I distinctly remember my first Sunday morning in college. I was 15 hours away from home, far from my family and from the church that my dad planted and pastored for most of my life. I was a PK (pastor’s kid), and for the first time in my life, I had to choose where I was going to go to church. Suddenly, I realized that I hadn’t ever actually stopped to think about why I went to church or what kind of church I should attend. I simply went where my dad was pastoring. I found myself paralyzed by the choices and a little over my head with the decision.
Ministering on a college campus has revealed that I wasn’t the only pastor’s kid to feel this way. While seeing the church from the perspective of a PK is a beautiful and complicated thing, sometimes we assume that transitioning to a new church is second nature just because that’s the world we grew up in. But often, it’s harder than we think. You’re not alone, and it’s okay. Here are some thoughts about going to church in college as a PK.
Seven Things to Consider as You Look for a Church Home
First, go. It’s not uncommon to start reviewing values you grew up with when you leave home. It’s also normal for PKs to feel a sense of freedom from the proverbial fishbowl when they go away for college. It’s tempting to want to sleep in or skip church for a while. After all, you probably never had those options growing up. But, let me encourage you to make going to church a priority. Don’t skip just because you can and feel like it. It will be harder to get back into the rhythm later. If you must bask in a newfound freedom, sit in the back row.
Second, don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel “known” right away. As a PK, you are accustomed to walking into the sanctuary on Sunday morning and people greeting you by name. Often people you’ve never really interacted with know you just because you’re the pastor’s kid. You grew up with at least a perception of being known. As a result, it can be a bit shocking to step into a new church and feel completely anonymous. Don’t let that dissuade you from visiting again. Instead know that you are experiencing a new church the way most people do, and that feeling part of a community requires intentionally entering into conversations with new people. Perhaps you like the anonymity. Just don’t stop there. It’s important to plug in some way, so don’t let yourself simply sneak in and sneak out.
Third, it’s okay to visit different churches for a little while. Sometimes PKs feel this sense of guilt if they haven’t decided on a church home by the third week of classes. Remember that often you have to visit a church a few times to start to understand its culture, rhythms and values. Read the websites, contact a person in leadership, make a list of questions. For example, what characterizes a good church? What are the essentials that need to be in place and what are the non-essentials that you can work with? What are your own expectations for church? Do you choose a church because your friends go there or because of the worship style? Should you base your decision on the programs the church offers? Ask yourself good questions as you visit a church. Your church home for the next four years is an important decision, so if you need to look around for a while, do so without guilt and with intentionality. It’s better to take your time making an informed decision than to commit to a church body only to leave a few months later.
Fourth, commit to a church as soon as you can. This is essentially the other side of the coin from point three. Although it might take some time to decide what church you want to attend for the next four years, don’t allow yourself to be in perpetual church shopping mode. I think this one is especially tempting for PKs because often it’s the first time you get to see a church other than your dad’s in action. Yes, check out different churches, but always with the intention to land somewhere. This can be difficult if there are many good options to choose from, but floating from church to church with visitor status will never lead to meaningful relationships or present opportunities for you to use your gifts to uplift the body.
Fifth, remember that just because your new church is different from your church back home, it’s not necessarily wrong. It’s also not necessarily better. Sometimes when confronted with anything new, we tend to let the pendulum swing either to the “new is bad” side or the “old is bad” side. When in reality, it might just be different. The benefit of experiencing a new church as a young adult is that it forces you to evaluate what you actually believe the Bible teaches about ecclesiology. It pushes you into a place where you have to flex your theological muscles a bit—a place where you might not be comfortable at first. God often matures us in our uncomfortable places.
Sixth, remember that both your new local church and your home church are part of the same story. Often, in referring to the church where I grew up, I would refer to it as “my dad’s church.” I simply meant that it was the church my dad pastored, but I had to start changing that language when I went to college (and after!). It’s not my dad’s church. It’s God’s church, the body and bride of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 5:25-32) and the people Jesus died to save. It’s the vessel He is calling into the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). You are not leaving your dad’s church and joining someone else’s church. You are however, sharing your gifts with and learning from another part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). You are getting a little taste of the vastness and variety and beauty of the kingdom of God.
Seventh, college is a particular season of life and therefore presents a unique way in which to participate in the local body. Growing up, I was at the church every time the doors were opened. I was a part of every aspect of church life. You can’t do that in college, so lower your expectations of yourself. You do not have a reputation to maintain (actually, you never did!), but you do have a calling to be faithful with what you have been given. That means some semesters, you might do well to be there for Sunday worship, and others may present more time to serve in any variety of ways. College is a whirlwind! Make church an integral part of it, but know there will be other seasons of life in which to serve or lead. Perhaps it’s good to take a step back and watch how others do it for a few years.
You have much to offer your new church as a PK. You have seen both the joys and challenges of church life, and most likely don’t have a sugar-coated understanding of what takes place in the day-to-day life of the body. That reality can be helpful as you enter into a new community in the local body. Your perspective can encourage leadership, provide insight, and shape your new church home in deep ways.
About the Author:
Stephanie Formenti serves as the Chapel Associate for Discipleship at Covenant College. She is passionate about Word-based ministry and loves serving the students at Covenant. She earned an MATS from Covenant Seminary and has had the privilege of living in various places around the world before landing in the Chattanooga area. Her husband, Gustavo, is on staff at New City Fellowship East Lake and they have three young and energetic children.