Seated in my local church pew with my 81 other classmates, I eagerly anticipated our speaker’s sermon. It was the morning of May 19, 2021, the day of my high school’s baccalaureate service. The pastor, Kevin DeYoung, began by giving us what he thought was arguably the most significant decision we seniors would make in college, perhaps even for the rest of our lives. His charge to the seniors: go to church your first Sunday in college. This seemingly oversimplified tidbit would turn out to be the most influential, biblically founded advice for me in my freshman year of college.
My parents paid for 13 years of K–12 private Christian liberal arts education, sent me to Christian summer camps, encouraged me to surround myself with Christian friends and go on church mission trips, prayed before every meal, read me Christian books and the Bible before bedtimes, and listened to sermons on family road trips, all for which I’m profoundly grateful. The greatest blessing they gave me? Easy, and it’s not even close. Bringing me Sunday after Sunday, morning and evening, to the same church for 18 years. Even when I desperately desired to attend my 10:00 a.m. championship soccer games. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
Not Just Me and Jesus
The greatest blessing my parents gave me? Bringing me Sunday after Sunday, morning and evening, to the same church for 18 years.
In an era of new-age mysticism, blind spirituality quests, and even “just-me-and-Jesus-without-the-church” spiritual journeys, it can be difficult to understand why the church is essential to Christian living. The abundance of biblical and theological resources we can access at a moment’s notice makes it that much easier to stream a YouTube church service from halfway across the globe. Why not resort to keeping Christianity between me and Jesus, reading my Bible, attending a Bible study or campus ministry, and streaming a couple of sermons a week?
Not only did Jesus desire for his followers to be regular participants in his work through a local church congregation, he knew it was drastically unhealthy to fail to do so. For the church is Christ’s bride and his body, of which he’s the groom and the head (Eph. 5:23–33; Rev. 19:7–9). Would you ever attend a wedding without the bride or talk (logically) to a head missing its body? Of course not! Then why do we try to get Jesus without the church?
Glimpses of God
Now I’m in my local church in college in a different region of the country, and the squealing and bawling of a newborn girl nestled under the gentle care of her slightly embarrassed mother sitting in the back reminds me of God’s covenant promises to his people (1 Cor. 7:14) and her parents’ desire to “bring [her] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
When Pastor Jon invites the children up for a mini-sermon before the real deal, the congregation is allowed a glimpse of Jesus’s love for children (Matt. 19:14). And, in fact, many adults in our church say they use the children’s sermon to draw the major points for the main one!
This intergenerational congregational bond, based on our union in Christ, encourages me to reach out to the retired 80-year-old businessman in the front and the 6-year-old child who can’t stop talking, two people with whom I wouldn’t normally interact on my college campus. I have much to learn from both.
Our senior pastor’s faithful commitment to preach “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) every Sunday, commuting 25 minutes between two services despite ongoing health challenges, to a receptive (but imperfect) congregation renders me ever grateful for a man who loves God’s people, practicing daily what he preaches (James 1:25), and for a people eager to soak up the Word who, like the Bereans, daily search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).
The family who welcomes me into their home every Tuesday for Bible study demonstrates biblical hospitality (Rom. 12:13). That same family offers us college students rides to avoid freezing our toes off when it’s −10 degrees with a foot of snow outside.
Families who sacrifice their usual relative-exclusive Easter traditions to have 20 college students barge in and eat with them reflect God’s generous character, Trinitarian fellowship (1 John 1), and the rich courtesy of mutual gospel encouragement (Rom. 1:11–12). And it was a whole lot better than chomping down on some cafeteria food, I’ll tell you that.
In the local church, we don’t have a man-made institution but a people gathered in Jesus’s name possessing the promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against [them]” (Matt. 16:18). Notice Jesus didn’t guarantee his followers the everlasting reign of the high school parachurch group, campus ministry, or summer camp retreat center (although praise God for these). My Christian college soccer team, chapel services, and theological conversations in the dining hall are all edifying. Yet, ultimately, the Lord didn’t promise these would last forever.
Would you ever attend a wedding without the bride? Of course not! Then why do we try to get Jesus without the church?
What he sustains week after week, year after year, is the transcendental fellowship and worship of the saints in the church body. Every Sunday we’re comforted and spiritually fed by the means of grace and the gathering of believers, a glimpse of eternity with Christians “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
If I could speak at any baccalaureate service and address my generation, I would provide what I deem to be the most underrated, life-transforming, soul-flourishing, biblically rooted advice I have: show up to your local church. Every Sunday. Ask your pastor about simple ways to serve. Introduce yourself to an older member and glean his or her wisdom. And then joyfully greet those wide-eyed freshmen who desire the same authentic community.
It’s not flashy, but it’s faithful. It’s not legalism, it’s simply freedom found in the body of Christ. It’s not always the most exciting Sunday morning activity for an exhausted college student, yet it’s enduring.
Don’t neglect the Bride of Christ but cling to her, being encouraged as we daily draw near to the living God (Heb. 10:22, 25). You won’t regret it in the long run, I promise.