Don’t drift from God at uni. As the university year begins, Abigail Howe shares top tips from students on how to grow spiritually while making the most the opportunities it presents
University is a time of new-found independence and change. But it can also be a challenge for Christian students. One American study claims that 71 per cent of college students who stop attending church didn’t leave intentionally but instead drifted away.
However, starting university doesn’t have to be a time of anxiety or trepidation. It can be a faith-enriching experience. University is an opportunity to grow in independence, deepen your relationship with God and discover how you can best serve God and your community. Here’s six ways to develop your relationship with Jeus while having the time of your life:
1. Join a church – and make sure it’s the right fit
The sheer number of churches in university towns or cities can be overwhelming, especially as it may be the first time you’ve chosen your own church. But new starts can provide great opportunities. Freya is starting her second year at the University of York and her first term was “a great time to explore and understand different backgrounds”.
Joe recently graduated from the University of Southampton. When he searched for a church, he found that “one of the best ways to commit is through service, so it’s worth looking for churches where you feel you can contribute well, not just receive”.
Good work honours God, but so does rest and celebration
While it’s good to settle down in a church as soon as one feels right, Bekah – now beginning her third year at the University of Oxford – advises that “sometimes the best thing you can do for your faith is find a church that better suits you and your needs”. If in doubt, “pray about it and give it to God.”
If you’re not sure where to start, Fusion’s student link up service allows students to contact churches even before they arrive at university. The Student Christian Movement also offers a connect feature, focusing on local churches and student groups, while the inclusive church directory is another option. Christian unions, or other Christian groups on campus, may offer church searches or church walkdowns, where those considering a church can all meet beforehand and head in together.
2. Find a community outside church
Christian unions can be fun and vibrant places, giving students the opportunity to learn from each other, as well as offering paths to evangelism, fellowship and ministry.
Some Christian unions even offer freshers’ getaways (more commonly known as ‘freshaways’) before students even arrive. Matt, a final-year student at the University of Cambridge, attended a freshaway prior to starting at university and now volunteers there, noting that these offer a “Christian network before you even get in”, meaning they can “bring you along to other things” once term begins.
Universities may also have denominational societies (e.g. a Methodist society, Catholic society or Pentecostal society), along with more central societies with different focuses. These societies can be found at freshers’ fairs, on central university lists or on social media.
It’s worth looking for churches where you feel you can contribute well, not just receive
Naomi, who works for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), highlights that these groups provide “diversity which is really helpful in terms of maturing” in faith. While it may be easier to attend earlier due to the greater likelihood of welcome events, she also offered reassurance for those who consider joining later in term: these students are often “there to meet new people”, and “very excited” about the prospect, no matter when that may be!
3. Let academics and faith collide
While university can be a time of extremes – essay crises and procrastination or the rush of applying to grad schemes – it’s important to find balance in work and faith to avoid burnout.
Bekah encourages students to unite faith and academic work: “give the little things to God, he cares about your work… if there’s something you don’t understand, pray for understanding while you’re working.” Joe echoes this, saying: “if we invite God into the things we enjoy, even if that’s a quiet night in, we are being worshipful.”
Small groups and other students can also offer advice and support when you’re stressed or struggling. Simon, who works for the Student Christian Movement, also highlighted the role of university chaplains in offering a listening ear: “have a look for a chaplaincy page on your university website and drop them an email, or call in for a cup of tea and a chat.”
4. Step out of the Christian ‘bubble’
Friendships also require balance. Bekah continues that students shouldn’t “put all your friends in boxes like ‘college’, ‘CU’ or ‘course’” or “prioritise one over the other”. Surrounding yourself entirely with other Christians can create a ‘bubble’ which isn’t realistic or beneficial. This sense of balance is especially important when you’re considering renting accommodation with a group of friends. Christians can provide an amazing network of fellowship, support and encouragement but packing your schedule entirely with CU or church may not be helpful – as well as blocking off potential other ways to show your love for God.
5. Consider what God’s calling you to do, not just what you can do
CUs, churches and other Christian groups can provide great opportunities for spiritual growth and leadership. However, you can’t take them all on. Volunteering for everything can be overwhelming.
Naomi recommends “asking God what priorities you should have” in order to distinguish “what is a God thing and what is a good thing”. Freya echoes this, urging students to “consider prayerfully and carefully before you commit, to ask where God can use you best. Getting involved in events and serving the Church is one of the great joys of student life, but pursuing your degree is also a way to express your love for God and honour the opportunity” of time at university.
6. Set apart time to focus on God
Time with God can mean a lot of things. There’s no need to relegate him to Sundays or only when you’re reading the Bible. As Joe puts it: “God can be sought and found through lacrosse socials, community work, night-clubbing, working part-time, studying, going to Aldi…he’s so much bigger than a Christian union or a local church”. Bekah also suggests taking regular times to focus on God through having “a set time every day that you put aside for quiet time” with God, “whether that’s reading the Bible, praying or journaling.”
It’s easy to fill the hours of each day with work. Matt notes that “university work can very easily take over everything.” By reserving particular hours each day or week for individual time with God, this is set apart as a commitment, and stops distractions getting in the way.
Taking some form of Sabbath can also be helpful for this. While picking Sunday means that “work is never competing with church”, university schedules can be unpredictable. Naomi advises finding any “24 hour period where you say no to work and yes to rest” - and time with God. Through this, you can be spiritually nourished and encouraged. Good work honours God, but so does rest and celebration.