As a pastor in a church with about 50% university students I have lots of conversations with students at this time of year about exams. Sometimes, young Christians tell me that they won’t be coming to church or Bible Study this week because they are stressed out about exams.
I feel their pain – I did ten years of continuous undergraduate full time study. Exams can be extremely stressful – many students are under a huge amount of pressure of expectation from parents, teachers, and themselves. The last thing I want to do is add more pressure by guilt tripping them into coming to church.
It’s not like God needs you there. Unlike the pagan gods, the true and living God doesn’t need us to turn up to church religiously. He will still be God if we don’t show up. After all,
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” Acts 17:24 – 25
Nor is it a simple matter of priorities. “Where are your priorities?” is a good way to make people feel bad. But I’m sure there are some true emergencies which require us to be absent from our church family. Not because that emergency is more important than God, or our fellowship. But simply because it is urgent, and as limited human beings we cannot be in two places at once.
However, I do think most of the time the decision to skip church because of exam pressure is a bad one. Here’s some thoughts.
- I worry about what these habits look like after graduation. For every student in our church studying for a big exam, there is a worker under massive pressure from their boss, or a primary carer who has not slept all weekend. Studying for a law exam is hard work. But so is being a lawyer on a massive merger deal. Sitting exams puts huge pressures on our time. But so does marking 150 of them. If we don’t learn as students how to make space in our lives for the important things, then how will we cope in the future with the competing demands of work, friends and family?
- You can’t actually study effectively 24 hours a day. Being disciplined with your study time, and clear about your boundaries, is actually better study technique. I was very grateful for one of my university lecturers who taught me this. Make a plan which includes the things which make you thrive as a human being: exercise, good food, sleep, friends … and yes, church. You could cram unproductively all day. But far better to get up early, go for a run in the morning, then work solidly for the day, then enjoy a well earned study break at church.
- When I am under stress, the last thing I need is less time with God and his people. Why do the exams seem so ominous? For me, I know it is at least partly that I tend to value myself based on my performance. There are good practical reasons why passing exams is better than failing exams. But, personally, I know there is also a part of me which has made more of my self than I should. Jesus taught that the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth are toxic to faith (Matt 13:22). What could be more important, during times of great stress, to spend an hour and a bit with our brothers and sisters being reminded of who God is, and who we are to him? Jesus said:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:29-31)
I’ll leave you now with this classic Anglican prayer for students:
Almighty Father, who commanded us to love you with all our mind; look with your gracious favour, we pray, on our Universities, Colleges, and Schools. Bless all who teach and all who learn; grant that they may seek and love the truth, grow in wisdom and knowledge, and in humility of heart ever look to you, the source of all wisdom and understanding. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (An Australian Prayer Book, 1978, p96)