Some Assembly Required
Some Christians let their church attendance fall off in college. They’ve got lots of excuses — but not many good ones.
Sam just graduated from the same college Joey attends. Sam majored in Ministry and held a leadership position in the largest campus ministry at the college. He also served as a youth ministry intern and short-term missionary during his summer vacations. Sam wants to work with youth and children. Sam rarely attended church, unless he was interning on a staff. He also lived with his fiancé for several months before they were married.
Candice is an accountant who was a business major at Joey and Sam’s college. Candice had been active in her home church’s youth ministry while in high school. Once at college, Candice attended a campus ministry from time to time and had several close Christian friends. Candice almost never attended church unless she was visiting home. She also took up drinking as a hobby, even though she was under the legal drinking age at the time.
Each of the three students mentioned above are real people, though their names have been changed for the purpose of this article. Each was raised in a Christian home, grew up active in a local church, and was a leader in the church’s youth ministry. Two of them feel as though God has called them into full-time Christian ministry. The other feels as though God wants her to be a Christian witness to the business community. None of them were active in a local church while a student in college.
Too many Christian college students (and young adults in general) are MIA when it comes to church attendance. They treat church involvement as if it were an optional thing in the Christian life. Their reasons for nonattendance are legion. Here are some of the more interesting excuses I have heard in the last five years:
“I’m active in a campus ministry, so I don’t have to attend church.”
“I’m too sleepy to go to church on Sunday mornings, so I have a longer devotion as a time of personal worship.”
“All of the churches around here are dead because they don’t have contemporary worship services.”
“None of the preachers around here are good, so I listen to Charles Stanley on the television on Sunday afternoons.”
“I have to work on my homework on Sunday mornings. It’s my only free time.”
“I go to church when I’m back home.”
“It’s not like any of the ministry students go to church.”
I think it is obvious that none of these excuses hold much water. A couple of them are downright heartbreaking. Notice that the comments are always in reference to Sunday morning worship services. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday evening services are not even on most of these students’ radar map.
So why is it that so many evangelical college students, even ones who attend Christian colleges and feel called to Christian ministry, don’t attend a local church regularly? I think the biggest reason is found in the way many Christians treat the subject of church membership and participation.
People take church membership far too casually in our culture. As one seminary president recently observed, it’s more difficult to be a member of the Kiwanis Club than the church of Christ. Many service organizations like the Kiwanis have membership obligations like moral codes of conduct, attendance requirements, and a commitment to contribute financially to the organization. Should a member of one of these organizations fall into moral misconduct or fail to regularly participate in the activities of the group, he or she is subject to the discipline of the group. Often this discipline includes public censure and/or forfeiture of membership rights.
It should shame us that our churches treat membership more cavalierly than secular service organizations. Too many of our churches teach that membership is no big deal. In many churches there are names on the membership roles that no one even knows. We have created such designations for these people as “inactive members” and “nonresident members.” Neither of these are biblical ideas, though there are some instances (such as military service and nursing home residents) when an individual should be allowed to remain a member of a church without being active in that church. In my own denomination, only about one third of our total membership participate in Sunday morning worship services in any given local church. Surely this does not honor God.
Many of our churches are also filled with people who are engaged in immoral activities that are not appropriate for Christians. Now before you accuse me of being a terribly judgmental person, I want to be clear that I am not talking about non-Christians who attend a local church. Unbelievers should not be expected to adhere to Christian standards. They have not been regenerated. They are not Christians. I am talking about those individuals that claim the name of Christ and are full members of our churches. Many of them may even hold positions of leadership and spiritual oversight. It is utterly unbiblical to think that someone can be a member of a church and live like they do not know Christ. Not only does this dishonor Christ, it brings reproach upon that particular local church. How many times have we heard non-Christians claim they will not go to church because of all the hypocrites? Are they making excuses? Yes. Are these accusations totally unfounded? Unfortunately, no.
So we teach our teenagers that Mr. Jones can be a Sunday School teacher even though he cheats people in his business and makes racist jokes around his friends. We teach them that Mrs. Smith is a member, even though she has not attended a worship service since Easter 1989 and has never written a tithe check in her life. Is it any wonder that so many college students think church attendance is no big deal?
Not forsaking the assembly of the believers is a biblical concept to be taken seriously. Instead, we are told that to treat membership as a serious commitment is at best outmoded, at worst, fanatical. To practice church discipline on anyone, let alone inactive members, is judgmental. Some would even say it is not in the spirit of Christ. It is lamentable that we allow the fallen ideologies of this world to affect the practice of our churches. Is it any wonder we have brokenhearted parents and grandparents begging for prayers for their adult children who wondered away from church as soon as they left home?
Parents can do their part; they can encourage their sons and daughters to join a local church while they are at school. Churches can do their part. Churches should teach all of their members that membership is not a flippant decision, but a commitment to serve Christ through the ministry of a specific local church. As believers, we were once slaves to sin, our freedom purchased by Christ on the cross. Churches must not allow their members to continue to voluntarily slip their shackles back on, whether it is by immoral activity or neglecting corporate worship.
But of course, ultimately students have to be the ones who actually get out of bed and go. If you don’t want to move his or her membership from their home church, he should find some other way to make a commitment to regularly attend a congregation away from home. Many churches allow for college students to come under the “watch care” of the congregation, whereby they can be active in the ministries of the church without formally joining the church.
Regardless of how it is done in any specific case, college students should make a formal commitment to attend a specific church while at school. This will help to keep them accountable. Daily quiet times and campus ministries are not substitutes for corporate worship.
Christians are expected to live their lives in the faith, and the biblical way to do that is within the context of a local church. If we don’t, both our faith and our witness suffers. When it comes to church involvement in the life of the Christian, there is always some assembly required.
Copyright 2002 Nathan Finn. All rights reserved..
About the Author
Nathan Finn is assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.