Not far from you – in the local terraced housing, further down the bus route, perhaps even next door – is a community of people who could see the kingdom come in an amazing way in your church and in your city.
They’re enthusiastic, full of talent and spiritually open. They have time, are open to mentoring and will soon be leading and shaping every area of our society.
Who are these people? They’re your local university students. ‘Local’ and ‘students’ are words we don’t often put together. Despite more and more halls of residence popping up in our towns and cities, not to mention students living in residential areas from their second years onwards, we don’t often think of them as ‘locals’. Perhaps it’s because of the limited time they’re in town for, or perhaps it’s because they don’t always connect locally. But make no mistake. They are local. They live on our streets, increasingly work part-time jobs in our areas, and belong in our communities. They’re on your doorstep, and you don’t need to look far in the Bible to find the world-changing impact of a three-year ministry!
5 steps to connect your church to students
1. Get a point person. They don’t need to be employed by the church, just someone who everyone knows is the point person for new students. This will help the whole community welcome students as they’ll know where to signpost them.
2. Make space in your community. Are there midweek groups they can join? Can they help with youth, children, a foodbank or Alpha? Students are most likely to commit to a community they can get involved in and feel part of. Where could they serve and lead?
3. Articulate who you are as a church and what it means to be part of your community. This will help students find somewhere they can belong and serve when looking for a church.
4. Register with studentlinkup.org and welcome new students to your town. We’ll connect you with students coming to your local university and you can send them messages (think text, not email, for the most effective form of communication).
5. Let your local chaplaincy and on-campus Christian groups know you’re there. Many Christians will seek out these groups when they arrive, others won’t. Make sure those who do can find you and think about ways you can make yourself known to those who don’t.
As the Church, we have the potential to connect with this local community, whether we’re a big ‘student church’ or a small parish congregation. We also have a responsibility not to ignore an area of our local community due to the impression that there’s already plenty happening. Less than 2% of students are in churches across the UK. That leaves an awful lot of unreached young people.
There are three questions that we, as churches, should be asking if we’re to engage local students in ways that bring life to the Church, to their walk with God and to the university and local communities.
1. Who are we as a church?
All too often I speak with churches who say, ‘We could never be a student church and we wouldn’t want to be!’ Often, the churches they’ve seen engaging with students are different from their own. But the Church is a beautifully diverse body of people and its diversity is a gift to student communities. Plus, students are not a homogenous group. They’re open to new ideas and are still exploring how their faith works. They will often be open to all kinds of ways of doing church. We need a variety of churches if we’re going to see more than 2% of students engaging with God.
Who are you as a church and what could that mean for students? Are you passionate about social justice? Do you excel in expository teaching? Are you great at community and hospitality?
There isn’t only one kind of church that can welcome students. Inevitably, any new people group brings transformation – as anyone who’s ever looked to build a multi-generational or multicultural church will testify – but never assume that what God has made you as a church is incongruous with welcoming university students.
2. Who are our local students?
Are they mostly arts or science students? How busy are they? Is your university vocational with lots of placements? Are the students mostly from the UK or largely international? Are they studying for undergraduate or postgraduate degrees? What are the needs of the student population in your area?
Getting a coffee with the chief executive or the president of the Students’ Union (like the student government) can go a long way to helping you understand your university’s context. Ask them about the culture and history of the university, what their needs are and what their dream for the student community is. You may be surprised how similar their dream is to your own.
As you learn more about the students in your area, pray for them.
3. How can we bridge our church and university?
Finally, you need to ask how your church can best reach students. The answer to this will vary, depending on how you answered the previous two questions.
One church in Derby discovered that some international students were struggling to finance their studies. The church had a great culture of hospitality so, through a partnership with the chaplaincy, families started to take in these international students, giving them free accommodation so that they could put their money towards fees and complete their studies.
A church in Portsmouth was about to undertake a major architectural project, transforming the entrance of the church into a café as a bridge between the church and the community. The local university offered an architecture degree, so the pastor put their church forward as a first-year project. Thirty students spent a week coming in and out of the church – hearing stories of transformation through Jesus, the church’s vision and invitations to Sundays and Alpha – before designing this café. Designs were showcased at the Christmas carol service, creating the opportunity for friends and family to view their work and take part in the life of the church for an evening.
A church in York regularly supplies stewards for the major club nights on campus, serving staff and students, and helping to provide a safe context for the revellers.
A Cambridge church connects local students with professional mentors. This allows church members to share their expertise and students to gain both a spiritual and professional role model. This can be a great blessing not just for Christian students, but for those who don’t know God. It can build bridges between the communities, battling against generational divisions.
Preparing future students
For churches that aren’t in university towns, there is no less need to respond to the potential of students and church. Every year, hundreds of thousands of our young people will make their pilgrimage to a new university town. They finish their A levels, leave home and, within a few months, their independence, world view and relationships can be utterly transformed. Churches in university towns speak of the dream of having students who are well-prepared for this important transition. They’re desperate for young people to arrive ready to walk with Jesus even while their world is in flux.
Your church can help students prepare for university life. Important university preparation questions are: ‘Who are you?’, ‘What’s the culture of your university?’ and ‘Where do those two interact?’ In those questions lie considerations that see young people step forward with a sense of calling, aware of their identity in Christ, of the gifts he’s put within them and the potential of their impact. They are then sent into a mission field that desperately needs them and to churches that are waiting to welcome them.
How to prepare a young person for university
Create space. Whether it’s a weekend away with a group or a coffee one-on-one, make space to discuss what lies ahead.
Give context. The Student Linkup Box (fusion.uk.com/box) is an easy way to do this, but you could also invite a current student to talk about their experiences. Allow them to share about the culture of the university: its challenges and opportunities.
Listen, now and later. The most important thing is to give your young people the chance to process. Let them articulate their expectations and be ready to talk at Christmas when those expectations have (or haven’t) been met.
Connect. It’s so easy to connect young people with churches near their universities and this process is best begun before they even leave home. The Student Linkup app connects students with churches immediately. Spend time on the app and on Google together, looking at different churches and discussing how they might visit and choose a community to be part of.
Pray. Invite members of the church to commit to praying for a particular young person. Share where they’re going and what they’ll be studying.
When we see students as part of our local community and as young people, beloved and raised by our brothers and sisters elsewhere, sent to be a blessing to our communities, perhaps our confidence can be raised as to the part we might play in their story.
A mission field the church needs
Sadly, thousands of Christian students disconnect with church when they go to university and, as we travel the country and meet with churches, less than 1% of the student population can be accounted for in many locations.
You don't need to look far in the Bible to find the world-changing impact of a three-year ministry!
Student workers everywhere are lamenting the rise in anxiety and other mental health struggles. A survey carried out by Fusion last year revealed that 70% of students suffer mental health symptoms. This is a people group that needs Jesus. If you are not in a position to prepare a young person for university life or welcome students locally, this can still be a mission field you can be involved in. Perhaps you can commit in prayer and choose a university or the wider movement of student mission to bring before God. Perhaps you’re called to financially support missionaries working in this field, whether through supporting local church student teams or through organisations such as Fusion, which trains and equips them.
This is a mission field that needs the Church. But it’s also a community the Church needs. Who are your local students? Do you send them, do you welcome them, do you know them?
Pippa Elmes works for Fusion across the UK supporting, training and connecting student workers in local churches