When Church Becomes Class and Fails to be Family

College students move, a lot. You will never find them in the same place for a long, time unless they need to stay in the library for an all-nighter. Whether it’s moving to different dorm rooms each year, returning home for a semester, or changing colleges completely, it is acceptable for a college student to have no real ties that root them to one place in particular.

In this struggle to find some permanence during the inconsistency of a college experience, many Christian college students turn to the church. Ideally, this is a great way to create a family away from home and remain in a good community.

Church is meant to function as an intergenerational community, much like a family. The older generation validating the younger generation in a way that brings about care and love. These intergenerational relationships are the foundation for a healthy Christian community, ushering in the youth and respecting the passing of the old.

In my own church experience, this has been the case: my parents brought me to church as a child and were able to bring me to important relationships within my church. It was by my parents that I was given relationship with others in the church; my own family somehow gave me validity within my larger church family. Today at my home church I still have that relation with my parents and other members who are a generation older and now relationships with those younger than me. I am connected to the church by all of these generations and so feel connected.

But that membership has been lost since my move to college and I can’t seem to find it in any other church I attend.

Church for the college student who cannot seem to get plugged in has turned into a culture of church hopping and church shopping, but definitely not one of church staying. We are always moving, when church ought to be a place of rest and consistency.

Looking to my previous experience with church, it is easy to see why we struggle to become involved in a local church. If there is no family unit by which we are brought into a church, then the integration fails.

Some of the churches that my peers attend end up neglecting that intergenerational aspect, and church becomes more like an optional Bible class. The teaching is good, worship is great, and I get to go with my friends…but after the service I just go home and start doing homework again. I do not really stop to meet anyone else that attends the church, and no other attendees stop to say hello to me. It would be just as fulfilling for me to listen to a podcast from the church and get the same teaching.

Treating church as this fun Bible class is not how a college student ought to pursue “membership” within a church—it does not even seem like they are a member of a greater body when no community is formed. Both the college student and the greater church body have failed. They have failed because they have forgotten the foundation upon which a church community is founded: relationship between different generations.

So as a college student far from home with no family in sight, how does one go about actually becoming a member of a local church?

It starts by reaching out.

I would so much more appreciate it if the churches I went church shopping at an older member of the church had stopped to recognize I was a new attendee and said hello. But from my experience, that does not seem to be the case. Sure, maybe the first Sunday I attend a church no one will notice, but by the second or third Sunday I would hope someone might pursue fellowship with me, ask me how I enjoyed the sermon or how I might like to sit by them in the service next Sunday. Forming a relationship where I did not have to be the first person to reach out would show me that I was going to a church that valued its new members and wanted them to keep coming. Something simple that a church can do is notice young and lonely looking members and invite them to sit with a family. I know that this would make me feel at home in a new church.

But sometimes this is not the case, especially in a church with a lot of younger attendees who come alone and few older members who come with a family. In that case it’s time for the college student to just try to reach out to other younger members. It does not create the same intergenerational interactions, but it does begin the process of building relationships within a church and adopts more members into the local church community.

There is now reason to attend each Sunday (outside of teaching, which could be supplemented elsewhere) and people to look forward to seeing. The potential for becoming more involved sky rockets when you know someone who is in the know and can introduce you to others.

In light of this, let us members of Christ take initiative to act more like a church.

  • Bethany Amanda

    Hi Elizabeth, I’m a 2011 Torrey alumna and I experienced exactly this problem while I was a student. One church I visited where I was immediately surprised by the warmth and hospitality of the community was La Habra Hills Presbyterian. It’s pretty small, but just about everyone I met made sure to greet me and ask me if I’d gotten my fresh-baked cookie yet (which at least at the time was their way of welcoming first-time visitors), and I was promptly invited out to lunch with the handful of college students/twentysomethings. Might be worth a visit!

  • Lindsay Stallones

    This is awesome. I’ve become very dissatisfied with the lost art of the intergenerational church, especially as I’ve left college and moved into the adult world. I remember, though, hating “college group” at churches when I was at Biola, and that’s the first thing that drove me into the liturgical tradition (Anglican). I didn’t want to hang out with people who only knew what I knew or experienced what I did, I wanted to spend time with people older and wiser, and get to minister to those younger. Ten years out of college, I’m still in the Anglican church, now for more reasons, but still a huge one is that the evangelical tradition won’t let me hang out with old people.

  • Shiphrah Puah

    I’m a 52 year old in the awkward position of looking for a new church. I’m experiencing the exact same thing in the sort of “hipster” church I’m visiting. Most of the “members” are younger than me, and they are very into chatting amongst themselves but not so good at greeting the newbie – in my case – older than they are. I think we all need to learn to turn and say hi! regardless of age or or how long we’ve been affiliated.