Helping Students Find a Church When They Leave Home

A few weeks ago I served for the last time at Grace Fellowship Church, the church I found as a high school senior looking for churches near Loyola University in Baltimore. My belonging to a church for six years culminated in a tearful prayer send-off with fellow children’s volunteers and staff. Being an active part of a local church is what made Baltimore feel like home and motivated me to stay for grad school. A new job in Washington D.C. required me to close the chapter at Grace, but the roots had grown deep in this first church I found, attended, and served as an adult.

As your students go through their college search, I encourage you to make helping them find a church a vital part of the process. Finding a local church is just as important if not more important than finding a college to attend. Ideally, students should look at some churches for every college they seriously consider. If they have not found a potential church, I would say the college search is not complete—no matter how much they may like a given school. College is a mere four years of a student’s life, but following Christ is a life-long commitment.

Here are six aspects of helping students find a local church, which are evident in my own story:

  • Pursuing More Than Campus Ministry
  • Locating Possible Churches
  • Attending Together
  • Planning Ahead for Transportation
  • Encouraging Involvement
  • Empowering and Sending

PursueMore Than Campus Ministry

A few weeks after I was accepted to Loyola as a high school senior, my youth pastor and I talked over hazelnut macchiatos at Starbucks. The more we talked, the more excited I became to attend college, find a church, and learn to love a new place. We discussed how even if I were to attend a university with a strong campus ministry, there is value in being planted in a local church outside the confines of campus.

While gathering on a college campus is often convenient and can foster community, nearly all campus ministry participants will be of similar age. A Timothy and Paul relationship cannot happen if both people are the exact same age, live in the same dorm, go to the same college, etc. Surrounding yourself with those who are older and wiser is a healthy spiritual practice. In a similar way, worshiping with people younger than you provides opportunities to model faith for others.

Locate Possible Churches

I began using a search engine that allowed me to enter my starting address, the mileage radius I was willing to travel and a few other outputs. After churches came up in the search I would go to the church website to look at their doctrine and theological statements, and ministries. I wanted to know that a given church preached and practiced the gospel—the Good News that God rescues sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Many colleges and universities have strong campus ministries (InterVarsity, Reformed University Fellowship, etc.) that can direct students to local churches. You can encourage students to contact the chaplain’s office or the local chapter of a campus ministry to find out where otherson campus attend church. Then urge students to visit church websites to look at their statements of faith.

Attend Together

As I perused Grace’s website I grew more and more interested. I knew I was going to attend an upcoming Admitted Students Day in March of my senior year, so my parents and I began planning to visit churches during the same weekend. Logistically, many churches have at least two services on a Sunday morning. We decided we would visit two of Grace’s sites at different services–but students and their parents could just as easily visit two different churches on a given Sunday. Regardless of whether you are present with your student when she finds the church she’ll commit to, visiting at least one church together can be a helpful exercise.

My parents empowered me to have agency in deciding where to go to college and to church. But as the worship service concluded at Grace Fellowship, my dad turned to me and said, “This is it.”  In that moment my dad was both affirming and confirming what I already felt throughout the service. However, my dad did not go on to tell me all the reasons why he thought Grace would be a good fit for me. Instead, he asked me if I agreed with him and why. Learning to evaluate churches with Scripture as my reference point was a critical step in maturing as a Christian.

If you are especially close to your daughter or son and know that your word carries weight, then carefully and prayerfully decide how you will speak about the church search. Encourage your student to assess and articulate his or her own reasons for choosing a particular church. Meanwhile, be transparent with your own story. Hearing about how you wish you had walked with Jesus more closely in college can be motivating for a student to prioritize walking with the Lord.

Plan Aheadfor Transportation

Initially, I wasn’t sure how I would get to Grace on Sundays. Loyola doesn’t allow freshmen to have cars on campus, and Baltimore lacks a robust transit system. My parents encouraged me that if it was where God wanted me to be, the details would come together. A couple weeks later I got an email from avolunteer we met saying that a student at the College of Notre Dame was willing to give me a ride to church. Notre Dame is so close to Loyola that we share a library—and this student who went to Grace parked her car about 200 feet from my freshman dorm. God completely provided a ride the year I needed it.

Churches are often willing to help coordinate transportation for college students with some advance notice, so encourage your student to get in touch. Some schools may provide transportation via a campus vehicle or students involved in campus ministry. In other cases, public transportation might make it relatively simple. If getting to church is not easy, however, even the intentionality and planning could yield a host of benefits as students grow in the Lord. Helping students work through some of these details ahead of time can reduce anxiety they may feel in starting over somewhere new.

Encourage Involvement

Students will likely be busy with classes and extracurricular clubs; they may not have an income. Still, it’s important to encourage them to not just attend church but give to the church both in time and in resources. College is busy, but life only gets busier following graduation. The sooner a student can learn to prioritize his or her commitment to God and to His people, the better. Tithing and serving are two ways to encourage college students to invest in the life of the local church.

We all have different, yet complementary roles to serve in the body (1 Corinthians 12:12, 15-27). Serving as a college student provided the opportunity to fulfill my role in the body of Christ. I found it important to give of myself and my time in children’s ministry, but serving is not singular or linear. It takes prayer and discernment to figure out where to serve, another area in which parents and youth workers can provide coaching.

Empower and Send

When I studied abroad 8,000 miles away during my junior year in Cape Town, South Africa I once again prioritized finding a church, which allowed me to acclimate more quickly to a new culture. Even more recently, these experiences from college have framed my approach to finding a new body of believers in Washington D.C. Learning how to find a church and making it a priority to do so will shape my experience in every place I am fortunate enough to call home.

Empowering students to find a local church when they leave home has lasting ramifications. As your students prepare to transition to a new chapter, it is important to remind them of the significance of this moment. Encourage them that their young adult years have the potential to create lasting impact.

Remind your students that while they have a lot to learn, they should not use their age as an excuse. Admonish them with the words Paul used to encourage Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

The local church needs your students, and your students need the local church. May they know that age does not disqualify them from loving God’s people wherever they are.


Ciana Creighton is an Associate Director, Mayor’s Office of Policy in the Executive Office of the Mayor, Washington D.C. She holds a Masters of Public Health from John Hopkins and credits her faith and direct service experience for propelling her into a vocation of public service. Ciana grew up in a small town in Connecticut where she and her family were active members of a small congregation. From a young age whenever she went into Manhattan to see a play or go to a restaurant, Ciana would ask her parents why she saw people asking for food. This attention to the most vulnerable continued into her teenage years and was magnified on her first mission trip to Nassau, Bahamas. During her college and grad school years at Loyola University and the Johns Hopkins, Ciana served in children’s ministry and as a young adult Bible study leader at Grace Fellowship Church in Baltimore, MD. She also spent a summer serving as Youth Intern at the First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA. Ciana loves to travel the world and often chooses future destinations based on hikes she hopes to complete.

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