by Jerry Riendeau
Several years ago, I was serving on staff with Cru at a large state college. About 30 minutes down the road was another college in another college town. There was a wonderful church in that town. This church had great preaching, talented musicians, and a wonderful set of ministries. Not surprisingly, some students from our college ministry began to drive to that town to worship at that church on Sunday mornings.
Here is what was surprising. When our staff invited that pastor to speak at our weekly Cru large group meeting, he told our students to stop coming to his church. Why in the world would he say that? These students were not being disruptive. In fact, they were wonderful contributors to that church. The church wasn’t running out of space. So why did he tell them to stop coming? Because, as he said, they were driving by too many other good churches to get there.
Over time I have come to agree with that pastor.
There are a lot of important things to consider when picking a church as a college student: Do I agree with them theologically? Are they a loving community? Do I connect with their worship and preaching? I’d like to add another variable to the mix: how close are they geographically?
Notice, I did not say “how convenient are they to get to?” For some of us, especially those who grew up in a large suburban community, 30 minutes away feels almost as convenient as five minutes, especially if there happens to be a Starbucks drive-through on the way. I am asking you to consider how physically nearby the church is.
I am not telling you that this is the only variable you should consider. Rather, I want to argue it is a variable that should carry more weight than most of us naturally give it.
What do I mean by hyper local?
Mostly I just mean “very close by”. I felt the need to add the adjective “hyper” because the term “local church” does not mean the same thing to everyone. For some of us, the term “my local church” has come to mean “the church I go to on Sunday,” regardless of its proximity.
So when I say, “you should go to a ‘hyper local church’”, I am just saying that you should go to a church that is very close by. When you are considering two churches, both of which check the most important boxes, I think you should put greater weight in your decision-making on the one that is closer. Buy why?
One of the best ways to introduce friends to Christ is to invite them to your church. For someone who does not have a background in the church, this could be a very intimidating prospect. One of your responsibilities when introducing people to Christ is to, as far as it is within your power, remove obstacles. The gospel of Jesus Christ has enough obstacles of its own. Let’s not add to them. If your friend is on the fence already about going with you, telling her that it will involve an hour of driving might just be the excuse she needs to bow out.
This may be even more true for college students than for some other demographics. College students are less likely to have cars than some other groups. In addition, college students often identify very strongly with their own college and college town. They may even feel rivalry with another college town.
The point is, in most cases, someone would be more likely to accept an invitation to a nearby church than one that is farther off. Additionally, our hope in evangelism is that our non-believing friends would eventually commit their lives to Christ and join a church family. Let’s set them up well to continue to attend, meet other believers, and Lord willing, be discipled as new believers.
You will be discipled more effectively in a church that is close by. This means that a church that is close by will be better able to help you grow in your faith. This is true for at least a few reasons.
- Attending bible studies, worship nights, etc. will be easier, and therefore you will probably do so more often.
- Most churches design their ministries to meet the needs of the community they are in. Therefore, the closer a church is to your college, the more likely it will be designed to minister specifically to you as a student.
- Churches that are close by are better able to keep you accountable. This is the least fun reason to go to a church close by, but it is very important. One of your church’s jobs is to help you walk with Jesus in your everyday life. However, if you are 30 minutes away from your church, there is less opportunity for people from your church to be a part of your everyday life.
As Matt Smethurst of The Gospel Coalition sums it up, “church membership is a whole-church commitment to oversee one another’s profession of faith. That becomes impossible if you’re not meaningfully seen and known throughout the week. It comes down to what membership is. Just an agreement to attend a weekly event? Or an agreement to lock arms with a specific body in order to live the Christian life together?”
This means that having the ability to rub shoulders with your fellow church members during the week at coffee shops, grocery stores, etc. is not a fringe benefit to church, but of central importance to your discipleship.
3) Being a Blessing
Joining a “hyper local” church enables you to more effectively be a blessing to two groups of people. Those within the church and those in the community in which the church resides.
Matt’s quote above illustrates how going to a nearby church helps that church bless you, but the logic works both ways. As you are meaningfully seen and known by those in your church, those same people are meaningfully seen and known by you. In Ephesians 3 Paul compares the church to a physical body. In order for this body to function properly, all of its parts (its members) need to work together. The end result is that “the body grow(s) so that it builds itself up in love (Eph 3:16b).” What does this have to do with how far away your church is? If you are not able to take part in the life of the church due to your distance, you are depriving the rest of the church from a critical element that they need to build themselves up in love: you.
There is another group of people that you more effectively bless when you join a church that is nearby: the people in the community where the church resides. When the Jewish people were sent into exile in Babylon, God gave them a command through the prophet Jeremiah saying, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:7).”
This command continues to have application today. One purpose of the local church is to be a blessing to the community around it. This can take many forms. Churches can determine what practical needs a community has and try to provide some of those, such as food kitchens, narcotic anonymous meetings, counseling, child care, etc. In addition to these and other practical blessings, the greatest blessing a church can offer a community is to continually make Christ known to people who live in that community. To put it frankly, you cannot help your church bless the community around them as effectively if you do not live in that community.
So in conclusion…
Go join the closest church to your apartment. Just kidding, that might actually be a terrible idea. Unfortunately not all churches are created equal. You need to find a church that takes the Bible seriously, preaches the gospel regularly, and loves people well. You also may have some convictions about issues such as baptism or church governance that cause you to prefer some churches over others. These are good things to consider when picking a church. My hope is that when given the choice between joining a good church in your neighborhood, or joining one you like slightly better 20 minutes outside of your neighborhood, that you would give serious consideration to being hyper local.
Jerry Riendeau is one of the directors of Cru at James Madison University. He is married to Katherine. Together they have three children five years old and under. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at here.