Note: You can read the follow-up to this post here: Getting Ready For Church After Graduation
So senior, you’ve made it. The last paper is handed in and you’ve picked up your gown and cap. You’re celebrating senior week, taking care of relatives who’ve come into town for graduation. Maybe you’ve still got a few weeks to go, but you see the light at the end of the undergraduate tunnel. Whether you’ve already victory danced in the hall after your last final or you’re counting down the days until then, you’ve probably fielded the following question for a semester or so:
What are your plans for after graduation?
Some of you will eagerly talk about your new job and upcoming move cross-country. Others of you groan inwardly— as if you needed another reminder you haven’t quite figured it out yet. Still, I want to ask again, What are your plans?
No, I’m not asking where you’ll live, what job offer you’re taking, which graduate program you’re starting, or who you’re hoping to date. I want to know something more important— I’m asking about your plans for your soul.
Graduating senior, have you prepared yourself to join a local church?
The College Greenhouse
For many of you, college has been a precious time of spiritual formation. Your campus may have been your first major testing ground of faith. Away from home, you’ve worked through tough questions and chosen to walk with Jesus. You have grown in new ways, surrounded by serious Christians and sharpened by others who’ve challenged your Christianity. Maybe like me, raised in the church, your soul was newly awakened in college to the glories of the gospel in all its richness.
Others of you met Jesus for the first time in college. The change in your life has been day and night. Whether or not you were looking for him, he sent his people your way. Away from home you searched for answers to questions you’ve had for years. Or maybe you were blindsided by the Hound of Heaven who pursued you as you sprinted the other way. You couldn’t shake off a sense of his presence, your need for him, or the words of Jesus. You began by questioning, but then wanting, and now loving him. Your time in college will forever be remembered with deep gratitude. You are leaving a different person than when you came — a new creation in Christ.
Those who work in college ministries rightly see these years as brimming with potential. Students ask big questions about life and purpose. Often, peer relationships are intense as you live and study together. Many of you have tasted the joy of following Christ with others in campus fellowships. Ministry activities set up spiritual rhythms for your week— small group, large group, outreach events, spring break trips, leadership meetings, etc. College can be a spiritual greenhouse of sorts.
During my undergraduate years, I was active in a fellowship. After graduation, I worked as staff on a campus ministry. In both contexts, I heard people come back to paint bleak pictures of life after graduation. Friendships are not the same, they said. Your job will suck you dry, you won’t have opportunities to grow spiritually, and you’ll never find another community like you have now. The motive of such reports, I assume, was to encourage students to “make the most of” what they had while they still had it. But none of them prepared students for life with Christ after they received their diplomas.
The Slow Slip
I have seen new believers flourish spiritually after graduation and lifelong churchgoers walk away from God. Each person has their own story that is still being written, and trust in the grace of God keeps us from smugness or despair. There is no one key guaranteeing spiritual vitality post-graduation. But I have seen recurring patterns through the years.
Before college, people may have warned you about alcohol and atheist professors. From my observations though, most who no longer profess faith after graduating did not do so because of temptations to party or sudden crises of doubt. People generally don’t wake up one morning and suddenly reject Christ. And if this happens, it is often following long periods of waning devotion to him.
Some people deny the authenticity of their college experiences chalking it up to being younger and more naive. They reason the pressure of Christian culture around them caused them to conjure up convictions and experiences. They deny ever being real believers. Others wouldn’t outrightly deny God or even being Christians, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches have choked the word of God in their heart. Their lives do not display the fruit of true faith. The love for God they had in their youth was just that, they might say, merely youthful zeal.
The common thread behind these experiences is that often, the forsaking of the Christian life followed a slow slip away from regular worship with other believers. Whether from busyness or because it was difficult to find a good church, the Sundays apart from the gathered people of God slowly added up. A few weeks became months and then years since they’d been to worship, at which point it felt unnecessary, awkward, maybe even inauthentic, to try again.
The Supernatural Provision
Despite what I’ve written so far, I don’t believe in doomsday portrayals of the post-undergraduate Christian life. God is not limited to working powerfully on college campuses. But there is supernatural provision you must be prepared to receive if you are to continue walking closely with Jesus.
If you grew up in the church, the biggest piece of advice you received going away to college was probably, “Find a church.” Or, “Get plugged into a fellowship.” I’m not sure you’ve heard the same thing now that you’re graduating again, but you need it as much as ever. You must commit to a biblical local church.
Those I’ve seen continue walking with God after graduation were not super-Christians. In all cases, they found and settled into solid local churches. But my conviction about the importance of the church does not come only from personal experience. The Scriptures testify to the centrality of the local church in the Christian’s life. The author of Hebrews, writing to Christians being tempted to desert the faith, writes:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb 3:12-14)
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25)
Throughout Hebrews, the writer does not sugar coat the difficulties of Christianity. He continually warns believers not to turn back because the temptation to do so is real. In the days ahead, you will face temptations. These temptations may be obvious invitations to desert Christ. Or they may be subtle lies that you can have Jesus and. Jesus and the world. Jesus and your sin.
Some graduates mistakenly believe that if their faith were strong, they would be able to face these temptations alone. When they slowly become isolated from other Christians and find they no longer want God, they assume it’s because their faith was not genuine in the first place. But as the writer of Hebrews demonstrates, the nature of Christianity is communal.
Daily, Christians are tempted to walk by sight and not by faith. We need to “take care” and watch our own hearts, yes, but sin keeps us from seeing clearly. It is impossible to talk ourselves out of sins’ lies alone.
So God gives us the local church. He gives you the local church…
Because you need others to exhort you and keep you from becoming hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb 3:12-14).
Because you need to hear the preached Word of God for the strengthening of your faith (Rom 10:17).
Because when you are not sure about life and salvation, you need the bread and cup as sure signs of Christ’s body broken and blood shed for you (1 Cor 11:23-26).
Because you need faithful church elders committed to shepherding you, and to be known enough to be missed if you were to start slipping away (1 Pet 5:1-5).
Because you need to love and be loved in his family in order to see our unseen God (1 Jn 4:11-12).
Because you need the body of Christ to encourage you, to spur you on as you look in faith toward the Day of Christ’s return (Heb 10:24-25).
The local church and our fellowship with other Christians is one of God’s main provisions toward our perseverance in the faith. Except for extreme circumstances, it is not possible for Christians to thrive apart from the church. (And in those cases, persecuted believers yearn for the freedom to meet with God’s people!) Don’t forsake this precious means of God’s grace.
Seniors, do you want to keep walking with Jesus after you graduate? Plan to be committed to a biblical local church. You’ve experienced some blessings of fellowship these past four years. You will need the local church until you see Jesus face to face.
In another post, I’ll offer thoughts on how to prepare for participation in church post-college. But for now: Congratulations, graduate! What are your plans for next year?
The rest of us look forward to worshipping with you soon.