8:14 a.m.: You roll over to hit the snooze button one more time when you realize it's Sunday morning and the voice you heard in your dream is actually your roommate telling you to turn off the alarm. Still exhausted from running around with your new college buddies until 2 a.m. the night before, you bury your face in your pillow and ask yourself the same question you've been asking for the past several weeks of your first semester in college: Where am I going to go to church THIS morning?
If you're like most new students at Christian colleges, finding a church during your freshman year may be one of the greatest challenges you'll face. After all, you've probably never had to choose a church on your own before. Maybe you've attended the same church with your parents since the week you were born, or maybe you became a Christian in high school and went to church with some friends who invited you. No matter what your church situation was at home, going away to a new college in a new town means you'll be looking for a new church. Here are some tips to help you in your search.
Make It a Priority
Don't let that first Sunday go by without being in church. It takes about six weeks to establish a habit, good or bad. Every week you don't go, you're creating a habit: to forget about finding a church. This is especially true on a Christian college campus, where you may be tempted to think that chapel, small groups, Bible studies or Bible classes replace your need to get involved in a local church.
"Finding a church is a major struggle for college students," says Stan McKinnon, campus pastor at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. "Many students try to make campus ministries their church, and that's a problem."
While campus ministries are great, they can't replace the importance of the local church as your primary place to serve and worship.
Get Direction . . .
One of the best ways to take the stress out of finding a new church is to plan ahead. Don't wait until Sunday morning to decide which church you're going to visit—chances are, you'll end up not going at all. Instead, decide earlier in the week where you want to visit, so you'll have time to find the website or call the church office to get directions and service times. Some churches even have buses or carpool groups that will give you a ride if you call in advance. Plus, if you know where you're going to church, you'll be able to invite your new college friends to join you. They'll probably be glad someone took the initiative to find a church to visit, and you'll be more comfortable in a new church if you have a few friends with you.
As you visit, it's helpful to think about what you're looking for in a church. For example: Do you want a church where the minister goes through an entire book of the Bible over a series of weeks? Or would you be happier with a "topical sermon," where the pastor explains what the Bible says about a specific topic or issue? As for music, do you prefer guitar-driven praise songs or more traditional hymns accompanied by organ? Are you looking for a denominational or non-denominational church?
In the end, what's really important is finding a church where the Bible is considered God's infallible Word and salvation is found only through accepting Christ as your personal Lord and Savior (Romans 10: 9-10). Everything else is negotiable and a matter of personal preference.
A Place to Serve
It's tempting to visit churches and subconsciously ask yourself, "Does this church meet all my needs?" While it's important to find a church where you're refreshed and fed, it is equally important to find a church where you can serve.
Are you great with kids? Look for a church where you can get involved with the children's ministry. Are you a computer whiz? Maybe you can help the church develop a great new website. A fringe benefit: It's easier to form relationships at church if you're actively involved.
So when you ask yourself, "What can I get from this church?" also ask, "What can I give?"
Chances are, you are not going to find a replica of your home church. Don't be too quick to rule out possibilities just because the style or "personality" is slightly different than what you're used to.
Katie Friesen, who left her home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to attend John Brown University, spent her first semester of college looking for a church. "In the beginning, I was looking for a church exactly like my home church," says Katie, a recent graduate. "I left a really great church at home, and that made it kind of difficult to look for a new church."
Katie says it took her awhile to realize she was not going to find the "perfect" church. She realized, though, she could find a good place to serve, grow, worship and enjoy the Christian community. Today, she loves her church-away-from-home, and she sings on the worship team and occasionally helps with the children's ministry there.
For most people, fitting in doesn't happen overnight. At first, you might feel uncomfortable as the "newcomer." And it will certainly be different than your church youth group experience. Give your new church some time to grow on you.
Make a Commitment
You'll probably want to visit several churches before deciding on one. But if the end of the semester is quickly approaching and you're still jumping from church to church, maybe it's time to pick a church and stick with it.
"My freshman year, I did a lot of church hopping," says Casey Schilperoort, a John Brown University student from Sunnyside, Washington. "When I saw something I didn't like in a church, I'd go somewhere else."
Now a senior, Casey says his critical approach to the church search kept him from getting plugged in anywhere for a while. His advice: Get involved as soon as possible and then commit yourself to worshiping there consistently.
Choosing a new church is one of the most important decisions you'll make during your freshman year. Your search will require some patience and a lot of prayer.
"Expect God to lead you to a church where you can grow and be challenged," says Stan. "God will meet you at the church where he's called you to be."
Cherissa recently graduated from John Brown University with a degree in journalism.