Forty years ago I became the first person in my immediate family to “go away” to university. My grandparents were my caregivers, and the transition was new to all of us. My memory of that first day was emptying the car of my trunk and suitcase and waving goodbye from the front of the dorm. I am guessing that my grandparents did, in fact, come in with me to see my dorm room, but the overall feeling I remember is that of being left on my own to navigate a new world, unsure if I was “college material.”
Since then, the pendulum has swung in a wide arc, with “helicopter parents” becoming the norm. Today, some universities even set aside RV parking areas for parents who stick around for the first few weeks to ensure that their student will be OK. Obviously there needs to be a happy medium in our launch plans—one where students can set off feeling both confident and competent to move into the next phase of their lives.
As part of a covenant promise-keeping body of believers, how can a student’s church family help support their launch?
One CRC church in Barrie, Ontario has done a great job of addressing the basic spiritual needs of their university students. Using the four Building Blocks of Faith as a guide, let’s look at how First Barrie is launching their students well:
- They help students remember that they BELONG to God and to God’s family, the church. First Barrie addressed this need by setting up a program called Student Connections. The coordinator of this program, Rachel Kaptyn, along with a team of volunteers and an engaged congregation, created an area in the fellowship hall where beautifully designed posters of each individual student are displayed throughout the academic year. Each poster has a picture of the student, their year in university, and a summary of what and where they are studying. This information helps congregation members to know how to pray specifically for each student and also gives folks points of conversational context for when students return for holidays and summers—giving them opportunities for making deeper connections.
- They help students KNOW and UNDERSTAND God’s salvation story even at a distance. First Barrie has begun experimenting with an online Bible study using a video platform that allows students to connect virtually from wherever they are studying. Not only does this strategy lean into the “belonging” theme, it gives students the opportunity to check in with people with whom they have lived life before university. Granted, not all students want this, but at First Barrie a good dozen students find this connection life-giving, especially as they share with each other where God’s truth is rubbing up against some of the challenging questions they are encountering in their studies.
- They help students grow in HOPE, confident in Christ and in all of God’s promises when this new independence finds them questioning or experiencing doubt. The Student Connections display itself tells young people that this congregation has a general empathy for youth. It may seem like a small gesture, but it speaks volumes to younger generations who might feel forgotten or marginalized. Student Connections sends exam care packages and occasional encouragement cards to students. Tables with supplies are set up right under the posters. These multiple contacts with students become flickers of hope in an atmosphere where young people are increasingly reporting feelings of loneliness, depression, and confusion during their academic career.
- They help students understand how they are CALLED to work in God’s kingdom, and how they are EQUIPPED to do that work. One unforeseen by-product of the Student Connections initiative has been that students often link with congregation members vocationally. Not only can congregation members contact students who study in similar academic arenas, they also are able to set up internship possibilities and mentorship conversations about how to wed faith and vocation as well as vocation and calling.
Part two of this post will offer other sturdy launching ideas gathered from campus chaplains and youth pastors, so stay tuned! And if you have ideas to add to the conversation, please email Lesli van Milligen at [email protected] or leave a comment below.