Churches Struggle to Stay Connected to College Students

August 19, 2010

By Renee Elder*

Congregations routinely celebrate college-bound youth with farewell gifts, and parties featuring slideshows of preschool Christmas pageants, high school mission trips, and almost everything in between. But youth leaders and pastors who want to extend the relationship into the months and years ahead often struggle to find the right approach.
 
"It's hard," says Carol Ellis, director of Youth and Children's Ministries at Main Street United Methodist Church in Bedford, Virginia. "Each church comes up with its own strategy, not only in terms of resources, but [also] within the context and culture of that congregation. Some congregations find there is a great deal of interest in engaging with college-age students; others don't."
 
"Snail-Mail" care packages, cards are good
 
Ellis's church sends care packages containing food, pens, pencils, sticky notes, and such to its college students at exam time, and offers The Upper Room devotional booklets to those who request it.
 
"On Communion Sundays, we put the names of our youth, service persons, and other young adults on slips of paper. As people leave the Communion rail they are encouraged to take a name from the basket and to pray for that individual in the coming month," Ellis says.
 
These time-honored and caring approaches are valuable, and college youth especially appreciate regular mail, says the Rev. Bridgette Young, assistant general secretary for Campus Ministry and College Chaplaincy, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.
 
"Food is always good – they're looking for things they can microwave really easily," Young says. "Ear plugs and sleep masks are good if they're in a residence hall where things are going on 24 hours a day. Other popular items for care packages are gift cards for discount and grocery stores – things they can use to help them in their day-to-day college survival."
 
Even a greeting card from their home church crew can provide a lift.
 
"People may think it's old-fashioned to send a card, but the students tell me that going to the mailbox and getting something that's not a bill – that instead is a message saying 'Thinking of you' or 'Happy Birthday' – means a lot," Young says.
 
Social networking connects over distance
 
With college students increasingly tuned in to electronic communication, more churches are using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to keep students connected despite geographic distance.
 
The Rev. Bill Green, of Garden Street UMC in Bellingham, Washington, said his church makes sure college freshmen join the Facebook group for campus ministry. "That way they get an idea of what is going on here, and it allows us to keep track of how they are doing, too."
 
"We make sure we have events happening at Christmastime when they come back, and we make sure they have an invitation to those events. We also continue to work with them, as far as leadership development," Green says.
 
Young says all types of connections are helpful.
 
"When I was an associate pastor at a local church, I had students who throughout their four years of college would make sure they were there for our summer Bible study. We tried to make it special for them, with life-application oriented topics," Young says.
 
Many college students today say they feel most connected via the Internet. Maria Cuch, 23, a former Washington University student who now works as a youth leader at Garden Street UMC in Bellingham, sees that especially with recent high school graduates.
 
"Particularly for people graduating now, the reality is that they are connected on the Internet almost constantly," Cuch says. "They're connected with friends, with family, and, hopefully, church people."
 
"I've moved five times in the last six years," Cuch says. "When I want to know what's going on with people at home, I don't make calls to them. I connect through Facebook."
 
Green, reluctantly drawn into the online social networking scene, says he now encourages any church with a high school or young adult ministry to make a point to be on Facebook – with one caveat.
 
"You have to make sure somebody is available to run the site," he warns. "One of the things that is most deadly is when nothing happens on the site: Then the kids de-list you from their 'friends' page. But if you have something where invitations are going out and there are updates about what's going on at the church, it's a great way to reach people.  And it really takes very little time."
 
It's a job that's often easily delegated to people who love Facebook and will create a site to keep young adults interested, Green adds. "I often pick up messages from college students there, such as: 'If you go on another mission trip let me know about it.'"
 
Take advantage of summer
 
Summer is an especially advantageous time to reach out to college-age church members, whether by electronic media or old-fashioned, face-to-face get-togethers.
 
"We make sure that every two weeks during the summer we have something that happens for them," Green says.
 
And GBHEM's Young has a special message for pastors: Get in touch with the campus ministers of your graduating seniors to let them know they'll have a student on campus.
 
"When that happens, the campus minister can contact the student, who will immediately have a safe and comfortable place to go on campus," Young says. "We often say that our students are the church of the future; I say they are our church now."
 
*Elder is a freelance writer and communications specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina.