Correcting our Vision: Changing How We See our College Students.

(This is the next part in my series "The Top 10 Ways to Spiritually Prepare Your College Freshman for Campus." This entry focuses on what the church can do from the home front while students are away at school.)

I’ll never forget the first time I put on a new pair of glasses. When I stepped out of the doctor’s office I could actually see the pinecones in the Longleaf pines way across the street. It's amazing what new lenses can do. What's more amazing is that I didn’t know I had a vision problem until it was corrected.

I propose the church needs a correction in how we view our college students.

A New Focus

Too often we have been nearsighted—“Let’s just get them through youth group, and they’ll be good to go. Job done. See you when you’re home on break.” But I believe we need to be more farsighted. It’s been said, and it sure seems to be true, that as the colleges go, so goes the nation.

What if when our college students go, we actually send them as missionaries? They are going into mostly hostile, unchurched territory rubbing shoulders with many unreached people groups. Sure sounds like a mission field to me.

Let’s examine the statistics: about 39 percent of millennials are religiously unaffiliated. Professors are five times more likely to be atheist than the normal population. The ratio of liberal to conservative professors is an average of 12:1 with many campuses even higher. The number of international students on the university campus today is as high as 30 percent, and international student enrollment is up 10 percent in the last year. The countries sending the most students to America are China and India with the predominant religions of atheism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

The good news is more and more campus ministries are intentionally reaching out to these international students, bringing them to Christ, and seeing them return to their native countries as Christian “missionaries” to their own people.

“Contact” Lenses

I spoke with a friend who has been a foreign missionary for decades and inquired what contacts from her home church meant the most. She noted their commissioning service, supplies sent from home, communication, knowing there were plans and a place for them when they returned on furlough, and honoring their experience by letting them share it with the church. (Consider as well, that no missionary is sent into foreign territory without being prepared for the culture. That speaks to our ongoing need for training our students before college in Christian apologetics.)

She shared, “Knowing in big and small ways that we were not forgotten; it could be a letter or a package. Prayer was the biggest, coolest partnership. Church support is vital.” Seems to me it all boils down to contact.

God recently dropped me right in the middle of a living lab at my own church when I became the administrator/facilitator for our college Sunday morning class and the college liaison for our Student Ministry Team. Our students craved a Sunday morning class during the summer where they could remain connected after their years together in youth group. For teaching, they wanted meaty material focusing heavily on worldview and apologetics-related issues to equip them to navigate living out tough issues of faith on campus. They also wanted to be treated as adults and know that when they came home, this class would be there for them. I learned that the long-term retention of college students improves when they feel connected and experience relationships (especially intergenerational) in their churches.

Here are several suggestions based on what I've learned.

  • Commission. Have a special ceremony during the worship service before students leave. Pray over them; issue a charge to be missional; have the church pledge to uphold them in prayer. (Don’t forget any professors or university staff members in your congregation as well.)
  • Teach. Develop a robust teaching schedule that addresses the topics they are struggling with. As Kara Powell of the Fuller Youth Institute says, remember that now our goal is to do ministry “with” these young adults not “to” them. Their input matters.
  • Communicate. Start a regular email to college students with a recap from the ongoing college class (if you have one), prayer requests, updates on church activities, and resources to aid them in their walk of faith on campus. A regular “ding” in their inbox at a minimum lets them know we are thinking of them.
    • Video a message from the congregation wishing success on their midterms/exams or welcoming them home for break. Embed it in the weekly email or put it on a thumb drive and mail it to them. They get a message and a gift they can use.
    • Post a map visible to your congregants indicating students’ campus locations. Provide a place on the map for members to write prayers for the students so they can view it when home. Encourage church members who visit those towns to connect with students and treat them to a meal.
    • Find out what campus ministries your students are involved in and send a thank you note to their campus minister for shepherding your students while they are away. Better yet, have the church (the missions committee perhaps) make a donation to those ministries in honor of your students. This could also be done to the local churches students are involved in.
  • Care. Send spiritual survival packages to their school mailing address. In addition to “goodies” from home, provide practical resources for their faith. Check out the Ambassador Guides and Quick-Reference Guides to hot topics,  the Free to Speak pamphlets from GTBE/ADF as well as ADF’s detailed guide for university students on its website; the Contradict pamphlets ; Ratio Christi’s “What if Christianity is True?” booklet on the 12 points for the evidence for Christianity (a great tool for strengthening their faith and sharing it with others). Maybe your denomination has a monthly devotional booklet you can send them; include cards with handwritten notes, prayers, etc.
    • Establish an “Adopt a College Student” program to get members of the church involved—families, grandparents. They can be a part of the above mentioned care packages and/or other ideas.
    • Be aware of when students will return on breaks, and provide special welcome back touches.
  • Honor. Allow them to share about their college life with the church and especially with the youth—struggles and victories. The church will hear firsthand how to pray for them, and the youth can learn how to prepare spiritually for the campus mission field.

And always be ready, willing, and able to love them and welcome them home even when/if they stray from the faith or have doubts.

Seeing our college students as missionaries on campus has the potential to empower them, ground them in their faith, and impact the campus for Christ. They then influence culture both home and abroad as these missional students become missional in their chosen fields.

What do you say? Let’s change our vision of and for our college students. It might change the way they see the church. And it just might change our outlook about the future as well.