If you’re off to university in September (congratulations!), you might have heard something like this from several lovely and very well meaning youth leaders, ministers, vicars or parents: ‘When you get to uni, make sure you get involved with other Christians on campus and find a good lively student church: university is a difficult place to be a Christian. I remember ‘x’ lost their faith while they were at university because they didn’t settle in to a good Christian community.’
Whilst they do mean well (they want you to find people who will look after you and love you, who will nurture your faith and support you through the tougher parts of university life!) and these things are all really important (you do need to find people who will offer that kind of care for you, who will recognise, understand and develop the things at the core of who you are) those communities may not be found in the places you would expect.
I’m not going to give you a step-by-step guide to finding where you fit at university: it won’t surprise you to hear that it doesn’t quite work like that! But I am going to tell you a little about each of my communities at university, and what they’ve taught me about myself, God and others. I’ve found myself surrounded by the most wonderful people, and have found spaces where I feel safe, challenged and loved.
Place Yourself in Common Spaces
First of all, there’s my college. While the Oxbridge collegiate system is pretty unique, I’d definitely suggest seeking out places where you’re thrown together with a lot of people of different interests, backgrounds and ages. Once you’ve found those places, if you can, eat there. Take your breaks in common rooms or campus cafés. I’ve been amazed by the people I’ve gotten to know and the conversations I’ve ended up having just by making the effort to sit with different people at lunchtime in college every day, or by sitting in my common room and having coffee with whoever’s there. I’ve found myself in fiery debates over politics or theology, I’ve had the chance to really get to know postgrads doing the most amazing research, and I’ve found ways of making proper moments of rest in the day with people I love and feel safe with.
I’ve learnt so much from spending time with people who think about and experience things very differently from me: I’ve found the people who I can be totally emotionally honest with, and the people I feel safe asking my really difficult life questions. You never know who you might meet if you put yourself in places where you’ll get chatting to people.
Diversity of Worship
Then, there are my places of worship – plural. Very plural. Don’t get me wrong, I have my church in Oxford that I go to every Sunday morning, and I love it! I’m training to be a minister, so I’m very involved in church life there, from preaching, to playing music, to pastoral care. But as well as that, one of the best things I’ve done to feed my faith at university is visit different churches and college chapels.
I’m a Baptist: broadly evangelical, fairly charismatic, and generally liberal. I love choral evensong. The liturgy and music is beautiful, and really helps me to pray, especially when I’m stressed. I go to compline every Tuesday. The chapel is dark, the language is archaic, and it reminds me that people have been praying with the same words for hundreds of years before me. It makes me feel less alone as I’m trying to find out how this faith thing works. I love services that use incense, I love it when the people around me feel comfortable raising their hands and singing in tongues, I love it when it’s normal to kneel to pray, or to cross myself. Give me long, set prayers and BCP liturgies; give me candles and chants in candlelit chapels; give me Shine Jesus Shine and awkward clapping. Belonging to, and being a guest of all kinds of Christian community has taught me that my preconceptions of God are so, so far from a truth that I’ll never reach, but which is closer to me than I am to myself.
Embrace the Unexpected
University is an amazing opportunity to find new places to commune with God and others. My advice: embrace the unexpected. The encounters that have shaped me most are the ones I least planned or anticipated, and the places and people I find my home in are diverse. I’m learning to expect to meet Christ in the stranger, and to recognise him at work in ways and places I’d never imagined. When you’re challenged, stay humble and open, ask hard questions, and expect difficult answers. In my experience, you won’t lose your faith; it’s true, I’m less certain about a lot of things that I thought I knew about God when I started university. But my faith in God has never been deeper, realer or more sustaining than it is now that I’ve found places where I don’t have to pretend I’ve got it all worked out. It’s my hope and prayer that you’ll be able to find those places, too.
Written by Molly Boot, undergraduate and minister in training at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. On placement at New Road Baptist Church.