As college students return to campus this fall, many do not have a local church they call home.
In any season of life, finding a church has vast importance for Christians, but it can be especially helpful for college students often living on their own for the first time.
In high school I was around the church but never really belonged to one. I didn’t submit my membership, surround myself with mentors or serve in ministry. Rather, I simply showed up and passively attended an hour-long service on Sunday morning.
Now, to be clear, I read my Bible, prayed and led a parachurch Bible study at my school, but I wasn’t involved in a local church.
While parachurch ministries can be helpful, the Bible speaks quite a bit about local churches and indicates that the church is vital for growth as a Christian.
When I moved nearly 700 miles away from home and arrived in Birmingham for college, I knew I needed to find a church, but I wasn’t sure how. Through the advice of mentors, internet searches and church visits, I eventually found one, and I have been a member there for the past three years.
When incoming freshmen ask what they should look for in a local church, three key areas come to mind: expositional preaching, edifying community and evangelistic focus. While this is not an exhaustive list, I believe it describes some of the most important aspects of church life.
“So shall My word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).
It is important to recognize that Isaiah does not say, “So shall the preacher’s word be that goes out from his mouth.” He is quoting the Lord, Who declares that His word shall not return empty. Expositional preaching puts the focus on the meaning of the inspired text rather than the wit of the preacher.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, says “expositional preaching begins with a commitment to preach the text.” At its core, it “explains what the Bible means by what it says.”
While expositional preaching takes a passage of Scripture and explains the meaning based on the text, topical preaching selects a topic and expounds on a number of related verses or passages.
While addressing particular topics can be helpful to the church, it is best for churches to address these messages by selecting a passage of Scripture and explaining what the Bible says about it.
It may be easy to dismiss the importance of expositional preaching to the everyday believer, but it can play a key role in discipleship. Preaching transforms the way we as laypeople in the church view God.
When we see the sermon as a bullet-point list of three ways to make our lives better, we miss the point. The sermon is meant to explain a text so we might be exposed to all of Scripture.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
Sadly, I have been part of churches that had phenomenal Bible teaching yet lacked deep community.
Following the pandemic, loneliness and isolation skyrocketed, and they continue to plague the church today. The solution is accountability in an edifying community.
At Multiply Groups, the campus ministry I lead at Samford University, we hold students accountable to Scripture reading, prayer, personal holiness and evangelism.
In the past few years, we have found that many students have been unable to find the type of community and accountability in the local church that we have in our ministry.
As a campus ministry leader, this is heartbreaking. Scripture clearly conveys the importance of belonging to a church, and it is my firm conviction that campus ministries are simply supplemental to the church.
Finding an edifying community that knows you, cares for you and points you to Jesus is an essential aspect of college life.
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Finally, your church should have an evangelistic focus.
Southern Baptists have a long history of being “Great Commission Baptists.” Even before that alternate name was approved in 2012, Southern Baptist churches have long focused on evangelism and missions, both domestically and abroad. As Christians, we recognize that this hope referred to in 1 Peter 3:15 is Jesus Christ Himself. The gospel is not about our self-improvement, but about God’s great mercy.
In addition to looking for biblically saturated sermons and Christ-honoring community groups, you need to look at a church’s focus on evangelism. Do they provide opportunities to learn how to share the gospel? Are they regularly explaining the gospel during the Sunday gathering?
In His last words before His ascension, Jesus said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit … ” (Matt. 28:19). Evangelism and discipleship belong at the center of the church.
If you’re a college student without a church home, look for these three qualities in the churches you visit.
While campus ministries can help you meet new friends and get connected quickly, the local church is God’s primary plan for reaching the world. Finding a healthy church with expositional preaching, edifying community and an evangelistic focus will help you grow in your faith during college.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Cole Shiflet is a junior at Samford University and a member of Redeemer Community Church, Avondale. He is from Denton, Texas.