It’s that time of year when Hillsdale students bring their checklist-laden, campus-touring college-search skills to the hunt for a church. College students offer plenty of reasons in defense of ecclesiastical pickiness, some of them fine: We want to toe the line of our childhood orthodoxy. Our lives are changing, and we’re desperate for solid support.
Sometimes, we care about the preacher’s voice or who’s sitting in the second row or the way they pass communion, and is it like they do it at home?
Hillsdale students tend to be regular churchgoers, and it’s right to take care in finding a good congregation. But the choosy mentality common to students who do so is skewed, short-sighted, and often self-centered.
“Church shopping,” or at least church changing, is a cultural phenomenon: According to a 2016 Pew Research study, about half of religiously-affiliated Americans said they had searched for new houses of worship as adults. More than a third looked for new congregations because of marriage, divorce, or moving, and twelve percent did so because they disagreed with people in their church.
Already uprooted, students delving into a four-year stint away from their home churches face a particular temptation to drift between churches and commit to them only lightly. But this is a crucial time to do the opposite. Instead of taking a ‘what-checks-my-boxes’ mindset and jumping congregations over small disputes, students should approach churches selflessly and graciously, looking for a congregation they can serve as much as it serves them — and with willingness to sacrifice time and patience for its growth.
We’ll be better for our wholehearted commitment.
Hale with well-rounded age demographics, churches offer the “moral and social instruction” of Hillsdale’s mission statement more effectively than a campus ministry or dorm Bible study can. Among peers, a student can magnify homework and drama and bad grades. But in a church, the physical presence of people in other stages of life — from the wisdom of the elderly to the demanding energy of babies and toddlers — forces students to see immediate troubles in light of a grander scheme.
Committed church involvement also embeds good habits in a student’s schedule — not only weekly worship but also volunteer work and prayer and Bible study. Studies have found that students who go to church tend to do better academically because of the habits they form for their religion.
But more importantly, churches offer a picture of the wholeness of life that can’t be learned so well on campus. Stay with a church through the seasons of a year, and you will celebrate marriages and delight in births and mourn the deaths of old and young alike. You will learn that adults suffer more poignantly painful hardships than a 20-year-old with five finals and three term papers. It is humbling to share in their burdens, and heartening to witness them rise from it.
There are, of course, legitimate reasons to leave a church. But perhaps they are fewer than we think.
“Pastors joke,” says Hillsdale College Chaplain Adam Rick, “that if you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it, because then it won’t be perfect anymore.”
A church is analogous to a battlefield, not a resort, Rick says. The wounded and sick and unrighteous fill the pews, but they are family. Like a marriage, joining a church is a commitment to love and serve someone flawed.
Leaving because of abuse or rejection of the gospel is one thing. But to leave over petty differences — or even, sometimes, to leave over serious disputes with other congregants — is sad and harmful to both parties. Christ himself chose the church as his bride; who are we to flippantly snub her?
A smattering of church visits does little good. The full impact of a church develops over time on its congregants, after breaking bread and weeping and laughing together. There are people you will not love until you know their burdens, and that takes time and investment beyond inconsistent Sunday-morning visits.
“It’s a sign of life to have these kids around. Churches want you there,” Rick says. “But they want you contributing some too.”
Harried with homework and commitments, we could excuse ourselves away from church during our college years. But that would be selfish, and foolish. In this season of semesters and cycles, of quickly-changing classes and friend groups and priorities and commitments, investing in a church provides a backdrop of permanence, a routine that brings us back to the same community and ritual every week.
Life will never slow down. The habits we form now will stick with us, so let’s make them selfless.
Nicole Ault is a senior studying economics.