Why Students Need A Church

There was a lot to like both about Matthew McConaughey’s win for best actor at the Academy Awards a few months ago and his speech that followed. His win signaled the belief that someone’s career can have an overarching trajectory toward better work. His speech showed that despite taking more serious roles the actor doesn’t take himself too seriously. He displayed genuine thankfulness as he mentioned God, his father, his mother, his co-workers, and his wife and children. But one part of the speech stuck with me and has caused some uneasiness. McConaughey mentioned that his hero, the person he was “chasing,” was himself in ten years, and that this has been the case for him since he was fifteen.

I know there are many ways of understanding what McConaughey said, and some parts of this message resonate with me. I think setting goals for yourself and being motivated are important. At the same time, I worry about the egotism in a message that says, “All you need is to believe in yourself.” In fact, I think we need much more than this.

As someone who serves in ministry with university students much of my time is spent helping them imagine themselves in ten, twenty, and thirty years. Particularly, I want them to imagine what they want their relationship with God to look like several years down the road. I constantly encourage students to identify mentors, but this can be a tricky proposition because what makes for a good mentor?

The trickiness of having a good mentor is one of the reasons I seek to connect my students with good local churches. I ask them not to substitute our campus ministry for a church. Sure we worship together, study Scripture together, and engage in mission together, but in many ways we are not a church, and I think they need a church. Here’s a major reason why: Each of us needs someone who is not just the ten years older version of ourself to learn from when it comes to the life of discipleship.

Becoming disciples requires us to learn from and interact with people who are considerably different. Don’t get me wrong, many campus ministries can be quite diverse in several ways. But one way that almost all campus ministries fall short is the fostering of meaningful relationships with people of faith from different generations. Many of us hope that students will learn from professors and practitioners in various fields who are at the top of their game, but do we care that they form bonds with those who show them what being a disciple in their 40s, 60s and 80s looks like?First_Presbyterian_Church_of_Redmond_01

Here’s an example of what I want for my students: I went for a week of training with a member of the last church I served. We literally lived together for a week. We ate together, discussed politics, and snuck out of one of the sessions to watch a baseball game (we learned much more at the game than we would in that session, which I think was optional anyway). This person is twenty years older than me and has two children one of which is about ten years younger than me. Despite having the same first name, we are different in many ways. I have learned much from him, and I’d like to think he’s learned a few things from me (at the very least I’ve taught him some things about how to better use his phone). I don’t know that we would have found each other in any way beyond answering a call to serve in the same ministry in a church. And I fundamentally can’t imagine my life without our friendship, because he’s the person I most want to be like in twenty years, at least when it comes to faith and family.

If you are a student, you need more than the ten years older version of yourself. You need a church that offers the kind of friendship I’m describing. One that challenges you and offers you growth. You can spend all the time you want on campus with people your age. Do something different and hang out with someone your parents’ age. Churches, please make sure you have some committed disciples who are eager to mentor those who are becoming disciples. It is likely the first disciples didn’t follow around someone their age, but someone ten to fifteen years older. That’s a pretty good place to start.