Finding Community in College

0 comments Posted on July 2, 2019

by Stephen Kellough

In my college chaplaincy, I conducted exit interviews of about two dozen graduating seniors every spring. One of the key questions I asked was this: “What are some of the most positive influences on your spiritual life during your college years?” The most cited response: friends. Students would say that relationships were the key part of their college experience. And why were friends so important? The answers went like this: “They challenge me; they love me; they empathize with me; they encourage me.” 

Zach, a graduating senior, explained that the discipleship small group he joined with five other guys during his freshman year was especially formative. The regularity of their meeting was a constant source of support. Zach acknowledged his great appreciation for this group in saying that he couldn’t have made it through his four years of college without these friends. 

While a college or university campus may be buzzing with activity—crowded lecture halls, active dormitories, and busy athletic facilities—an individual student can get lost in the middle of it all. In order to combat loneliness, college administration and students themselves need to take the initiative in making the college environment a community experience. Residence hall programs, student development activities, intramural sports options, and even extracurricular academic functions can connect students who would otherwise struggle alone. 

Of course, loneliness isn’t limited to college freshmen, but extends to all who lack friendship and community. C. S. Lewis helps us bridge the fear and hesitation that may be sustaining our feelings of loneliness. He explains that sharing common interests, insights, or even burdens may be a first step in finding a friend. Lewis puts it this way: “The typical expression of opening friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

What is community? How can we define it? Will Willimon and Tom Naylor in their book on “Rethinking Higher Education” define community as “a partnership of people committed to the care and nurturing of each other’s mind, body, heart, and soul.” 

People need community. It’s important in the college environment because college prepares one for life. Habits developed during the college years can set critical patterns. What we learn in college—outside the classroom as well as inside the classroom—can make all the difference in the world for our intellectual, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being.

I have a personal illustration of the value of community through my experience with motorcycling. This interest in biking goes way back to the influence that came from my father as a motorcycle cop. Over the years, I have owned and ridden a number of Harley-Davidsons.

The motorcycling community is a fraternity of sorts. On the highway, passing bikers connect with a casual wave. The bond between motorcyclists is revealed even more clearly when the bikes are parked and conversation is shared—beginning easily with observations about bikes, weather, road conditions or the joy of riding. There is a rider connection here, a community, an understanding among motorcyclists that if you are in need or in trouble, a biker buddy will be there to help. 

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer helps us understand the distinctive nature of Christian community in his book Life Together. Bonhoeffer compellingly describes the connectedness that exists between believers as he defines Christian community this way: 

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. 

There are all kinds of communities in this world because it’s consistent with our human nature to gravitate toward community. But there is a uniqueness in Christian community. Christ-followers—wherever they are—have a special connectedness to other Christ-followers. Christians are not just random, isolated individuals. Believers in Jesus have a common need for each other and a distinctive purpose together for the advance of Christ’s Kingdom.

An excerpt from Walking with Jesus on Campus: How to Care for your Soul during College by Stephen Kellough (Moody Publishers, July 2019).

Stephen Kellough BA, Miami University, Oxford, OH; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; DMin, Covenant Theological Seminary, is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church USA. He served for fifteen years in parish ministry before being called as Chaplain of Wheaton College in 1989. He retired from this position after serving for twenty-five years. Steve and his wife, Linda, have one son, Jeffrey (wife-Sheralynn), and twin grandchildren, Luke and Brielynn.

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