St. Anthony’s Catholic Church/Wikimedia

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.