You can’t go anywhere at this time of year without seeing all the signs advertising back-to-school sales. While most of those are aimed at those attending elementary and secondary school, our tertiary institutions, universities and colleges, are preparing to welcome back students both new and old. Church calendar and liturgies aside, these ads in August also remind us that the practical start for the church year is just around the corner, that time where our programs, committees, and people shift out of dormancy and back into action.
How can we, as congregations, both send and receive students at this time of year? As your congregation prepares to send students off to college, I can think of no better resource to recommend, than Stanley Hauerwas’ 2010 article, Go With God. It is a short essay, but it's filled with wisdom and encouragement for those on their way to college. Although written for those heading there for the first time, it deserves reading, or re-reading, by those who are returning to campus to continue their studies.
And we shouldn’t just send our students off with the advice to “find a good church.” Many of them have only experienced one church in their life, so may be unsure of what to look for, or just give up when they don’t find an exact match. This is a great time to have a conversation about what does make a good church, to talk about the importance of being part of a worshipping community, even if it will be temporary. It is also a time to encourage students to connect with a CRC campus ministry, or with other campus ministries if we aren’t present on a particular campus. Contact information for all our campus ministries can be found here.
Thankfully we don’t just send students, but we often also receive them (or receive recent graduates). Welcome and enfolding them should be a key part of our plans for September and October. Having people who can pick up students from campus and bring them, and having greeters and hosts who are comfortable welcoming young adults sends a positive message to those who are new or returning.
Another important aspect of welcoming students, or recent graduates, is helping them find their place in the congregation. One thing you might want to try is to get people to sign up for “two coffees and a lunch.” No big commitment on anyone’s part, but it is a way for students to connect with someone in the congregation more deeply than in a conversation after a church service. All you agree to is to meet twice for coffee, and once for lunch. Be warned, however, sometimes these lead to greater things!
Lastly, we shouldn’t overlook all that these newcomers are bringing to our congregations and communities. Their gifts, ideas, and experience come with them. We shouldn’t just be telling them all that we have to offer, but instead, we should be listening to their ideas and see what they would like to offer to us.