Beyond Chapel: Students need church

More than two-thirds of young adults attending Protestant churches in high school stop attending church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a research report by LifeWay, a major publishing company run by the Southern Baptist Convention.

Lifeway surveyed 1,000 college students and discovered that the main reason students left the church was because they “wanted a break from church.”

The vast majority of John Brown University students falls within this age spectrum and must decide during their time in college whether church will play a part in their lives. Some John Brown University church-dropouts say they stopped attending church on the grounds that the University fulfills the role of a church for them.

John Brown University faculty members counter this mentality, denying the claim that the University works as a church and encouraging students to join local churches.

“JBU primarily has an educational mission, not a church mission,” Professor of Biblical Studies Maxie Burch said. “JBU offers so many things that are redundancies: services, chapel. It all looks like the church. But we still have to remember all those things done here are still part of an educational mission. That’s not the same as the mission of the local church.”

The church and John Brown University have different goals, Burch said.

“The local church is not an educational institution,” Burch said. “That doesn’t mean the church doesn’t have education, but the worshipping community of faith is important for students to become connected to. JBU has to be careful not to take on the role of the church and be the ‘one stop shopping place’ in the life of the believer. We have to be careful not to see ourselves as all that it means to be church.”

One key value of church is the fact that not everything is directed at students’ personal preferences, University Chaplain Rod Reed said.

“At JBU everything is targeted at student preferences,” Reed said. “At church, it’s not all about you. Being in a place where it’s not all about you is a really healthy place to be.”

Reed highlighted the value of serving a body of believers in which the church’s needs may not meet a person’s individual gifts, stating that sometimes God calls Christians to help with second-grade Sunday school even if they do not particularly enjoy working with children.

“Filling a need that’s not necessarily your favorite thing to do is a good thing,” Reed said.

Reed listed the opportunity to give as another important reason to attend church.

“One reason students need to go to church and not just chapel is because they need the opportunity to give in the offering,” Reed said. “If we’re not giving regularly, we’re not worshiping faithfully. Giving regularly, especially when you don’t have much, is really, really important, because it sets a pattern for what worship is like for the rest of your life.”

The chaplain emphasized the importance of communal worship with a body of believers from all areas of live, giving the example of how a sermon about trusting God becomes especially relevant when a church member is sitting next to the parents of a cancer patient.

“Worshipping with other people helps us listen to the message differently,” Reed said. “It’s not just about the content that you hear; it’s about the context of the message you hear it in.”

Reed recommended that students attend any one church more than once before writing it off the list in their quests to find a church.

“The pastor might have had an off day, the worship might have had an off day, you might have sat next to somebody crappy,” Reed said. “To get a sense of a church you have to stick with it for a while.”

Reed also warned against attending a service with too critical a mindset.

“A lot of the time we go to churches as recipients,” Reed said. “It’s kind of a consumer thing—a ‘how would I rate this’ kind of thing. People shouldn’t expect everything to be handed to them. No matter how talented the musicians are, you can always worship if you choose to. No matter how good the sermon is, you can always get something out of it if you choose to.”

Burch and Reed both believe that church involvement is part of God’s plan for students at John Brown University.

“If students come to JBU having worked through the process of God leading them here, if prayer and seeking God was a part of coming here, then I believe strongly a part of God bringing them is because God intends for them to invest their lives in the church here,” Burch said.