By Aileen Lawrimore
Collegiate ministry. My Facebook newsfeed is full of articles that have something to say about ministry to or with young adults (often referred to formally as Millennials). And if you read BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post or other current e-zines, you might infer that today’s youth are a new species of humanity and that to minister to or with them, you need specialized training.
Not true. It’s really not that hard. Look. I’ll show you.
First thing, and this is primary: stop trying to attract young people. That’s right. Attracting a certain demographic should never be a primary objective for your church. Really, young people are individuals just like all other humans and they have different preferences. Some like an early worship service, some prefer the later one. Some like worship in a traditional setting, others like a more contemporary atmosphere. You cannot be all these things to today’s college students because you’ll get frustrated and overwhelmed and you won’t look a thing like Jesus. Stop trying to find the latest gimmick to draw young folks to your doors. Instead, try being church to all people, regardless of their ages.
Now, what you do need to do is create an environment in your church that welcomes college students. Start by letting them know you exist. Go to campus events. Eat lunch in the cafeteria. Even have a Bible study there on the campus. Spread the word about times for worship and Sunday morning Bible study. You should do that but not to build up your church’s collegiate ministry. Do it because college students — just like everyone else — need godly community.
Oh, and if you are going to invite them, be sure to prepare for them. Have engaging Bible study and small groups. Consider making these groups intergenerational. Recently a college student told me that at the church she attends, she has made a really close friend who she hangs out with frequently. They laugh together, eat together and have fun together. The friend? She’s well past 80 years old! Offer students quality Bible study and authentic connection, and age won’t be nearly as important as you might think.
Okay, so you are (1) ministering to college students and young adults not to increase your weekly attendance but because we are called to share the love of Jesus. And (2) you are offering classes that are both substantive in content and intentional in relationship building. Now, what else can you do? Here are a few ideas.
1. Get on social media. Facebook appeals to an older crowd these days, but I find most students do have an account. They check it, but not necessarily daily. I interact more with students via Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Snapchat is especially easy and — for me — fun to use. Most college students use some type of social media. If you want to connect with them, you should, too.
2. Get their phone numbers and use them. Wait! Don’t actually call them! (That’s so last century). Send a text. Now it depends on your relationship with the student as to what you say. If I am not really close to a student, I might text a quick, “Hope classes are going well,” or “Thinking about you during exams.” For those kids I know really well, I text them things like, “I miss hearing your goofy jokes,” or “It’s the weekend! Make wise choices,” or “You’ll be at church in the morning, right?” Don’t know how to text? Ask a college student (or, hey, a middle schooler) to teach you.
3. Learn their names and remember them. Each young adult who visits your congregation is an individual. You are probably not bombarded with so many college students that you can’t remember all those names. (If you are, then get down on your knees and thank the good Lord for your problem. We should all be so burdened.) So remember each person’s name. I know a student who went (alone) every Sunday she was in town to a very small church near her college. After two years, she quit going. You know why? Because no one in the congregation of less than 75 people knew her name. There’s absolutely no excuse for this. None. It doesn’t matter how old you are, no one wants to be invisible. Remember students’ names. Write them down if necessary. Have them tattooed on your bicep. But remember their names. (Actually don’t do that tattoo thing. That’s kind of creepy.)
4. Talk to them. Many older adults I know feel like they don’t know what to say to people under the age of 40. Here’s what you say to a college student: “Hi. Glad you came today.” Ask them the same questions you’d ask anyone you had just met. Things like, “You from around here?” or “How about this weather?” And if you really want to connect you can say this: “Would you like to join us for lunch today?” But let’s be honest, that’s not only true of people born since 1990. Even Baby Boomers appreciate being included.
5. Minister with them, not just to them. Invite them to sing in your choir, work with your children or help with your landscaping. Include them in local mission projects. Ask them to lead in worship through reading scripture, saying prayers or ushering. Think about it. No one — college-aged or otherwise — wants to be somebody else’s project.
6. Feed them. Take them out to eat or invite them to your home. College students are generally on a tight budget and are weary of cafeteria food. It is the rare college kid who will turn down a good free meal. Unless of course, they suspect a bait and switch scheme. That is, don’t offer food as a sort of bribe or as an exchange for their participation. No. Feed them because, for one thing, you will be meeting a need or at least a real desire; and for another thing, eating together is a great way to build relationships. That’s exactly how Jesus got to know Zacchaeus, and a whole lot of other folks.
7. For students who are away at college, you should definitely connect with them digitally, but also send them real mail. You can mail the church bulletin, a clipping from the local paper about Friday’s football game or just a handwritten note. I’m continually amazed at how much college students appreciate real, paper-in-an-envelope, postmarked correspondence. They love it. Now if you want to, add little gifts from time to time. I buy Starbucks cards — only $5 or so each — and enclose them with a note that says, “Have a cup of coffee on me!” I’ve sent lots of chocolate bars, chewing gum and even silly little toys. One college student I know is still raving about the toy rubber band launcher I sent him. (Don’t know how much his roommates liked it, though.) Of course homemade goodies are always a welcome treat, and if that’s your thing, go for it! But really, you can just send a note. They’ll love it.
Easy, right? It all comes down to three things:
1. Focus on building the Kingdom, not your membership list.
2. Be prepared for people of all ages by offering quality Bible study.
3. Share God’s love intentionally through authentic relationships formed over time.
Plus the food thing. Do that too.