An Open Letter to Graduating High School Seniors
This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear Graduating High School Seniors,
Some of you have heard hundreds of sermons over the years—many of them at church, and for some of you, one sermon a week for the past dozen years in your Christian school.1
This is a season of milestones for many of you. Final papers and final exams. Last games, last meets, and last classes. You’ve worked hard to get to this point. And you are probably working hard for what is coming next. For many of you that’s college or university. You’ll get ready over the summer. You’ll buy some dorm furniture. You’ll say goodbye to your friends. You’ll say goodbye to your parents. You’ll find your way around a new school and a new place.
You are making preparations for all that lies ahead. After filling out forms, sending in applications, and narrowing down your choices, you finally made your decision. And in a few months, most of you will be somewhere new. You are probably tired of making decisions. But I want to remind you of one colossal decision that is coming your way. The decision doesn’t seem earth shattering. In fact, it seems much less important than the hundred other decisions you’ve had to make in the last year. This decision is so much an afterthought for most graduating seniors that maybe you’ve not even considered it yet.
Do Not Be True to Yourself
These inspiring graduation speeches and sermons, presented by Kevin DeYoung, offer countercultural advice for high school and college students, guiding them to put Christ first as independent adults.
Fast forward a few months from now. You are living on your own—in a dorm or in an apartment somewhere. You’ve unloaded your stuff. You’ve met your roommate. You’ve signed up for classes. You’ve had a few meals in the cafeteria. You’ve endured days of awkward orientation activities. And after a short night of sleep on your first Saturday in this new phase of your life, you wake up Sunday morning. What are you going to do?
This is what I want to talk to you about, so please listen carefully: Of all the decisions you’ll face this year, the most important one may be whether you get up and go to church on the very first Sunday when no one is there to make sure that you go.
I pastored a church in Michigan that was for many years right across the street from Michigan State University. We saw scores of freshmen visit our church their first Sunday on campus. True, many of them never came back. We saw students who started at church and didn’t last. But we rarely saw students who didn’t start at church and eventually make it there. What you do in those first weeks on your own, especially what you do with your commitment to a local church, will set you on a trajectory where Jesus Christ will truly be Lord of your life or where he will be something that you learned as a young person and then left behind.
Listen to Jesus
I know, I know. This is what you would expect a pastor to say to you: “Be sure to go to church, young man! Don’t sleep in on Sunday, young woman!” You may think, “I’m not against going to church, but isn’t my relationship with Jesus the really important thing? I’ll still read my Bible even if I don’t make it to church.” You may be going to a Christian college, and you’ll have chapel services and Christian roommates and chaplains wanting to meet with you. Or you will be at schools with Cru or RUF or Campus Outreach That’s great. Praise God for good campus ministries. Praise God for Christian colleges.
But your chapel is not a church. Your weekly Cru meeting is not a church. Your dorm Bible study is not a church. Remember what Jesus said to Peter in Matthew 16, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Jesus never promised to build up a Christian college. He never promised to build a Christian day school. He never promised to build a campus ministry. There is only one institution on earth that Jesus Christ promised to build, and that’s the church.
If you want to be into what Jesus is into, you’ll get into a church.
You need to decide before you leave home what you will do on that first Sunday morning. Don’t wait until that moment to decide, because you’ll probably decide you’re tired, or you don’t have a car, or you don’t know where to go, or you’ll get to it next week. Decide before that first Sunday what you will do on that first Sunday. You’ll be making all sorts of plans this summer, and one of the most important decisions you may ever make is what you will be committed to that first week and those first months. Will you get up and go to church—not just chapel, not just campus ministry—but a local church, where the people aren’t all your age, where the music isn’t all your style, where the pastor may not be everything you want him to be?
A Grotesque Anomaly
The British pastor John Stott was not known for overstatement. He was, like a refined English parson, very careful and measured. Which is why these words, written a few years before his death, are so striking. “An unchurched Christian is a grotesque anomaly. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought.”2
We are not meant to have Christ without the church.
Think of three of the main images for the church in the New Testament: the church pictured as a building, as a bride, and as a body. Christ is the foundation, and the church is the building. Christ is the groom, and the church is the bride. Christ is the head, and the church is the body. Each pair goes together. You are not meant to have one without the other. We are not meant to have Christ without the church.
Would you want your building to have a foundation but no house?
Would you call it a marriage if there was a groom but no bride?
Would you want to carry around a head without the body?
A Worldview and a Rhythm of Life
I am willing to bet that at some point growing up you’ve heard the word “worldview.” That word is in the mission statement of almost every Christian school. Teachers and parents want to give students a biblical lens for looking at everything. They want you to be renewed in your minds so that you view the world not just as someone with a great education does but as someone with a distinctly Christian education.
That’s all very important. I hope to impart a Christian worldview to my own children. But do you know what may be even more important than getting them to think the right things? It’s getting them to instinctively embrace the right rhythms. The most powerful influences in your life are often the things you don’t even think about, the things you do out of habit, the things you do because you always do them— whether someone makes you do them or not.
We are formed not just by thoughts but by habits too, study habits, exercise habits, social media habits, personal hygiene habits. These may not be planks in our worldview, but they shape us just as much or even more. It’s just what we do. And in time what we do becomes who we are. Will the local church be one of your habits in the next year? There are plenty of lukewarm Christians sitting in churches every week across this country. That’s not the goal. But you want to know where you can find passionate, on fire, totally sold-out Christians? In church. In fact, you won’t find them anywhere else.
Let me conclude with this prediction, which I think is not only supported by personal experience but also by the word of God: if you want to be much less of a follower of Jesus Christ five years from now, make church marginal in your life. If you make church an afterthought, you won’t be thinking about centering your life on Jesus five years from now.
Therefore, don’t give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing (Heb. 10:25). Ephesians 1 says, God “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Heb. 10:22–23). Don’t cut the head off of Jesus. Decide today that you will get up on that first Sunday morning and find a good gospel-preaching, Bible-believing church. To be sure, we can meet with God anywhere. But only in the church do we have the fullness of him who fills all in all.
- This article is adapted from my speech to Covenant Day School Matthews, NC, and my following article “The Most Important Decision You’re Probably Not Thinking About,” TGC (blog), May 24, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org.
- John Stott, Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 19.
This article is adapted from Do Not Be True to Yourself: Countercultural Advice for the Rest of Your Life by Kevin DeYoung.
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