Editor's note: Jon Nielson will lead a workshop at The Gospel Coalition 2013 national conference on "College Ministry: Because Real Life Begins Now." You can now register for the five-day event next April in Orlando.
Do any of these comments sound familiar?
- "I love Jesus, but I really can't stand Christians."
- "I want to follow Jesus, but I don't want to be a part of anything 'institutional' like a church."
Or how about:
- "I'm a part of the universal church; I don't need to be part of a local church."
If you haven't yet heard comments like these . . . you will. You'll hear them during your college years, and you'll hear them from people who profess to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. So how will you deal with church during your college years? Let me offer a few words of encouragement and exhortation as this school year begins.
A Church Is . . .
First, let's remember, biblically, what the church is.
1. A People, Not a Place
Listen to these words from 1 Peter 2: "As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." The church is not a place; the church is the people of God. Many churches have beautiful buildings and sanctuaries. But without the people of God gathering together, it would not be a church.
2. Something Jesus Loves
In the midst of Paul's teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5 we find remarkable insight on the relationship between Jesus and the church: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish." Jesus loves the church. Jesus died for the church. Jesus wants to one day present the church as forever holy and perfect. The church is something Jesus Christ---our Savior and Lord---loves dearly.
3. The Body of Christ
Ephesians 1 describes the church this way: "And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Over and over again the Bible calls the church the body of Christ and identifies Jesus as the head. When you hear someone say, "I want to follow Jesus, but I don't want to be a part of a church," take the "body" imagery seriously and literally. When we attempt to follow Jesus apart from the church, we essentially tear apart the body of Jesus. We decapitate him. What may have seemed at first to be an almost righteous-sounding statement becomes fiercely sinful and disrespectful, and it flies in the face of everything the Bible tells us about the relationship between Jesus and his church.
4. God's Main Weapon in this World
We're too often distracted by the spots and wrinkles to see the great purpose and calling God has given to the church. Paul had a grand vision for the church when he wrote these inspired words in Ephesians 3: "To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places."
Did you catch that final clause? God delivers his "manifold wisdom" through the church! He entrusts the greatest message in the world---the mystery of the gospel---to the church. There is no greater weapon God could have committed to his peoples' hands.
5. The Only Eternal Institution in the World
Of the world's many formidable institutions---governments, corporations, law firms, and so on---only one will last forever. Listen to the apostle John's vision of the church---God's people---at the end of time:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God."
The church is eternal, because God has eternally committed himself to its welfare.
Let's Be Clear
We've been talking thus far about "the church"---meaning the "universal" church, comprising every believer in Jesus Christ who has ever lived.
The "local" church has a more specific definition, but it does not belong to a completely different category than the universal church. The local church is a localized and organized manifestation of the universal church. This means that everything we've been saying about the "church" can also, in general, be applied to the local church. We can't obey the Bible's instructions about life in the universal church unless we live them out in the context of a local church body.
As the universal church grew in the first century through conversions to Christ, local churches sprouted throughout the Roman world. This is why the New Testament usually calls a local church "the church at x city." It is THE church---localized in a particular way.
These local churches soon took on leadership and organization. Paul told Titus to "appoint elders in every town" as a way to establish godly leadership at the various local churches, and then gave him the spiritual qualifications for identifying these men. Local churches were characterized by two essential activities: the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. Under these two core activities come other aspects of corporate worship: prayer, public Scripture reading, offering, singing, and fellowship.
Observing this pattern, we understand the local church as a localized manifestation of the universal church that meets regularly for the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, under the leadership, direction, and discipline of elders.
For This School Year
Love for the "universal" church necessitates love for and commitment to the "local" church. So our local churches seek to manifest the universal church as a part of the body of Christ we can love, see, touch, struggle with, give to, and serve.
So as you begin this school year as a Christ-following college student, please hear this appeal from a Christian brother.
1. Go to Church
Find a church that preaches God's Word and holds true to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and go there during your college years. Get up on Sunday mornings. Get dressed. Leave your dorm. Grab a friend. And get to church on time.
2. Join a Church
Don't just go to church. Join a church during your college years. Membership is, as College Church senior pastor Josh Moody often puts it, a "visible sign of an invisible reality." Membership does not save you, but it does visibly represent your salvation. Belonging to a local body of Christ may signify that you belong---by faith---to Christ himself.
Practically, too, there are huge benefits to church membership during your college years and beyond. As a member, you place yourself under the spiritual guidance and authority of godly elders and pastors. You make a covenant with God and the people of the church to support them, give to them, care for them, and participate in their fellowship.
3. Serve a Church
Don't just go to church. Don't just join a church. Begin serving actively in a local church during your college years. Far too many young adults church "hop" during their college years. They become church consumers. Gathering nuggets of wisdom from various sermons and preachers. Getting a spiritual fix from vibrant singing, prayer, and fellowship here and there. Never giving and participating substantially in the life and ministry of a local body of believers.
Friends, the local church needs you during your college years. They will benefit from having you there, plugged in, and committed. It will be good for your heart and soul as well.