Collegiate churches: Remaining distinct

A curious thing happens to college students. For many, they travel to a campus that is far enough from where they grew into an adult to merit living on their own. They start out in a dorm (or maybe a Greek house), which has many accommodations for people living on their own for the first time, but inevitably yearn for more freedom after one or two years. This brings them to an apartment or a house. And everywhere they live, they want to increase their freedom and sense of individuality. They are growing up, after all, and they want the world to know it.

In the land of the self-made man, these men and women are making themselves and showing it off. Yet they never fail to blend in to all the other students around them.

On any college campus you can see this immediately. Look at the clothes the people are wearing. At first there is diversity: many colors, types of clothing and different materials. However, after scouting a busy area for only a few minutes, some patterns will appear. If it is summer, the default item on everyone is a T-shirt. Besides that, the girls wear spaghetti-strap tops and the guys wear tanks. The girls wear shorts and the guys wear shorts-that-aren’t-short. They all have similar-looking backpacks, sunglasses and stylish shoes. Many of the guys wear flat-bill caps, and every single girl walks around in flip-flops. This is the modern standard for summer attire.

In the midst of their expressions of individuality are a longing to do what everyone else does. While they wish to display a character that stands out, they fall back on the way that everyone around them lives.

This is not an indictment against clothing, nor against the process of maturing. We all like to fit in. This is part of growing up and living in a community.

I was surrounded by this culture of individuality-yet-sameness for the past four years and I participated in it in full.

I also noticed that it spilled over into the church.

There are two parts to this lifestyle: reception and distinction. Like college students and their attire, the church took on the way the culture around it physically looked. Whatever college students wore is what the church-goers wore. Whatever the college students ate is what the church-goers ate. Whatever the college students studied is what the church-goers studied.

This is because the college students were the church-goers. And this is exactly how we are meant to live as God’s family, the church: in the midst of the culture around us, growing and learning and feeding ourselves just like everyone else.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

However, we should also remain distinct from the world. This is the call that God has given his people since he called Abram to leave his father’s house and follow him:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

In God’s promise to Abram there is a tone of distinction, of remaining set apart from the rest of the nations. God said Abram and his descendants will be a blessing to the ‘other people’ in the world. It is not exclusive, as God makes clear in his laws for the Israelites to incorporate “the foreigner who lives with you” into their community. Yet in the midst of the laws to the Israelites to care for foreigners is God’s command:

You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. (Leviticus 20:26)

Jesus repeats this command to his disciples and the apostle Peter reiterates it as well in his letter (Matthew 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16).

God’s people are to be distinct even as we live amongst those who do not yet know Jesus as their Savior.

There is a tendency to back away from this distinction, especially in church bodies in college towns. The students in the churches want to do all the things that other students are doing in order to fit in. When this happens, the motivation behind blending in is the important factor.

Are you trying to mix with the people around you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself? Or are you trying to blend in because you fear standing out and being distinct?

Imagine a child sitting at a table. In front of him lay many plates with an assortment of foods on them. There are breads of all kinds, savory meats, dairy products, roasted nuts and seeds, and a variety of vegetables. All of these will help him grow into a strong, healthy man as he matures. His parents have taught him about healthy eating habits verbally and in the way they eat.

Yet there is one plate that has him entranced. He stares at it fixedly as if he were a statue. It is all he wants. He feels his hand reach out to it, moving faster with every inch like a magnet toward its pole.

On that plate lies his favorite candy.

This is how many collegiate church bodies act. They cling to what they know feels good, even when they know that it causes them harm. They refuse to get rid of their old, secret habits and vices because they fear what other people will say when they admit they have these problems. They don’t stop going to certain weekend hang-outs where illicit behavior is rampant because they want people to pay attention to them. They continue ridiculing anyone they disagree with because they are addicted to hearing other people around them laugh at their commentary. They continue thinking that everyone else needs to shape up in order to be just like them.

Maybe these struggles apply to  more than just college students. Maybe we all have these struggles and maybe others along with them.

I struggle with these problems, these sins, and I have graduated. No magic change happened after I received my degree: I am the same person with the same sinful behavior and thoughts with a different schedule.

The church today needs the same exhortation, the same urgent word of encouragement, as the church of the first century did: “It is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”

This is a difficult task. It is uncomfortable to stand out every day amongst a culture that is all about fitting in, blending, being ‘normal.’

This is why we must always look to the God who is bigger than our fears, the God who loves and cares for us no matter what we do, where we are, how we act. He loves us because of who we are. We are made in his image! We are people he knit together in our mothers’ wombs (see Psalm 139)! We are children of God (1 John 3:1)!

My dear brothers and sisters, do not let the world around you decide how you will act. Remember this:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

The college culture will tempt you to take part in all sorts of pleasures and escapes. But they do not solve any of your problems and usually create new ones.

This balance of distinction and reception is complex. It looks different in every situation. Yet there is are many themes lying under this way of living that do not change in any situation, and one meta-theme that covers them all:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35).

This is how we are to remain distinct from the world. The culture around us teaches us and everyone in it to “look out for number one,” to do everything we can to save and prosper our own lives. However, we should always look to the one who gave up his own life for our sake, that we “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Let us look around with perceptive eyes to the needs of the people around us, just as Jesus did. Let us proclaim the truth that the kingdom of God is here, just as Jesus did. And let us walk each day in complete confidence that our Father in heaven loves us and will always remain with us and believe in us, just as Jesus did.

Let us remain distinct through loving God and our neighbors while receiving all the good things that our heavenly Father has given us.

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