Help! My Church Doesn’t Look Anything Like My Chapter Did. Is That Normal?
“I just can’t seem to find a church that feels like our InterVarsity chapter . . .”
When I was a Campus Staff Minister with InterVarsity, this was one of my least favorite reports to hear from our alumni. I would try to help them dig a little deeper into what exactly they were wrestling with in committing to a local church. Four common barriers were often expressed.
Meaningful relationships are harder to build.
One of the many incredible gifts of the university experience is proximity to people around the same age with similar commitments and priorities. In my freshman dorm, I lived a few steps from 60 other people who were all 18 to 20 years old, attending class 12 to 18 hours per week, and otherwise pretty available for going to the gym, studying together, or playing video games until three in the morning.
Outside of the collegiate bubble, that kind of openness can be difficult to find. New grads are often adjusting to the rigors of a full-time workweek or a more intensive graduate school schedule. Others at church are likely in a host of different stages of life that can make scheduling difficult. Many grads walk into a new church the first Sunday after moving and find that they are the only visitor in a place with lots of established networks that can feel challenging to enter.
Influence is harder to achieve.
Campus ministry operates at a breakneck speed when it comes to leadership development. One of my alumni had already planted three missional communities by the time he turned 20. Another was a regular Bible teacher before she had her first legal drink. Because campus ministry staff know they only have a few years with a student, the urgency for releasing them into the mission field reaches full tilt.
In many local churches, however, it can take years to build the trust needed to access that level of influence. This can be a good thing, as the slower pace toward leadership often creates space for more permanent relationships to form, and for a deeper commitment to workplaces, neighborhoods, and other communities to develop than is usually possible in college. But when a recent grad is coming from a campus ministry environment, particularly if they weren’t committed to a church in college, it can be a tough adjustment.
There is less ethnic diversity.
I grew up in a small, Midwestern town that is more than 90 percent white. There were fewer than 10 people of color in my entire graduating class of around 200 people. For me, college was the first place where I encountered the wider world beyond my ethnic background. Many grads leave college with both a fairly well-developed set of cross-cultural skills and an expectation that they will use them in their everyday life.
This expectation, however, is often frustrated by their experience of the local church. Only about 8 to 14 percent of churches in the US are considered multiethnic (where the dominant racial group makes up less than 80 percent of the total congregation). There are excellent reasons for ethnic-specific churches to exist, particularly among historically marginalized people groups, but many recent grads are looking for a community that mirrors their experience in college as well as their understanding of the fullest expression of the kingdom of God.
There is less concern for justice and/or evangelism.
Campus life also brings a sober awareness of the evil at work in the world. The university is, after all, the place where rigorous academic inquiry gets applied to the greatest problems facing humanity. With students spending hours each week in class and extracurricular organizations learning about disease, poverty, injustice, and other societal woes, it’s no wonder that many become both politically active and spiritually curious while in college.
Additionally, the environment of the campus itself brings the Fall and its effects into sharp relief, as students face everything from depression to sexual assault to racism and any number of other problematic elements. Many collegiate ministries, like InterVarsity, have rightly identified the campus as a place in need of hope and healing and devote extensive resources toward evangelism, prayer ministry, and other means of creative outreach to every corner of campus.
That activistic streak can be challenging to identify in some local churches. One of the reasons many major social movements begin with 16- to 25-year-olds is that they possess a uniquely catalytic combination of awareness and availability. A group of 50 college students is often much easier to mobilize than 50 professionals with young kids, ailing parents, full-time jobs, and more. This is not an excuse for inactivity in the local church; if anything, older generations have always been led by the youth of the day toward social and spiritual change. However, this difference in pace often appears, at first glance, to be apathy.
In light of all this, what is a recent grad to do? Here are three encouragements I have found helpful in my own life and in the lives of alumni.
Keep the gospel the main thing.
