I just finished a Zoom call with several church staff people from across the country to talk about our experience with the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. And while we discussed a number of issues—from personal life and self-care to church finances and seminary education—one question that came to mind only after the meeting ended was this: How can campus ministers serve, and care for, those students coming back to your communities and churches?
Now, that question didn’t come up because it wasn’t the point of our meeting. But the reality is that thousands of college and university students are returning home, with classes being canceled or moved online. No doubt they have concerns about their academic plans and financial futures, longings for relationship and community. But even though they are returning home, it won’t be the same as it was before. No concerts or sporting events, nights out with friends at the coffee shop or cafe, no church activities or Sunday worship gatherings.
The more I reflected on this question, the clearer it became that it is at the heart of the situation in which we find ourselves. And the more I reflect on this question, it becomes clearer that there is an incredible opportunity for building up the church through collaborative effort of congregational leaders and campus ministers.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, the church is wrestling with all sorts of questions regarding pastoral care, funerals, weddings, worship services, and communion. Churches are trying to figure out how they will sustain giving in order to pay the bills, pay their staff, and meet people’s needs. Likewise, campus ministers faced with empty classrooms, deserted campuses, and quiet communities ask the question: What does ministry look like when those we serve have gone home? When campuses have canceled events and people are unable or unwilling to meet?
We’re all growing increasingly familiar with these forms of communication and conferencing, and the platforms they provide for one-on-one meetings, academic instruction, and live streaming worship services and studies. While not ideal, they provide a means of community, maintaining relationship, and providing education and care.
But I return to the question at hand: How can campus ministers serve, and care for, those students coming back to your communities and churches?
I think that our current crisis provides us with an opportunity for leveraging these forms of technology to connect young people and returning students with one another and the local church. Perhaps it takes the shape of pairing students with members of a church community to pray together over the phone or through video chat. Maybe it looks like a group study, covering a book of the Bible or a book the church or campus ministry could purchase, that brings diverse groups together. Or it could take the shape of a focused training course—How to Read the Bible, Systematic Theology, Outreach and Evangelism, or Counseling—to equip students and congregants in service to God and love for neighbor.
Displaced from campus life, but not quite at home at home anymore, infinitely connected through social media yet lacking intimate connection, college and university students are finding themselves in a strange situation and will be in need—like many others—of pastoral care, support, and opportunities for growth in Christ.
The opportunities and needs will be defined by the context and the community, but there is great potential if church leaders and campus ministers will come together to serve students returning home. By providing a community of care extending from the campus to the community and the local church, we will help continue to nourish the faith of young believers, struggling saints, and present and future leaders.
And think of the potential for creative outreach that is available to us in this “new normal” (at least for the time being). Campus ministers: Could you cohost a live stream with a local church pastor inviting people to enter into the discussion and ask anything? Pastors: Could you invite a campus minister to engage your youth group with questions of faith and life? How can we put together media—podcasts, music (live or recorded), and short videos—to engage a society captive to their televisions, computers, tablets, and phones?
Often during studies with our students at Iowa State University, I talk about “Christian imagination.” Taking the truth of our faith and considering how it can inspire us in new and creative ways in both our personal lives and public witness. I think that the church across our country, and around the world, is being challenged to activate her “Christian Imagination,” in ways that will continue to witness to Christ and the Kingdom of God in a world turn asunder by crisis, confusion, pain, and death.
So, campus ministers: Do you know the home churches of the students in your ministry? Can you connect students with pastors or parishioners who can care for, or mutually encourage one another? And pastors (or more broadly, church leaders): Do you know any campus ministers? Do you have students affected by campus closures or changes in coursework? Have you considered how to engage these students or reach out in creative ways through online formats during this time?
While I lament at this time, I also find reason for hope and encouragement in considering the question: What is God doing in and through this? While not the only way, I think that this question and my brief thoughts are one in which our great God may be at work building His church and strengthening her witness to His goodness and grace, justice and peace.