When I moved down to the University of Exeter as an underweight bookworm last year, armed with little more than a Wilko’s crockery kit and the dream of becoming a dashing student of the humanities, finding a church was probably about third on my list of priorities. In hindsight, that was a pretty big fumble on my part. Let me explain…
By pure luck, I landed at Rediscover Church, a passionate congregation located down Queen’s Street. At the time, it was absolutely the church I needed – a diverse, vibrant congregation that was inclusive, student friendly and very media-savvy.
The 11:30 service was streamed live on Facebook, a studio space was set up for presenters to provide background music between the different segments and online pastors were ready to interact with an audience that stretched from South Devon to Cambodia. I loved that – a modern Christian movement embracing social media to spread God’s word beyond their 750 seater venue.
Church can be a lifeline
At the time, I was just happy that I could tell my parents I was doing something useful on Sundays. It wasn’t until later that I would grow to appreciate how blessed I was to find a church like Rediscover.
During those shaky first few weeks, I’d walk about the city feeling as brittle and vulnerable as porcelain. It would have been easy to break off from Jesus and do my own thing. But knowing I had a regular appointment at a welcoming place where I could eat digestives, talk to people about my problems and have my faith in God renewed? That was like a rubber ring to the drowning.
Like Paul writes in Galatians 6:8: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” By surrounding ourselves with fellow believers, we can weather the struggles of university life together and ensure our belief never falters.
Finding a church
But how you do find a church that suits you? I went to Exeter knowing nothing. You, on the other hand, can hit the ground the running.
Check out Fusion, an international movement dedicated to helping us undergraduates make the transition from our home churches to a new congregation without missing a step.
Their website’s ‘Find a Church’ makes it really easy. Just type in the name of your university town or city and they will send you a map marked with every registered church in the area.
From there you can learn about the church’s general atmosphere and their student ministry, as well as find important grown-up details like service times and directions.
There’s some practical stuff to think about too. Booze, for example. A night out isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time and you should never feel pressured to go on an ambitious ten-pint pub crawl. You might feel like a bit of a pariah, but you won’t be alone. There will plenty of other like-minded students who feel exactly the same and there are societies where you can meet and chill together.
On the other hand, don’t feel like you can’t enjoy a drink! My sheltered middle class self knew nothing about clubbing before I came to Exeter. I was curious, and I went out a bit, and I quickly learnt Unit One’s infamous ‘Cheesy Tuesdays’ – Exeter’s “biggest” night – wasn’t something I needed to do every week. But I value the experience, stumbles and all, because I ventured outside my comfort zone and developed several close friendships with people who hail from a range of different countries, faiths and sexualities.
Now, I’m afraid we have to mention budgeting. It’s really scary. Gap year students might already have experience balancing a spreadsheet, but if you are anything like me, financial responsibility is something you hear about in Credit Crunch movies. It’s not something you have ever actually practiced.
However, you can download free Microsoft excel templates that will make keeping track of your income and expenses simple.
Another issue is keeping people in the loop. Ring your old school friends. Chase up that missed call from Mum. Maintaining long distance relationships is probably the uppermost of the university challenges, so make sure you put the work in.
Trust me, when the reading lists starts to pile up like a crazy Jenga set, you will be grateful to have someone outside of the uni bubble to share your woes with.
Sharing your faith
However, the biggest challenge I faced in uni wasn’t finding a church, buying textbooks, or getting up for my 8:30am seminar. It was being honest about my faith. My friend Ben announced his Evangelical Christian Union membership to the entire flat when he moved in. It was pretty awesome.
I was never bold enough to introduce myself to strangers as a Christian, and sometimes I wonder if my discretion was less about respecting others than surrendering to my own fears.
Whenever I came home from Rediscover, I ducked every question about my morning like a dodgeball. I was afraid my faith would alienate my friends.
I was wrong. People loved Ben because he was funny, honest about his beliefs, and generous with the contents of his spice cupboard. It wasn’t that his Christianity didn’t matter; every kindness he offered was directed by Jesus’s example. But nobody hated him because he kept a cross on his bedside table. I wish I realised that sooner.
Here’s what I’ve learnt: You don’t need to whip out the acoustic guitar and play a set of Matt Redman worship music standards in the common room, but you shouldn’t make excuses for your faith either.
Be prepared for tricky conversations and be willing to engage with people whose lifestyles challenge your own.
Most of all enjoy university. Remember that not everybody ever gets as far as you have now, and remember that you have an opportunity to change the campus culture.
Sure, it’s a lofty goal. But I think you and I have an opportunity to model a Christ-like example to our friends by simply being the people God called us to be.