“It takes a village to raise a child.”
Whatever you make of that aphorism, at the very least it reminds us of the importance of community with respect to individual and personal formation.
So if I were to put this into a Christian context, I could say that it takes a church to raise a follower of Jesus. Almost every letter Paul writes includes a greeting to believers in that city. He usually calls them “brothers and sisters.” In other words, the church is, if nothing else, a community and a family. And that’s what I want to talk about this time.
It was during my university years that I became a (more intentional and committed?) Christian. It was a time of growing intellectually and spiritually. My faith was becoming my own. I began to become more me, a new creation in Christ. Those years were formative and even to this day I look back with gratitude and fondness (and, if I’m not careful, a little romanticized nostalgia!).
One of the more profoundly important elements of my time at Mount A was getting involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). This was not the only significant aspect of my university years, but it was foundational. IVCF, in case you don’t know, is a student-led Christian ministry organization found on many university and college campuses. And God would use my experiences with IVCF to shape me considerably at this stage of my life. In this post, I want to talk a little bit about why IVCF was so valuable an experience.
With IVCF, I found myself in a group of peers who shared my faith and who were also seeking to grow in their walk with Jesus. Not only that, since it was an evangelical but still non-denominational group, people came from a variety of backgrounds. Some had lots of church experience. Others had almost none. Plus, there were Baptists, Pentecostals, Anglicans, and so on and so forth.
For me, this was amazing! I mean, in all of my years growing up in the Roman Catholic Church I had never had any experience like this. I discovered community. And even though I had gone to a youth group at a Baptist church while I was in high school, this experience was different because it was largely run by students for students. IVCF did and does have staff that serve different universities and colleges but their role was largely one of mentoring the student leaders and not to lead the various campus chapters.
Now, the main reason this was all so important is because I wasn’t part of a local church of any kind at the start of this. In a lot of ways, IVCF was my church. Indeed, through IVCF I experienced the teaching and studying of Scripture, prayer, worship, fellowship, and evangelism.
I learned to pray not only for others but with others.
The pages of Scripture came alive in fresh ways.
I had my first real experiences of worship.
I went on my first spiritual retreats.
For the first time I had spiritual mentors.
And through all of this, God was growing me, shaping me, changing me.
It was such an incredible gift, because I was still not ready to commit myself to a local congregation. I was still struggling with the whole issue of church affiliation because of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Thankfully, IVCF was there to provide Christian community!
Here’s one particular story. In my firstyear of being involved with IVCF our chapter president was a guy named Adam. Now, at the end of that year I joined the executive to help with adverstising our activities on campus the following year. Keep in mind, I was still a pretty introverted guy. It was a significant step for me to take. And I believe that it was God leading me to take it.
The year I was on the exec for the first time Adam went away as an exchange student to France. So for a whole year or so we didn’t see each other.
Then the year after that when he came back to Mount A, I was not only still on the exec but was VP. Sounds more important than it was. But at our first large group meeting in the fall, when there were a big number of new students there, both the president (my friend Todd) and I talked and shared about what IVCF was all about. Adam was also there.
Sometime later Adam spoke to me and told me that he couldn’t believe the Derek he saw share in front of the group was the same guy from two years before. The Derek from two years before would barely speak up with a few people in the room, much less in front of a larger group of people. All I could say is, “That’s God’s doing, not mine.”
And the truth is, I had changed. God had changed me. He led. I trusted and followed. I grew.
And here’s a thought: I might not be a pastor today if it had not been for IVCF! Because I had my first experiences in Christian leadership through IVCF. Like I said, I was on the Mount A student executive for a couple of years, and I eventually spent time as a part-time volunteer staff worker while I was working on my MA (Theology) at Acadia. That gave me opportunities in leading Bible studies, public speaking, and mentoring younger students.
You might ask: what’s the take-away? What’s the moral of the story, the lesson, the application?
I would say this. There is an clear but not altogether definable relationship between God’s leading us and our willingness to take a step of faith, between blessing and obedience. If we seek, we will find. But it is God who has given us the impulse and desire to seek.
And the other thing I would say is this. We don’t–perhaps can’t–experience this in isolation. Followers of Jesus don’t follow Jesus alone. We are members of one another, Scripture says.
See what God can do? See how important it is to be a part of the body of Christ? And how important it is to take a step of faith even if you’re uncertain and it’s in a new direction?
There are more things to learn about being in a community of faith, but the first lesson is realizing we can’t be a Christian without one.