How to choose a church

“So to the young’uns: we have to remind ourselves to stay anchored in the church, for we need roots and wisdom.

“…our beauty and our brokenness are inseparable from hers. The Creator and the church are our parents, and having one without the other leaves us very empty.”

– ordinary radical Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

As the new members of our community of faith and learning settle in, they’ve heard the plea from many of us, “find a faith community and plug in.” While a Christian university offers many resources for strengthening faith and practicing discipleship, God’s vision for us as his people is bigger than that. It’s me and you built together on the cornerstone Christ into a living house for God’s reconciling mission. For all her faults, it’s the church.

It’s easy in such an exciting, energetic, optimistic moment to believe we’ve escaped or transcended this vision. It’s easy to reduce the idea of church to the buildings and songs and people that never were quite what we had in mind. Or, to let all that go and reduce the idea of the Christian life to an inspired vision for personal ministry, a series of meetings with like-minded people, and a schedule of opportunities to express our heartfelt worship in the most impactful settings we can find. But, while the concept of individual calling or the vision of a gifted and determined group of peers can be ideas that further the Kingdom and our growth in God, we will most find who we were made to be when we understand ourselves as part of the body of Christ. Christian identity is formed through investing our time, gifts, and energy with a particular community over a long period of time. Four years of college is a great term.

With great respect, sympathy and heartfelt apology to those who have been deeply hurt by folks claiming the name of God over their gathering, I believe that in the midst of the human institutional mess we’ve sometimes made, the church still matters to God and must matter to me. As we follow Jesus, that’s one of the places he’s going to keep leading us.

What scripture tells us about Jesus’ earliest followers is that they understood their initiation into his way as a commitment to new defining relationships. They saw the evidence of the Spirit in their demonstrated love for one another and a life, in spirit and truth, of offering what God gave them in the Spirit to the Father for the sake of Christ’s body – this particular rag-tag group of people around the Lord’s table. They argued and failed and struggled to define themselves, but they kept meeting together, and looking around the room and saying, “this is God’s temple.”

There are a lot of criteria we could use to decide where to spend our hour on Sunday. But I encourage you, if you’re looking for a place to call your “home congregation,” to look at the people down the aisle and at the podium and ask a set of questions that come from God’s vision for his people. I’d suggest giving some thought to

does this community show evidence of faith being expressed in love (Gal 5:6)?

does this “worship experience” recognize the risen Lord both in ritual and in attention and respect towards one another (1 Cor 11:17-34)?

do gatherings and ministries here offer me an opportunity to use the gifts God has given me to strengthen others and participate in God’s mission in my neighborhood (Eph 2:10)?

are the people in this worship assembly people I will have opportunity to walk with throughout the week, share life with in concrete ways when I need them or they need me, and whom I can join in caring for others we will encounter in our day to day lives (Gal 6:2)?

are there members of this assembly that look, act, and think differently than me, through whom God might grow me beyond my limits, and for whom I might be called to a love greater than myself (1 Cor 12:4-7)?

Everybody brings their own criteria to these choices. Wherever we are, but especially in a Christian college environment with so many “spiritual life” opportunities, we can wonder if there will be any limit to the number of friends who will shape and strengthen our faith, ways to serve that will stretch us and fulfill us, and worship that will draw our hearts into God’s presence in unforgettable ways. But these pieces do not amount to a sustainable whole. The church is not any of these things alone, or any personally-styled collection of them. The church is the people God calls together to love and work as Jesus’ did, and learn to love, and learn to work together.

In my experience, I am never fully satisfied with what a particular congregation has to offer me, or what I think they should be offering others. But I can usually find a group – sometimes even because of these irritating limitations, so obvious to me – where I can learn to love God and love others, and offer myself for God’s mission.

May God’s church be strengthened, in all her places and forms, to demonstrate the fullness of Christ and faithfully do God’s reconciling work in their context.

May we, for all our faults, be given the courage to love her, and the willingness to find our place as we stand fully with her to live and speak as Christ would direct.

God bless our new students finding all sorts of new connections, that they would find a family of faith to call home.

We have a good list of congregations you can check out at the Chaplain website. HRL also did an outstanding service by creating a list of churches (click the thumbnails below) that our staff and student leaders attend, with contact information so students can find a new friend to check out a potential new family. God may call you to something beyond this list, but it’s a good place to start.

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