It’s that time of the year once again! Parents, teachers, pastors, and especially students are now beginning to realize that with the beginning of August comes the END of summer! For some this will be quite a shock, wondering where the time has gone! For others this will be the quiet bad news that they have been dreading for weeks. Some will be excited; others will be in grief. Regardless, we are now weeks away from the school year to begin.
I remember crying most of the way back to Ohio after working the summer at Camp Jewell YMCA summer camp after my first year of college. I wasn’t crying because I hated college—I LOVED college. No, it was more of a ‘happy cry’ after a fantastic summer of working with young people, forming fantastic friendships with other staff, and learning to appreciate extended time in the outdoors. Suffice to say, I was a mixture of emotions as I drove to the campus of the College of Wooster in August.
College students will have a variety of emotional experiences going to school this fall. For the first-year students, this emotion is about tenfold as they navigate a new world of independence, responsibility, and all you can eat food courts. Some of the upper classmen will be returning after rewarding experiences in travel, internships, or summer classes. Those returning for their graduating year may be experiencing emotions unique to them alone as they begin to imagine life beyond formal education, and the unknown world of the workforce.
Each fall perhaps thousands of young people will be introduced into the cultural fabric of the college and university town life. For churches, this means thousands of young adults, whom the Church openly pines for, will be living and walking within blocks of congregations and church members. Are these young people potential members?!…probably not. Most young people in college are not looking to become members and sit on a committee. But nonetheless, these young adults ARE looking to be loved in a way that congregations can most readily offer.
So what are churches to do? How do we as the Church show the love of Christ to these young adults that will be living in our communities for the next few months and years? Well, I don’t proclaim to have the three step solution to campus ministry, but I do have some ideas and experiences to share. First, one has to understand that there are two different approaches to ministry with college students: ‘Inside the Walls’ which includes loving our students who happen to walk through our doors, and ‘Outside the Walls’ which includes loving our students who may NEVER happen to walk through our doors.
Loving ‘Inside the Walls’
- Hospitality! Hospitality! Hospitality! I get to visit quite a few churches with my job, and I’m not the most outgoing person in the world. Know what helps when I visit a church: one on one interactions with members. You don’t need to have a spiel, just say hello and ask them how they are doing. Human contact and feeling welcome is most important for anyone, but especially college students who may be missing life off campus and in the ‘outside world’.
- Follow-up. If a college student was bold enough to worship with you, then they are bold enough to welcome a phone call, an email, a text, or even a visit. You will need their contact information, so perhaps you received this when you spoke with them before or after worship!
- Engagement Opportunities. Believe it or not, college students are looking for things to do, especially the first few weeks of a semester. By week 3 or 4, their living patterns and schedules may already be established. Will it be with parties, sports, maybe church? Have an event that you can invite them to? Perhaps a college student lunch or dinner? Perhaps a day of service in the community?
- Intergenerational Experiences. While college students love campus life, many students also miss ‘normal life’ with people that are not their age. Playing with babies and kids? Please. Talk with a doting senior? That makes me feel good. Have coffee with the cool young professional married couple? I want to be them one day!
- Community. This is such a loaded term, but also so important in ministry for all ages; young adults and college students in particular. These students are looking for people to identify with—a tribe to call their own. Can your church offer a group for them to identify with? Perhaps a family to be their ‘campus family’ while they are away? A mentor to talk about real life issues?
As great as this all sounds, the reality is that most of our congregations will not have many young people magically sitting in the pews on Sunday morning. When this happens, Jesus still calls us to love our neighbors, and in my opinion this means especially the young people…
Loving ‘Outside the Walls’
- Internet & Social Media Presence. If a college student were to want to visit; what would be their experience? Is your web and social media presence up to date and relevant so that visitors can easily learn about your church, especially worship opportunities?
- Hospitality on the Road. Perhaps they won’t come to you, but what is stopping you from going to them? Talk with the campus spiritual life office or administration, get permission to visit. Perhaps it means your church handing out refreshing drinks or snacks on a hot day. Maybe hiring a masseuse for the afternoon on the quad. The key is to give the students a bit of a break from their hectic days.
- Campus Presence. Maybe it means ‘adopting’ a campus, or a dorm, or an academic building, and simply letting them know that you are there, and asking if there are any needs that you can help meet. Pick up litter on campus. Pray for the campus…on campus! Be present.
- Building relationships with Faculty & Staff. The students may not show up on Sunday, but we can still minister via the adults who see them every day. Get to know these adults; they care for these young people just as you do. Ask them about the needs of the campus. Who knows, maybe one of them will be in your pew the following Sunday!
- Partner with Existing Campus Ministries. Not all of us will have college students in our pews, but all of us can love these students by working with ministries that do. Ask how you can help. Perhaps it’s providing a meal on a given night. Maybe it’s sharing your church bus or van. Maybe you can offer them your church space for an event.
Loving As You ‘Send Off’ Your College Students
REMEMBER: If you are a church who has college students going out of town for school, be sure to connect with the local churches or campus ministries to share your student’s contact information! You can continue to support your college-aged church members through other churches and ministries!
Okay, I’ve got more ideas, but I’m trying not to write a book. I hope this is a great ‘first step’ and beginning to a conversation in imagining campus mission and ministry with our college students, faculty, and staff this year! As always, comments and questions are always appreciated!