Insights for Churches & Households Suddenly Gaining College Students

There’s a stack of boxes in the background of the FaceTime frame as I talk to one of my students, checking on the first day of being back at her parents’ house. She graciously lets me in to her personal reflections to help me have words to share with you all.

“It’s a war between finding positivity and grieving,” she shares. That’s something I think we can all relate to today in our series of personal loss among the collective landscape of hardship. Repeating to one another, “To whom shall we go? You, Jesus, have the word of eternal life.”

I work with college students every day and it’s a treasure to do so. Most days, I feel pretty confident with how to walk with them, but today, just like you all, we are relearning in our new reality and relying on God’s grace to fill the gaps. These may be days that feel much like the Israelites wandering in the desert – disoriented, transitional, and uncertain, especially for college students. Make no mistake, though, like Israel, we go nowhere without God’s presence and provision and there just may be ways for us to be manna in the desert for one another, especially those who’ve left college abruptly.

So, Church, with the help of my wise and gracious 20-something friends, here’s the best we came up with for walking with college students in your midst during this time:

Start by reaching out.

We’re saying this for everyone right now, to be intentional about reaching out. Consider college students an important demographic of focus. They are used to more daily social contact than most any other people group – studying, eating, living together—and are now in a much quieter reality. They are grieving that loss deeply. Seniors are giving up lots of “lasts,” even graduations, and stepping in to great unknown. Show up in their time of grief and being untethered. You are tangible proof of Emmanuel, God that is with us, in these difficult days.

Start by reaching out to college students in your congregation or circles. Make that initial contact. Even if we don’t know what to do at the moment, as more clarity surfaces, we will have the connections in place to take the next steps. We can pace ourselves a bit with creating a ton of resources and programs. They’re overwhelmed, too. Just start with a connecting point. FaceTime if you can. GroupMe is a great way to start an open conversation (that can be to share Scripture, funny things, etc.).

 Ask them what they need.

Ministry 101. Let’s ask the people we’re serving what would be helpful. They might not know yet. The needs might change. To ask is a deeply validating practice. It also takes some pressure off of leaders to learn to read minds. The students I spoke to had some great things to share. It’s also important to ask because every student’s situation is different. We have students on internships, studying abroad, ones where home is a good place to be and some where it isn’t. Let’s honor them by asking before or as we are acting.

A glimpse of the experience

While I’m hesitant to say what will or won’t work for your community and college students in this time—we’re all learning right now—I can offer a glimpse to their current experience. As you are planning and acting, here is some of the bad news to which we are called to speak good news.

A massive loss of community.

“I am losing friends very unexpectedly and we didn’t have that much time to prepare for that loss. I don’t know when or if I will see some of these people again.”

We are all losing physical community in these days, but it’s to an extreme degree for college students. While we’re all seeing drastic changes in life, most of us aren’t having to move within a few days’ notice to a much less lively situation. Community is a massive part of college. It’s proof of life best lived together. Helping students understand the importance of social distancing has been a challenge in these days because community is so core to who they are and how they live. It is a great part of their coping and well-being.

  • Church:
    What are ways that you might be able to create community among college students in your congregation? Maybe a weekly Google Hangout for college students to connect with their similar experience. Maybe a special invitation to be part of what your larger church community is doing during this time, just so they know they are included in it.
  • Those living with college students:
    Perhaps wait a few days with this one after your student gets home to be safe, but hug your student regularly (you know, if that’d be helpful for them—back to the “ask what they need” thing). College is a very tactile time. Many will miss this regular affection.

A massive loss of regular rhythm and scheduling.

“What is my routine now? College becomes our life and now that we are forced out and scattered across the country it’s hard to know what to do, how to feel, what to know is right or wrong.”

We can all relate to the importance of daily rhythm. These young adults are in the midst of great grief and while they’re adults, don’t have quite the coping skills to manage all of this right now. We’re doing daily chapel online at Concordia St. Paul to both keep connection and spiritual encouragement, but to also hopefully offer some rhythm to our students’ blurring and disoriented days.

  • Those living with college students:
    Be gracious with them in these days. Also, work with them to make a few house rhythms to help them stay on task with classes, get space from screens, exercise, eat together, have some fun. One student said today, “All my siblings are at home and I feel bad when the family is together and I have work to get done.” Stating and sharing schedules may be helpful in these days.

A fear of losing progress or stability that has been gained.

“This sounds technical but if the church could start a specific group for college students and if they could have a legit space for them to post/hear/read some good stuff.”

“When college kids go back home, there is a reverting to old self because of old environment. Some is good–family meals and such, but also your family doesn’t always know or see the growth and change that has happened in college. I’m trying to figure out how not to revert into the old patterns I’ve outgrown while having to do homework at my bedroom desk. Maybe something to ask is “How did you grow in college and how can we help further that growth in you?

There is a lot of fear in this disorienting season. Students are being flung full-time back into family systems that may not be fun and even the healthiest ones will have some adjusting to do. Friends and support systems and services at college have helped them to develop as people and they are afraid of losing all that progress and stability they’ve gained in these days. They look like adults without the coping experience that most adults have. Think especially of your students who found stability at college and may be grasping right now.

  • Church and households:
    • Consider asking the student’s question: “How did you grow in college and how can we help further that growth in you?
    • Help make space for students to figure out what they need. Help them navigate online appointments with counseling services through their colleges or other resources they may need. They can learn to do this; they just might need your encouragement and help processing.
  • Church:

Consider a landing place for sharing resources to keep your students growing and engaged spiritually. CSP (Concordia St. Paul) Ministry started a Spotify channel with that in mind as one option.

A loss of purpose.

Our vocations have changed. Period. This is painfully true with our college students. College is already all about vocational learning and discernment. I use the two questions, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” to help with processing. These will be important questions for us to ask our college students (and ourselves, for that matter) in this season. In less than a week, these students lost their school, their roommates, campus jobs, sports, concerts and shows, activities and leadership of all kinds. They need a new sense of purpose.

Church, hear this: if you have college students among you right now, you have an incredible treasure in your midst. Show them they are needed and use their gifts. They are smart and creative, innovative and tech-savvy. They are great grocery-getters, child-care helpers, and social media gurus. Show them in a very real way how incredibly much the Body of Christ values and needs them. I have said this so much in the past week to our students: “Your vocation has changed. This is your time to shine and show us how to do this.” Church, if you want to see young people as part of your community, this is a softball pitch. You need new skills, ideas, and innovations to do ministry and they need purpose. Invite them in and watch them shine.

College students already question their place in the Church and if they’re seen and wanted. In this time, we have an incredible opportunity to meet that question with a resounding “yes!” Not only do you have a place with us, but we need you right now. We always have and that’s very clear now.

One of my sweet students said, “I really don’t know how churches can help right now except for just to pray for us.” I say amen to that.

I’m so grateful for all my college students have taught me, especially in these days. The resounding lesson they speak is to not take anything for granted.

And especially to Geoffrey, Gage, Kalynn, Alex, Anna, Katie, Kenzie, and Ahlrik, thank you for serving the Church by making time to share with us in the middle of potentially your hardest week of life thus far. You are a gift to us.

We’re praying we can return the favor to you and those like you in these weeks and months to come.