This month (September 2017), hundreds of thousands of young men and women are packing up their belongings and moving to university for the first time. For many, this will mean leaving home, moving into a new area (sometimes in a new country) and settling into a brand new chapter of life. And for Christians, starting university will often also come with task of finding a new local church.
In some universities, their will only be one local church in feasible proximity to the campus, and so for said new freshers, the choice has somewhat been predetermined. However, for many universities, the range of churches available to attend is immense; that is certainly true for my university in central London. In London, as with most UK cities available churches range from the very big to the very small, from the very traditional to the very modern, from the very liberal to the very legalistic and from the very conservative to the very charismatic. And the majority of these churches have their doors open ready to take in new university freshers.
The decision of which church to join is an important one. In my six years of university, I have seen young Christians tentatively join good churches, and have subsequently watched them grow in faith, maturity and understanding faster than I thought was possible. But at the same time, I have also seen ostensibly strong, well-taught Christian freshers who find themselves in churches that, through unsound teaching, unfaithful promises of the Christian life, and/or ungodly disciplers, lead these Christians away from Christianity completely.
So how does one choose a new church when starting university? I think the bible has some very clear and helpful teaching that can be applied here.
The Christ-Headed Church (Ephesians 4: 4-16)
In Ephesians 4:4-16, Paul lays out the model framework of the Christian church. Paul writes:
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.8 This is why it[a] says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
In v4-13, Paul lays out the human structures that make up the church, and then in v14-16, we peak behind the curtain and glimpse the spiritual realities behind the human structures. From this passage, there are three very useful criteria that can help us decide on a new church.
- Is the bible preached? (v11, 14-15)
- Can I be discipled? (v12-13)
- Can I serve the body? (v16)
1. Is the Bible Preached? (v11, 14-15)
In v11, we see that Jesus Christ, when he was on Earth “himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers”. The common trait in each of these people groups is that they are word-based, speakers of the message of Christ. Paul begins his depiction of the model church by explaining that the church is firstly and fundamentally composed of people sitting under the verbal teaching of Christ-given leaders.
Now clearly, not all church-based teachers are good. And so in v14-15, Paul contrasts bad church teaching which derails and destroys the faith of young Christian (v14), with good church teaching which fuels the growth of Christians into spiritual maturity (v15). And in v15, Paul gives the essential hallmark of good Christian teaching as “speaking the truth in love”.
In Ephesians, the word “truth” is not used in a general sense to mean anything that is factually true. Rather, Paul defines “truth” in Ephesians 1:13 “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation…” and again in 4:21 “…you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.”. “Truth” in Ephesians is defined as “the gospel of salvation” that is “in Christ Jesus”. In other words, the hallmark of a good church teaching is the faithful proclamation of God’s revealed message, as embodied and fulfilled in Jesus, and explained in Scripture.
Good churches have good teachers. And good teachers are ones that base their teaching on the truths of the bible. This may seem obvious. However, I have been to many churches in London where the teaching is composed of, in essence, rousing life-advice with (sometimes) the occasional bible verse to back up the preacher’s point. From where I stand, this is not bible-based preaching. The bible should be the foundational basis, and not the incidental footnote, to church preaching. To quote one theologian “a bible-teaching church is one where the bible is read, and the sermon explains what the bible says”.
So here is our first question to ask when you try out a new church. Is the bible preached? Is the bible read, and does the preacher explain and apply what the bible says?
2. Can I Be Discipled? (v12-13)
As we read on in Ephesians 4, is becomes clear that the church is far more than its leaders. V11-13 reads: “11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
In v12-13 we see that the church leaders are to equip the people in their church, to be responsible for the growth and maturing of their fellow church-goers. And in v15, we see that the journey to maturity is fuelled by everyone in the church “speaking the truth in love” to each other.
This is the essence of discipleship: truth and love. Discipleship involves the faithful teaching of the truths in scripture into the lives of individuals. And discipleship also involves genuine, familial, love and care. Churches, where “love” is only shown in the hope that recipients will accept the leaders’ teaching and beliefs, are not showing biblical Christian love. Rather, Christian love should be genuine, self-sacrificial, and unconditional devotion to others, as Jesus exemplified on the cross.
So here we have the second essential component of the model church that Paul gives: the relationships between individual church-goers where love is genuinely experienced, and where people are equipped and willing to teach each other the truths of Scripture. Church can never turn into a lecture theatre or concert venue, where people turn up, swallow some teaching and then leave without ever interacting with their fellow church-goers.
So here is our second question to ask of a new church: can I be discipled? Am I able to build genuine relationships with individuals who are equipped and willing to teach me the truths of Scripture on a personal level?
It is also worth mentioning that indispensable nature of personal discipleship also acts as a warning against prolonged church-hopping. I’ve met many students who spend months trying out different churches, without settling and building relationships in one specific place. Of course trying out a couple of churches can be a good thing. However, you can do your personal spiritual growth and development more harm than good if you deprive yourself of personal discipleship by spending months and months going from church to church.
3. Can I Serve the Body? (v16)
The third and final question that Ephesians 4 encourages us to ask of new churches is “can I serve the body?”. V16 reads “From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
When there is a large range of churches on offer, seeking to welcome you, it is very easy to view church searching as a consumer picking the best product on offer. However, according to Paul, we should not attend church solely to consume and receive what the church offers; we should also give, serve and play our part in the building of Christ’s body. When we try out churches, we should not just be asking “what can I get?” but we should also ask “what can I give?”
Now clearly, most people would not want to immediately sign up to the coffee rota on their first visit to a new church. But serving a church is much more than the stereotypical roles of serving tea and playing the drums. One of the most significant ways a new-comer to a church can serve is by contributing to discussion in small group bible studies. Bible studies are all about exploring God’s word as a community, and so this can be a wonderfully impactful opportunity to spiritually serve others in a new church. And of course, more serving opportunities are likely to arise if you stay at one church for any amount of time!
What should I look for in a church?
Just before I started university, six years ago, a church youth leader mentioned in passing that he believed that at university, Christian young people go one of two ways: they either growth rapidly in their faith and become excitingly strong, flourishing, mature followers of Christ, or they fall away from the faith completely. After seeing 5 years-worth of fresher intakes, I would say I agree with him. In fact I would go even further and say that which path you goes down appears to largely depend on whether you get plugged into a good church or not. As new university students, the potential for spiritual growth is immense, but the other forces that pull people away from faith are also immense.
And so if there is one piece of advice I would give to any Christian starting university this year, it would be: get plugged into a good church where the bible is preached, where you can be discipled, and where you can serve the body.