Summer is here, which means many college students have returned home from their universities. Many churches find it difficult to determine how to best welcome them back. Do you simply funnel them into your youth ministry programs? Do you recruit them to help the other age-graded ministries? Do you create some type of summer worship experience for them? What’s the best way to welcome them back into our congregations? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Acknowledge them. This may seem to be a basic suggestion, but it’s one worth mentioning. Many college students return to their local churches and don’t have anyone reaching out to them. Chances are, if they’re back in your church, they were involved in your student ministry and church as a whole in high school. Why not have a pastor or small group leader reach out to them personally? Let them know you’ve missed them and that they add value to your church.
2. Probe them about the culture. It could be a valuable exercise to gather the college students you have and ask them what they’ve learned about the culture. They have just returned from being immersed in the collegiate experience. Are there insights your church could gather from this exercise? If "tomorrow’s leaders" are being produced on the college campuses, churches should take notice of what’s happening on those campuses.
One unique trait that college students will bring to your congregation is passion.
3. Plug them into visible roles. One tendency we can have with college students is to give them tasks with minimum responsibility and visibility. Some may be returning from college/campus ministries where they provided a lot of leadership and support. Why not leverage their passion and experience for their home church? Have them lead a student ministry small group. Could they help in your Sunday service with the opening and prayer?
One unique trait that college students will bring to your congregation is passion. They’re passionate about God and life in general. They can inject a type of energy into your services that you may be missing. Sure, you may have to help them stay grounded and focused, but the value of having them connected will far outweigh the work you’ll have to put in through redirecting their energy.
4. Connect them with a mentor. Many of your students may have been involved primarily with a campus ministry. What you can offer them that, perhaps, their campus ministry can’t is an intentional relationship with a mature adult. One idea is to connect them with someone in the same career field they’re studying. Do you have an engineer in your congregation? How about a school teacher? Students need to see how they can use their specific vocation for God’s mission. You know your congregation better than anyone. Find out what your returning college students are studying, and then find them a matching mentor. Paul explicitly exhorts Timothy to “entrust to faithful men who are able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2) and for “older women . . . to teach what is good” (Titus 2:3). It’s our responsibility to ensure the next generation is disciplied.
5. Create missional opportunities. If there’s one thing college students are passionate about it’s service opportunities. They want to make an impact in their community. They believe the gospel should motivate us to make a tangible difference in our communities. Is there a food pantry or homeless shelter than needs support? Do you have elderly couples that need home repairs or someone to spend time with them? These are all tasks college students could help fulfill. Who knows, they could build bridges for you with some businesses/organizations that you have wanted to connected with.
6. Be patient with them. This suggestion is a little different, but I think helpful. Some will return from college with grand ideas about life and how things should work. They might be critical of how things are done at your church (if they stick around and don’t find another church). College students will be naive about life. However, it’s not your job to "set them straight.” If you develop that posture with them, they will quickly leave your church. At school, they’re taught to think critically. They are in a process of growth and maturity. Has God been patient with you? Shouldn’t that motivate us to be patient with them.
Paul instructs the church at Colossae to forgive and bear with one another (Col. 3:12-13). Let that motivate us to forgive and bear when necessary. Serve as their “emergency brake.” When they get moving too quickly or seem too critical, lovingly help them hit the brake. I have, at times, allowed students to do something that I know will fail simply to allow them to feel the failure. In those moments, we step in and help them assess why it went wrong and what could have been done better. Don’t give up on them, and don’t take their criticisms personal.
Depending on your location, college students have flooded into your community. God has called your congregation to enfold them into your body upon their return. This will take extra work and effort on your part, but imagine equipping your college students to head back to their campuses, more matured and challenged in their faith. Your ministry to college students this summer could be a wonderful gift to college pastors like myself. Your hard work could not only impact your community this summer, but the lives of countless others that your students meet during the semester. Let’s commit together to loving and serving our college students this summer.
Editor’s Note: In a changing world, your children will have questions you may not know how to answer. Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn., this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin.