I vividly remember the first Sunday morning I spent at college. It was, after all, the first time my alarm had ever gone off on a Sunday morning when I was able to decide if I’d make it to church or sleep off a difficult first night in a new place.
For 18 years as the son of a Nazarene-turned-United-Methodist pastor, I never had a choice about church. Not even a Sunday morning soccer game stopped me from going, and unless I could provide substantial evidence of illness by vomiting or extreme fever, I was in Sunday School as well as church, where I less-than-joyously listened to (and often slept through) my father’s sermons. More times than not, I would be huddled in the pew praying he wouldn’t embarrass me again from the pulpit like he had the week before.
So it wasn’t surprising that my first Sunday morning of college met me with an incredible sense of deliverance when I arose from my slumber and walked out of my dorm. I was heading to the most conveniently-located church, which happened to be United Methodist, a hop, skip and a jump from my room. I was going to church for once by my own choice, and no amount of ear pulling or bullying had to make that happen.
Even though my first choice of a church never quite took—it was too much like home for me—I didn’t slow down my church attendance when the work started piling up. I simply woke up earlier to write my monster history papers freshman year and continued my exhaustive search that led me to a number of churches where I still felt like a visitor after a semester of attending nearly every Sunday.
Hearing the, "Is your first Sunday with us?" question again from the members of a church of less than 50, with whom I had already shared the typical information—my major, career goal and hometown—was usually my cue to try another one. Sad to say, I never really found that church I was looking for. But despite never finding "the perfect church," I truly believe the Sundays spent in various congregations were used to strengthen and teach me more than I had ever learned in the 18 years of attending my father’s churches.
Even now as I reflect on my confusing quest for fellowship in college that led to frequent soul-searching, heartache and even bitterness at times, I am even more appreciative of those precious first weeks away from home when the decision was ultimately in my hands.
I am often faced with the question: What place does the church really have in a college student’s life? College students’ plates are often so full, and a once-a-week visit to a house of worship often isn’t enough for the church to accept them.
I recently spoke with a number of current undergraduate and graduate students to get their takes on the issue.
Laura DeHart, a second year graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., knows a thing or two about having a full plate. But as busy as she finds herself, the search for a church and a fellowship is one that she has made a priority.
"Life is always, always busy, but if you really believe that being in fellowship with other believers is key to your Christian growth, then you’ll make finding a church a priority," said DeHart, who regularly attends a Baptist church not far from campus.
With the amount of time she spends with her studies, she doesn’t have time to be involved much beyond attending a Bible study group and Sunday morning worship, she said.
"I find it particularly hard to really be involved in a lot of church activities, and right now I think that’s okay,” she said. “I can’t be everywhere, and right now, God is using me as a student—which is a mission field all its own, even though I’m not working within the church directly …
"Time in college or grad school is a time of preparation for whatever lies ahead in God’s plan for our lives. It’s also a time to be a witness to others and show them what the priorities in our lives are."
Like DeHart, Lars Gotrich, a sophomore communications major at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., attends a large state school.
"The majority of my friends here are not Christians, so the need for Christian fellowship is great," Gotrich said. "I found it easy to slip up last year because I had no accountability with someone my age or on the same spiritual level. This past month I have been praying for one such person and I hope that God provides him or her."
Gotrich, who attends the Salvation Army Church, said his church away from home provides worship, community service and a size that are all to his liking.
Sarah Powell, a sophomore English major at Eastern University, a small Christian college in St. David’s, Pa., is a strong advocate of finding a regular church while at school.
"We’re here nine months out of the year … and it’s important to get plugged in to a body of believers with whom you can fellowship and grow," Powell said, noting that as a spiritual life advisor in the dorms, she encourages students to attend church, which they usually do from the onset with a group of upperclassmen.
At a Christian college, Powell has the luxury of being able to lead what she calls a "Grow Group" every Wednesday night with the girls on her hall, but as she is quick to point out, it is not a replacement or a quick fix for church.
"It’s not the same as getting involved in the church," Powell said. "A church is a body of believers coming together. A Bible study once a week is a good thing, but it’s not a church."
However, getting off campus to a local church can be difficult for freshmen not permitted to have a car like Sam Hedenberg, a journalism student at the University of Maryland.
"I’m waiting to get settled in before I start looking for a church," Hedenberg said. "I’m not really sure if I’ll find a church though, because I’m a little worried about getting mixed up in a cult, and I also think it will be difficult to find a pastor like the one I have at home."
Hedenberg also has yet to find someone at school he can attend church with, a problem many college students who don’t want to visit a church alone face.
As a freshman in college, I was in that same situation. While I never found a church I felt completely comfortable in, I am extremely thankful for the experiences I had in those places of worship and the valuable lessons I was reminded of during my Sunday morning visits.
As difficult and confusing those trying days of college were, I can’t imagine what they would have been like if I had made the choice to stay in bed that first Sunday morning on my own. Maybe shutting off the alarm and going back to sleep that morning would have led to me giving up on church all together.
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