Jan 22, 2018


Students Need the Local Church

Andy Cimbala writes about four reasons that college students need the local church.

75% of high schoolers who attended church leave the church once they reach college. The stats vary based on details, but every college ministry leader can validate this from their own experience: it’s hard to keep college students in the local church. It’s even harder to get non-churched students to start attending church.

But do students really need the local church? Isn’t it enough to just privately read the Bible sometimes, and maybe watch some sermons online? Isn’t it enough to attend a Thursday night Bible study every few weeks, or maybe a worship concert once a semester? I’m sure you’ve had a conversation with a student like this, “What religion would you identify with?” “Christian” “Cool, are you involved in a local church?” “Nah, not since coming to college. I’m not really interested in organized religion.”

Many students are content with identifying as a Christian, but not actually being a part of Christ’s people. They think, “All I need is a personal relationship with Jesus. I don’t need other Christians, and I certainly don’t need those old trappings of religion with church services…” So they eject from community. But if you truly have a relationship with Jesus, then you have to have a relationship with His Body (Ephesians 4:15-16). Many student claim to follow Jesus as their head, but they’ve decapitated him from the rest of His body. It’s like living in Baltimore and wearing a jersey for the Ravens but never actually watching any games. It is pretended allegiance without real commitment.

True love of Christ necessitates commitment to his body, and there are no lone ranger Christians. How in the world are you going to be obedient to all the plural commandments in Scripture about “______ one another” if there are no “anothers”? You need other Christians, and they need you, this interdependent community is the theme throughout the Bible. Almost all the letters in the New Testament are written to a specific local church. The book of Revelation has seven letters written BY JESUS to local churches. 1 Timothy 3:15 says that the church is “the household of God” and “a pillar and buttress of the truth”. It’s assumed on every page of the New Testament that to be a Christian means being baptized and enfolded into the community of other Christians in your city. Pastor Bill Hybels says, “The local church is the hope of the world.” For more on this topic, check out the following resources: Why You Need a Church by Russell Moore, Learning to Love the Local Church by Jordan Eyster (audio), and Why Should I Go to Church? by Tiffany Johnson.

But I’m not writing to convince students they need the church. I’d like to help you — as a parachurch ministry leader — to be convinced that students need the local church. You have great influence, and can make or break a student’s decision about local church involvement. The parachurch is not a substitute for the local church! We must work WITH the church and FOR the church, because the parachurch is a mission OF the church. There’s a lot you can do as a parachurch college ministry leader to help be the bridge between the campus and the church. And what students decide NOW about the local church will shape how they relate to the church for the next few decades.

Here are four practical reasons why students need the local church:

  1. Students Need Preaching: The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and God speaks through His preached Word. It will not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:10f). Nothing can replace the regular faithful preaching of the Bible on Sunday mornings with the gathered people of God. Students need this spiritual meat, for their own sustenance and maturing. Do you long to see your students grow in Christian maturity? Then they must feast on the Word.
  2. Church Helps Prevent “The Swamp”: I’m sure you’ve seen this sad experience: a student is rockin’ and rollin’ for Christ during college, leading Bible studies and doing ministry. Then they graduate and just fall off the map spiritually. Some have called post-graduation “The Swamp” because of this spiritual quagmire that many grads find themselves in. How can we prevent this? One answer is a vital involvement in a local church during college. This helps smooth out the transition from the college bubble into the real world, where there isn’t parachurch college ministries and Bible studies knocking on your door. It’s vitally necessary for a grad to plug into a local church once they graduate. And the best way to ensure that is that they’ve already developed a love for the local church BEFORE graduation.
  3. Students Need Diverse Relationships: The college campus is a very strange bubble where everyone is in the same stage of life. There’s not many other places in life where it’s like that, other than perhaps a nursing home. Students need the rich fruit that comes from diverse relationships. They need investment from those older than them in a different stage of life. They need to experience friendships with folks in a different socioeconomic status. They need to see the hard work of folks working blue collar jobs. They need to see kids, which leads to the next point.
  4. Students Need to See Marriages and Parenting: You don’t see many children on the college campus, nor do you see marriages lived out in the dorm room. But statistically most students will get married and have kids. How will they be trained in glorifying God in these roles? Through the local church. This is why small groups hosted in church leader’s homes are such an excellent method. No book can replace the experience of seeing marriage and parenthood modeled by real Christians, especially when you experience this week after week! The local church is one of the best training grounds for life on life discipleship, not just for character building and Scripture memorization, but for training in marriage & parenting.

I don’t want to be a church-substitute for students by leading a weekly Bible study on campus. This is insufficient, I want to be an on-ramp to get students plugged into community with other Christians. My call to fellow parachurch missionaries is this: do not see your job as complete until your students are participating members of healthy local churches. Because students need the local church.

about the author

Andy Cimbala

Andy Cimbala and his wife Melissa have a passion to make disciples of college students. They work with DiscipleMakers at Shippensburg University, leading Bible studies and mentoring leaders. Andy has written a book called The Relentless Fight.