What Do You Mean I Have To Find a New Church?

Going to university is full of a lot of ‘firsts’: moving away from home, owning saucepans, discovering TurnItIn and remembering to buy toilet rolls. It is also the first chance, for many, to choose which church they are going to attend. The deciding factor for where I went as a child was: is that where Mum is going? Going to university was the first time I had complete free range: I could try a new place, I could decide not to go to church, I could go anywhere for worship! So of course, what did I do? I attended the exact church that I was told to attend by the youth minister and vicar of my evangelical Anglican, ‘Bible-believing’, homophobic, misogynistic home church that I had spent my adolescence surviving and absolutely should have taken the opportunity to get away from. This was a very bad decision and it meant I spent a year at a church that was harmful to me. What I should have done, sooner than a year in, was attend the church on campus that I had visited on the first Sunday of university. You know, the one which I had researched 7 months before moving in and had spent the summer googling the chaplain’s and scrolling their facebook pages thinking ‘I wish I could go here’ and then…just not going? From hindsight I reckon I have some useful ideas about choosing a university church so may I present ‘Mo’s top 5 tips: I made terrible decisions so you don’t have to!’

'Honest Church' it

Rule number one for those of us wanting to find an affirming, progressive, liberating church that doesn’t dismiss half the population’s call to ministry: see if they have an Honest Church logo anywhere. If they don’t, you can always ask (if you feel comfortable doing so), especially if their website gives you a sense that they are probably all good but just haven’t yet heard of SCM’s excellent campaign! SCM recently posted an example of an email you could send to a church to get a clear answer from them on their stance on LGBTQ+ inclusion and women in ministry, which could be used to screen prospective churches!

The Vibe Check

I’m not always comfy with talking about ‘what the Spirit is guiding me to do’, but I do think that I have made better decisions when I have consciously asked God to help me. And even better decisions have been made for me when something out of my control happens that forces me to go down a path I didn’t even think to consider. So I often take a purposeful ‘vibe check-in’. Someone on SCM’s recent vocations panel at Greenbelt said, about making decisions, ‘I could spiritualise it and say ‘what does the Spirit guide you to do?’, which is what this is, but ask yourself ‘what is your gut instinct?’ and that helped me put into words my own approach to including God in my decisions. I reckon God is probably big enough not to need me to ask Him what I should be doing in a very specific way. God rarely whispers directly in my ear exactly what I should be doing, so I don’t see why I have to ask the question clearly. Instead, check in with yourself when you’ve tried somewhere new. How do you feel in that space? I realised, after being at my second uni church for a few weeks, that when I was there I felt a peace, joy and uplifting that I had never felt at church before. Was that a physiological response to feeling safe and the complex emotions linked to the experience? Probably. Do I also think that was because God was trying to tell me that this is where I was supposed to be? Definitely.

Have you ever tried…?

Did you know that there’s more than one flavour of Christianity? And that you’re allowed to explore ones that are different from how you were brought up? Now, I have been described by several friends as ‘too Anglican for my own good’, which I definitely am, however one of my favourite things about where I worship now is that it is Ecumenical. On a Sunday morning I sit next to Methodists, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Quakers, Catholics, people who don’t call themselves Christians and at least one atheist who keeps coming just because they like the people. My faith has been expanded because the community I am a part of is filled with many different ideas of God and faith. I’m no longer bound to the narrow views of worship and theology that I was brought up with. I hereby give you permission to go and try new denominations. If you don’t like it you can stick with what you know, but you might just find a new way to experience God.

I’m in charge of logistics, not fun

This one is simple but is also the one that I have felt the most guilty about considering because I was told it isn’t ‘spiritual’ enough, but ask yourself if this church is actually feasible for you to attend? Can you get there? Is the service at a time that means you can have breakfast? Are there other students? Is there pastoral support on offer? Are there social events that you can attend to build up your community? These things are important! If the local Catholic Church uses incense every week, but you have severe asthma, that might not be the right place for you. The theology, doctrine and worship style of a church is so important to consider but, in the end, you do have to actually be able to engage with it, and university is stressful enough without also making something that is supposed to bring you peace and replenish your soul into a logistical nightmare.

The Ark wasn’t built in a day

Contrary to the advice often given by some university Christian groups I think it’s probably absolutely fine for you to take your time. Try new churches. Shop around. Flit between. Don’t even go to church for a while if you don’t want to - God will still be there even if you never come back. I felt a massive push to be settled in a church immediately, to be involved ASAP and to get on with choosing. To the point where during my last week at my home youth group I was expected to talk about the church I would be going to at university to my peers, despite only having been to one Zoom service?! It’s great to settle in easily, and if the first place you find works then that’s brilliant. But there’s nothing wrong with being unsure; it doesn’t mean there is something spiritually broken about you. Take a breath, make a plan (even if the plan is ‘I don’t want a plan’) and have some patience- advice that I am often given but find very hard to take…

Ultimately, I just want to reassure you that it’ll all work out. Finding a loving faith community is wonderful and has definitely improved my university experience. They’re the people that I laugh and cry, praise and rage, grow and rest with. Church isn’t the building. The refreshments, decorations, website, music choices etc may be nice, but, if you’re struggling to decide, my best piece of advice is to choose somewhere based on the fact that when two or three of you gather you know you are in the presence of God.