Campus Ministries and the Priority of the Local Church

Part 1: Welcome to College! Now Find a Church
Part 2: You Need Christian Fellowship in College
Part 3: Four Marks of a Faithful Campus Ministry
Part 4: Campus Ministries and the Priority of the Local Church
Part 5: College and Christian Fellowship: Now What? 

In the last post, I noted that the first mark of a faithful campus ministry is their prioritization of the local church. But not all campus ministries make a serious effort teach or model to their students how to love and prioritize the local church. Yet, as we saw in the last post, this is not a healthy or safe pattern. Christ has designed our salvation in such a way that the local church plays a central role in our spiritual growth and perseverance in the faith. To neglect the local church is to undermine our sanctification and put our final salvation in peril.

This is not to suggest that genuine Christians can lose their salvation. If you have placed repentant faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and right standing with God, then your salvation is secure; Christ holds you in His very hand, and he will not let you go (see John 10:27-30; Rom 8:31-39). But how does God keep us secure? By making sure that we keep believing in Jesus. Because of their secure salvation in Christ, a genuine Christian will never walk away from the Savior. And how does God keep a Christian believing in Christ? By providing means to feed and nurture and sustain their faith. One of the primary means that God uses to keep His people secure in the faith is the local church. Consider this important passage from the book of Hebrews:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Heb 3:12-14).

This passage calls believers to regularly encourage and exhort other believers. Why? So that none of the professing Christians in their midst will be tricked by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin is devious by nature, and it works to fool Christians to indulge in it while blinding them to its heart-hardening effects. But Christ has designed the church to be the place where believers are protected from sin’s deadly deceit. As we live and fellowship with one another, we warn and admonish each other to resist temptation and fight the good fight of faith (James 4:7; 1 Tim 6:12). We remind our brothers and sisters of the goodness of Christ and the greatness of our salvation so that they won’t walk away from Christ (Heb 2:1-5). And we place ourselves squarely in the local church so that they will do the same for us.

The church, therefore, is one of God’s primary means by which he enables the Christian to keep the faith. If you neglect the local church, you place yourself in a precarious spiritual situation.

But What’s the Difference?
But you might be thinking that your campus ministry is not much different than a church, so what’s the big deal? The first thing we must say in answer to this question is something we already noted in the last post. Although a campus ministry may function in ways similar to a church—there is public preaching of the Word, corporate worship, small groups, and so on—that campus fellowship is only available to a Christian while they are in college. If that Christian hasn’t developed a pattern of faithfulness to his or her local church during college, then after they graduate and move away from their campus fellowship, they will be spiritually adrift. This is the first and most important reason why a campus ministry cannot replace the local church.

But second, we must understand that a campus ministry and church are distinct in important and fundamental ways. Although there may be similarities between the two entities, a campus ministry, although it is made up of Christians, is not a church. How can this be? We answer this question by coming to grips with the nature of the church.

What is the Church?
Ever since His ascension, Christ’s disciples have been taking their Savior’s good news of salvation into all the world (see Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). As people hear this good news, turn from their sins, and trust in Jesus Christ, they are forgiven of all their iniquity, justified (i.e., declared righteous) before God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. They receive a new heart and new affections; they are, as Paul says, raised to “newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

But that’s not all that happens to a believer when they are saved. At the moment of faith, the Holy Spirit baptizes the Christian into the church: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1Co 12:13). Paul’s reference here to the “one body” is a reference to the universal church—the congregation of all believers throughout all time and throughout the world. But this statement is embedded in a lengthy discussion about life in the local church (see also 1 Cor 1:2). Paul’s argument goes like this: because you have been baptized into the church—the universal congregation of Christ’s people—you must care for the individuals of your local congregation as though you were all part of the same body—because you are part of the same body!

The body metaphor is apt to illustrate the composition of the church. The collection of members of a local church is like the various parts of the human body: no part is insignificant, and when one part is injured or disabled, the whole body feels the limiting and debilitating effects. Similarly, the body of Christ as a whole is weakened when it is missing members. Your membership in the local church is vital to its health, mobility, and usefulness. Your neglect of the local church will disable the church from being as healthy and useful as it otherwise could be. But there is another implication we must draw from the human body imagery that Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 with reference to the body of Christ.

While attached to the body, human limbs appear healthy and normal. In fact, we don’t give too much thought to how our limbs appear (beyond cosmetic concerns) because their existence on our body is entirely natural. But we all know that a severed human limb, precisely because it is detached from the body, looks grotesque and unnatural. Attached to the body, a hand looks like a hand. Detached from the body, a lone human appendage is frightening and disturbing.

In the same way, when a Christian is detached from the local church, their lives begin to take an unnatural shape. Drifting from regular fellowship, a churchless believer is left vulnerable to temptation and the trickery of Satan; their once sturdy beliefs begin to cave under cultural pressure, and their godly lifestyle start to take on the hue of the unbelieving world. A Christian’s spiritual health is dependent upon his or her engagement in the local church.

It is the local church to which the apostles wrote their New Testament letters and focused their ministries, and it is in these local churches where Christ’s people are meant to serve one another, find fellowship, discipleship, and accountability (Matt 18:15-18; Heb 10:24-25). It is in the local church where Christians are shepherded by competent pastors (1 Tim 3:1-7; 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:7, 17) and equipped for ministry (Eph 4:12). It is in the local church where Christians exercise their spiritual gift for the edification of the body (1 Cor 12:7) and where all Christians learn how to teach and admonish one another (Rom 15:14; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).

The church is the bride of Christ (Eph 5:25) and the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). The church is the congregation that Christ promised to build (Matt 16:18) and that he purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). Jesus is the head of the church (Eph 1:22; Col 1:18), and it is through the local church (not the campus ministry) that God is showcasing His manifold wisdom to the entire universe (Eph 3:10, 20).

For all the good that parachurch campus ministries might be doing, such ministries are not the local church and therefore can never take preeminence over the local expression of Christ’s people. A campus ministry that is not under the oversight of the local church or fails to make the local church a priority for its students, therefore, is working outside of God’s ideal. For the good of your souls, your perseverance in the faith, and the fruitfulness of your walk with Christ during and after your post-secondary education, make the local church a priority while you are in college.

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