Is a student group a church?

In a couple of weeks time I will be speaking at a Christian conference for university students on the subject of church.  This means the question of whether a student group is a church is going to come up.  So here are some thoughts before I get to the conference.

The student group I am referring to is AFES.  So some of what I am going to say may not apply to other groups.  Before I get to my point, let me address a few things that make this hard to talk about:

The Elephant

Firstly, there is the elephant in the room.  Most student groups are keen that churches don’t seem them as churches because they are reliant on local churches for financial support.

Let me address this as someone who isn’t getting any support from student groups.  Universities are an important mission field.  Whether the student groups are churches or not, they should be supported by other churches if for no other reason than it is important mission field for the city.  If you are not supporting a local student group, do it.  (AFES is a good place to start!)

They aren’t all the same…

Secondly, student groups can look very similar.  They run similar-ish structures.  They are seeking to reach similar kinds of people: students.  But the reality is that student groups are actually quite different.  Some of this has to do with the culture of the campus they are on.  Some of this has to do with whether the group is seeking to reach overseas students or not.  Some of this has to do with how the group sees its role and function on the campus.  Despite what I am about to say, the real question should be: “Is my student group a church?”

Is a tent a house?

Let me start to address the question by asking the question: is a tent a house?  It depends.  If a house is a roof over our heads then technically a tent is a house.   A tent can function as a house.  But it works better if it is temporary.  Some people do not have that as an option.  However, a tent is usually a temporary place of residence at best.  That is what its function was designed to be.

The function of a house it to be somewhere to live.  So while a house may well be a roof over our heads, you expect a lot more from it.  Solid walls, a permanent roof, plumbing, electricity, a kitchen, etc.  come to mind.  Because these things are designed to help your house to be a place to live permanently.

Back to our question

A church is a lot like a house.  Because its function is to help you to be a disciple of Jesus over a lifetime there are certain things you expect from it.  Some of this has to do with diversity of the people who are there. Some of this will have to do with structures that are in place.

A student group is more like a tent.  It is  a great place to be temporarily but long term you don’t want to live in a tent.  It could function as a house, but it is not what you would expect from a house.  It does not have the facilities that you would expect long term for a house.

Inevitably the question will come up: So does that mean I don’t have to go to a church if I am in a student group?  This is a dumb question.  If you are going to connect with a church eventually, then do it now.  Would you really spend three years living in a tent?

But let me finish with the opposite question: If I am at a church, why would I spend time in  a student group?  The same reasons you go camping in a tent!  It is exciting, it will change you, pushing your comfort zone is good for you because, as I mentioned above, the mission field of campus work is important.


One comment

  1. Peter,
    Good discussion starter. I think a similar question is, “Is a theological college a church?”

    I think a theological college is a joint-venture by a community of churches (usually represented by a denominational or confessional affinity) to develop their next generation of Christian leaders. The college may be its own legal entity and seem quite removed from many of the churches it serves (because of the restrictions on how much time and energy those who serve in the college have to maintain those relationships while still effectively carrying out the functions of the college) but it does not exist for its own sake. Each of those churches has a stake in the success of the college and should actively support it.

    Similarly, a student group on campus is a vehicle for a community of churches to disciple their young adults. While each of these local churches has an interest in the discipleship of their students, the nature of university campuses that draw students from across a broad region of the city means that there are potentially hundreds of churches that have a stake in any particular university campus. You could argue that each church should start their own group. But the university administration will not accept hundreds of different Christian student groups so churches with some affinity work together through organisations, such as AFES or Power to Change/Student Life. As representatives of multiple churches, the student groups must operate in a way that is compatible with the churches they serve (i.e. the group can’t be so much like one church that they fail to represent another). A few churches in Sydney may have large enough student populations to maintain their own student group over time but these are the exception.


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