It’s August, which means that all across the country, thousands of incoming freshmen are waving goodbye to hometowns and leaving for college. This includes many Christians, for whom a move to a new city means a move away from the familiarity of their home church. For many, campus ministries will step in to naturally fill the void.

A campus ministry can be unmatched in helping students connect with other likeminded believers, especially in an ideologically hostile academic or social setting. A good one will help equip Christian students to defend the faith, serve the poor, and be held accountable to each other.

A good campus ministry is a gift from God. But it is no church.

Flesh and Bones 

The reason many students identify primarily with a campus ministry rather than with a church isn’t because of any flaw in most campus ministry organizations. It’s because, too often, we evangelicals have a deficient view of the church. We assume it’s any gathering of people who believe in Jesus and who do churchly things. Many Christians assume the church exists simply to help us learn more about Christ and pool our resources for missions.

If that’s all a church is, a campus ministry can do all those things, and more.

But the Scriptures tell us the church is much more than that.

In the Bible, a local church—with all its ridiculous flaws—is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe (Eph. 3:6). She is in a one-flesh union with Jesus such that, as in a marriage, everything that belongs to him belongs to her (Eph. 5:22–33). A congregation, in covenant with one another as an assembly of Christ’s people, is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ (Eph. 1:22–23), a preview of what his kingdom will look like in the end (1 Cor. 6:1–8). Where there is a covenant among believers—a disciplined community of faith—the Spirit of Jesus is present among them, just as God was present among the people of Israel in the temple of old (Matt. 18:15–20).

A local church—with all its ridiculous flaws—is an unveiling of the mystery of the universe. . . . It is a colony of the coming global reign of Christ, a preview of what his kingdom will look like in the end.

When the church judges a repentant sinner to be a genuine believer, the congregation is speaking with the authority of Jesus when they plunge him beneath the waters (Matt. 28:18–19). When the church judges an unrepentant sinner to be persistent in his rebellion, it’s with the authority of Jesus that the congregation pronounces him to be a stranger to the people of God (1 Cor. 5:4–5; Matt 18:15–20). When we gather for worship as a congregation in covenant with one another, we’re not simply fueling our individual quiet times with praise choruses. We’re actually ascending to the heavenly places together, standing before Christ and all of his angels on Mount Zion (Heb. 12:18–29).

The Scriptures reveal to us what we would never discern on our own. The church—not an ideal congregation but the real one you go to every week, with the lady who smacks her gum and the man with the pitiful combover hair and the 1970s-era audio system and the kids banging Tonka trucks on the back of the pew in front of you—is the flesh and bones of Jesus. It’s his body, he tells us—inseparable from him as your heart and lungs and kidneys and fingers are from you (Eph. 5:29–30; 1 Cor. 12:12–31).

Saying “I love Jesus but not the church” is as irrational as saying to your best friend, “I like you—I just can’t stand being around you.” Your attitude toward the church reveals your attitude toward Jesus.

Saying ‘I love Jesus but not the church’ is as irrational as saying to your best friend, ‘I like you—I just can’t stand being around you.’

Avoid Unchurched Spirituality 

It’s easy for a campus ministry to seem more “spiritual” than a local congregation. Sometimes a campus ministry is filled with people more zealous for the mission of Christ than some church members. Sometimes young Christians mistake youthful idealism and, frankly, erotic charge for the spiritual gravity of a moment. A church made up of people from all different life stages, economic classes, and racial backgrounds is bound to have friction. And a church not aiming to “reach” a particular age group is bound to seem, as often as not, sluggish, dull, or misdirected to people in that age group.

Does the centrality of the church mean that campus ministry is irrelevant or redundant? No indeed. Should you be involved with a campus ministry in college? Yes indeed. So how do you avoid the spiritual dangers of an unchurched spirituality? Here are five suggestions.

Firstresist the temptation to keep your membership in your home church. Join a church in your college town, as soon as you find one with a commitment to Christ and the Scripture.

Second, find a church where some people will know your name, and will know if you aren’t present. Find a place where someone will kindly ask “Where were you?” if you miss a week.

Third, spend some time with people in your congregation who aren’t in the same place in life as you—a lonely senior adult, a harried 30-something mom, a sarcastic 14-year-old kid.

Fourth, humbly pester the leaders of the church for some way for you to exercise your gifts in the congregation—and let the leaders recognize and encourage your gifts. This means submitting yourself to serve the body in whatever way the church deems necessary. Most often, this will be something more Christlike than glorious, such as cleaning toilets or serving in the nursery.

Fifth, find a campus ministry that seeks to work alongside the church. Look for a ministry that wants to enhance what’s already happening in your life in discipleship and spiritual growth and mission in your congregation. Be very wary of a campus ministry that isn’t constantly asking you, “Where are you in church—and what’s happening there?” And be very, very wary of a campus ministry that seems to resent the time you spend with your church as “competing” with their ministry.

There are lots of good campus ministries. Be sure you find one. Be sure you pour yourself into whatever ministry your campus group can empower you to lead or serve. Be sure you and your fellow campus ministry group members are out among your unsaved fellow students with dynamism and compassion. But be sure that you are, first of all, an active, identified, and accountable member of a local church.

It may seem a little slower-paced than your campus ministry. It may not seem relevant to 21st-century culture. But it’s part of the unfolding mystery of the universe. And Jesus is there.

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Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at russellmoore.com