Graduating senior, I remember standing where you are now. The bittersweet flurry of graduation activities. Commencement. Packing my parents’ minivan and saying goodbye to my closest friends. The relief and strangeness of not being a student for the first time in 17 years.
I remember it all clearly, though I am marriage, three kids, and more than ten years removed from campus life. In the years between then and now, I have seem many people make the same transition you are about to make. I have rejoiced to watch friends grow closer to Christ. These days, I continue to pray for friends who have walked away from him. Out of these joys and heartache, I wrote earlier that you need to make plans for your souls.
I hope you now see why you must join a church after you graduate if you would continue walking with Christ. In this post, I want to follow-up with four ways you can prepare yourself for life in the local church post-college.
1. Be resolved.
You currently attend worship and ministry activities regularly, so it may surprise you that you’d have to resolve to go to church. But in the upcoming days, you will be adjusting to new rhythms of work and life. You may be moving to a new place. Or you may face the difficulties of returning to an old place as a new person. In all these transitions, it takes commitment to prioritize meeting with God’s people.
Remember the conscious effort it took to get up for church when you started freshman year? Be ready to make that same effort again. Finding a church requires time. Developing God-centered friendships there takes energy. It can lead to disappointment at times, so you need to be ready to persevere. After graduation, you may be tempted to slowly settle for attending church services without being a committed member. You may be tempted to stop going altogether. Decide in your heart now that, with God’s help, you find and commit to a good local church.
In high school, I learned about post-transplant immunosuppressants. Transplant recipients take these medications to keep their bodies from rejecting new organs. Even after the initial adjustment to a newly donated organ, patients need to take special medication daily for the rest of their lives. I think of how patients must see these pills in contrast to my attitude toward vitamins. Although I’ve been told by the doctor to take supplements, I often forget to. And if I’m busy when my husband hands me one, I might put it into my pocket only to find it again another day.
Graduate, church is not a multivitamin. I’ve already written in my last post about how Scripture and experience both attest to the impossibility of walking with Christ apart from the local church. It is not an optional boost to the Christian life, it is an indispensable lifeline.* Resolve now to be in the local church in days, weeks, and months to come. Be ready to commit as if your life depended on it because, in a very real sense, it does.
2. Be intentional.
Your plans for church may not be on the forefront of your mind, but if and where you go may be the most important decision you make this year. The same intentionality behind your other post-graduation plans should be in your planning for church. You have spent much time thinking about where to go and what to do. Don’t let your spiritual life be an afterthought.
Practically, even if you haven’t moved yet, you can contact people you know in the area and find out where they attend church. Find a friend from college to commit to visiting churches with you. Start searching online for churches. Visit their websites, read their statements of faith, and listen to some of their sermons. Make a list of churches to check out and mark in your schedule when you will visit.
If you’re not sure exactly what to look for as you search for a church, now is a great time to learn. Search the Scriptures to learn about God’s plan for the local church. Read books and listen to sermons about church. (See some recommended resources below.**) As you grow in knowledge, you will grow in gratitude for this precious means of God’s grace. You will also have a clearer sense of what kind of church to look for and commit to.
Most importantly, you can start to pray. Pray for wisdom and discernment to choose a solid, biblical church. Pray God would lead you to a place where his word is honored, where people love him and others, and where you can grow in living out the gospel. Pray for faithfulness to go even when it’s hard. Pray he would give you a humble and discerning heart as you visit. Pray God would keep you walking with him through his church.
3. Be a learner.
A few months ago our family had dinner with a group of college students. My daughters enjoyed talking to older girls about ballet and gymnastics. A group of students crowded around my toddler, teaching him dance moves and cheering when he learned to dab. They fawned over my kids the whole night. Being on campus, they said, you start thinking the world is only made of 18 to 22 year olds.
College graduates sometimes face a mini-culture shock adjusting to life in a local church. This is especially common if they attended church in a college town or were heavily involved in campus ministry. Some things in the local church may look different from your campus church or ministry. This is mostly a good thing, but will take some learning on your part.
It is likely that the church you will attend has a different demographic than the community you have grown used to. In college, you grew spiritually while surrounded by peers, sharing similar life experiences and forging precious friendships. I understand and have valued this greatly. (Besides my sister, all of my bridesmaids were friends I attended college with!) But you need more than these kinds of relationships to continue growing in Christ.
You need the preaching of a pastor who has been trained to handle the Word of God. You need the examples of church elders who have been tested and refined by God through life. You need to hear how God answers questions you and your peers have not yet considered. Questions like, What do I do with my desire for marriage as a single person in my 40’s? How do I respond to ongoing infertility? What comfort is there for me as an elderly widower? How do we as a church come around parents with a prodigal teen? Is it too late for me and my family to become Christians? It is a precious gift to see God at work in people different than you. There is a wealth of wisdom to glean.
Although the relationships you have in the church may end up looking different than ones you have now, God has a plan to teach you if you are willing. Spiritually, you may have grown exponentially in college, but there is still so much more to learn of God’s ways, his Word, and his will! Keep your ears open and heart soft.
4. Be hopeful.
I love visiting my alma mater. Even more than its gorgeous campus and stunning vistas, I love the spiritual landmarks it holds. There are Ebenezers of sorts for me. There’s the chapel where I spent hours pleading for God to speak to me. The apartment where friends reminded me of Christ’s work when I was buried under condemnation. The dorm room where I was freshly awaken to the beauty of the cross. I am often moved when I visit, remembering how God met me back then. But as grateful as I am for my time in college, I would never want to go back to where or who I was because I am also profoundly thankful for how God has carried me since.
Here is the reason I don’t believe in doomsday prophesies about post-college Christian life: although God often works powerfully in the lives of college students, college itself is not the crucial piece here. The central, driving force of your spiritual growth has not been the college environment or even college ministry, but God. And though he may have done amazing things in your life on campus, he doesn’t change after you leave it.
Thus, whether you’ve been a Christian from childhood or since last semester, you can graduate with hope. As you face major life changes ahead, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. You need the same Shepherd who led you in college to keep you long after graduation. And if he sought you when you were not looking for him, how much more will he care for your soul as you look to him now?
Your Father is graciously leading you to new places that you may know and trust him more. As you commit to a biblical local church in this next season, you are following him. He who moved in on your college campus is at work in the local church, and he has invited you to continue to receive his grace through it.
If college was a spiritual greenhouse for you, consider yourself being lovingly transplanted. You will face different, possibly harsher, elements in days to come. But your source of life and strength remains the same. Though your campus was the stage for your spiritual growth, remember it is God himself who orchestrated it all. It is God who has met you. It is God who has made you grow. And the one who started a good work in you is able to bring it to completion.
So graduate, after you’ve received your diploma and said your tearful goodbyes, gather with believers in the local church. Do this the first Lord’s day you are able, then the next, and so forth. Sing to God and testify to his goodness, of how he’s been faithful to you these last four years. Pray you would know him more in the days to come. And do all of this with hope knowing that through the gift of the church, God has committed to caring for your soul.
*Tim Keller has a similar analogy in his book, Prayer regarding how we see prayer.
** If you wonder why you can’t just keep meeting with your Christian friends and “do church” that way, pick up Kevin Deyoung and Ted Cluck’s, Why We Love The Church. If you are wondering how to thrive in the church, consider Thabiti Anyabwile’s What is a Healthy Church Member. If you want to learn more about the biblical theology of church, you can read Edmund Clowney’s The Church or something else on this list from Ligonier. (You can also search for articles on “church” on the site.)