boxes for Vacation Bible School.

Finally, find a campus ministry that seeks to work alongside the church. Be wary of a campus ministry that isn’t constantly asking you, “Where are you in church — and what’s happening there?” And be 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 worthy campus ministries where you can lead or serve. Be sure you and your campus ministry group are out among your unsaved fellow students with dynamism and compassion. But make sure that you are, first of all, an active and accountable member of a local church. It may seem a little slower-paced than your campus ministry. It may not seem relevant to 21st-century culture.

But it is part of the unfolding mystery of the universe. And Jesus is there.

    About the Author

  • Russell Moore