The first step in finding a post-college community is to acknowledge the ways that consumerism has influenced you, particularly if you went to school in the States. Much of your campus experience was shaped by a large, wealthy institution highly motivated to keep you personally satisfied at all times. It will be tempting to project that expectation onto your experience of a local church, many of whom are operating on less than 1 percent of your alma mater’s annual revenues.
Instead, press yourself to look past the superficial appearance of a local church and ask a deeper question: Is this a structure and a people in which a robust, holistic understanding of the gospel is in operation? Do they practice repentance and reconciliation? Do they love and teach the Scriptures? Do they empower each other to make disciples of all nations and to proclaim the kingdom in word and action? These questions take time to answer but are infinitely more important than whether or not the music or preaching is something you’d recommend to your friends.
One of the best ways to capture a sense of connectedness outside of the university world is to intentionally choose to live in the neighborhood where you worship. Living within walking distance will help you feel more connected in two crucial ways.
First, it will help overcome the barriers of time and distance that can make belonging difficult. A half-hour commute can seem insurmountable when the alarm goes off a little earlier than you would like on Sunday morning. Knowing that you are just a few blocks away may be the small but meaningful difference it takes to help you connect.
This proximity will also root you in the de facto mission field of the congregation. Though many churches have missional efforts beyond the vicinity of their building, there is still a certain sense of responsibility that comes with owning a piece of property in a given neighborhood. By occupying that same space, your missionary identity will be synced with the broader community. Any neighbors you befriend will be easy to invite to a church event. If other church members do likewise, you will find relationships that much easier to build as a result.
Give it time and energy.
Making friends after college is a lot like trying to get in shape; it is not something that happens naturally with the passage of time. Getting in shape takes intentional effort over months and even years to unlearn bad habits and retrain your desires around food and exercise. Even when you achieve the results you want, it takes discipline to maintain the results and not slide back into more quickly gratifying temptations.
For some reason, many of us believe that real community should be effortless. We are skeptical of friendships that take work to create, build, and maintain. In reality, however, lasting relationships are the result of disciplined intentionality. If you want to connect deeply, set aside time in your calendar every week (I would recommend one weekday slot and one weekend slot) to meaningfully connect with people from church. Expect it to take at least six months before the regular discipline of building community leads to a feeling of connectedness. Consider asking a few fellow alums to hold you accountable, and embark on this journey together.
But also, don’t let the fire die.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” My three encouragements are intended to help you see through our idealistic, and sometimes consumer-driven, desires for the local church to the real community that we can join and build together.
At the same time, let me leave you with one final encouragement. While you are getting into the mess of real life alongside an admittedly broken group of people like yourself, do not allow your dream of the ideal Christian community to fully fade. Every once in a while, grab a journal or a trusted friend and allow yourself to indulge in a little youthful dreaming about what the Church could be in your city, on your block, in your workplace.
More than we need your generation to faithfully serve in the parking lots and nurseries of today, more than we need your newly acquired tithing dollars, we need you to dream about what could be. We need you to remember that the kingdom of God is like the tiny seed that becomes the enormous tree where the birds of the air find their rest. We need you to imagine that kingdom coming to bear on both the great evils and the great confusion of our time.
As you discipline yourself to be fully alive and present in a certain community, allow the Lord to fan the flame of your dreams and desires for the Church as he so chooses. In every generation, we need dreamers to lead the Church into the future. It may be that your present discontent, tempered by the patient wisdom of pursuing deep community here and now, will one day soon be the vessel that receives a new outpouring of the Spirit of God for your mission field. For our sake, don’t let that fire die.
“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’” (Acts 2:17-18).
Finding community can be just as arduous a journey as finding Nemo. Especially if you forget people’s names like Dory or cling to your comfort zone like Marlin. Movie metaphors aside, finding community when you’re in a new place requires genuine commitment to the journey.
On the surface, I go to church because I should, because I said I would, and because I want to model church attendance to my kids. But, if I can step outside my negativity and sense of drudgery about it, I remember that I go because I’m part of a family.