You’ve had a group of students that you’ve been with for all of high school, and now they’ve graduated. It’s one of the greatest joys of youth ministry, but also the greatest struggles. It’s a joy because you get to see them take steps into adulthood, get active in leadership, and live out their faith. But it’s also tough because you know that means they’re leaving your youth ministry, and that means you have to “start over” with another group of leaders. And the reality is that most of your college students will not end up back at your congregation, because many will live in different states following graduation.
So where do they fit in your youth ministry and in your congregation as a whole? They’ve been trained and raised by your congregation in the faith. They’ve been equipped to lead and serve, gifted in various ways. And they’ve been sent to various campuses and communities throughout the country to be witnesses of Christ there. That sounds a lot like the description of a missionary. And that’s exactly, I think, how we need to support our college students. We support them like we support our missionaries.
1 Peter 3:15-16 reminds us, “But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.”
Our college students have been placed by God in relationships with so many new people in their vocation as student to be able to give reason for the hope that they have in Christ. They are not just going to college to study, but to be Christ’s witness, as all of us are called to do in our various vocations.
What difference would it make to our young people if they knew that they were being sent by their congregation as God’s witness to Atlantic College of Pyrotechnics (or whatever real college they’re going to) and they’re being prayed for along the way? I’m convinced it changes not only their perspective on their years in college, but also your congregation’s perspective on your college students.
Practical Steps for Supporting Your College Students As Missionaries
What are some practical ways to support your college students from your congregation? One way to do this is to look at how we support missionaries and to mirror that with your college students:
You don’t send a missionary into the mission field without preparing them first. In the same way, supporting your college students starts well before they’re off onto campus. This preparation is not just about growing in their faith and having faith conversations with others, but also about their need for Christian community and support. In the same way, your faith formation in your youth ministry, especially for juniors and seniors should be geared towards these same goals.
Program Idea: Consider having a special “training” class just for your upperclassmen to help prepare them on this journey. Make this special Bible study or small group focused not just on gaining information, but also building relationships that will help carry them through the transition and beyond, and gaining skills. Invite not just the youth to this, but also key mentors, parents, current college students, or others that are committed to walking alongside these young people for the long haul. In terms of gaining skills, give your upperclassmen opportunities to lead Bible studies and devotions (there’s a whole section of studies on the YouthEsource that are designed to be youth-led). If they have the skills and have had chances to actually use and apply them, they will be more likely to use them when they’re actually in college. So prepare them as best you can.
Missionaries always get sent by God’s people. They are prayed over, supported, and encouraged. In the same way, you can also “send off” your college students well at the beginning of each school year. Designate a weekend to celebrate these students, have a special Bible class presentation (more on that below), and have your students come forward in worship and pray for them and send them like you would a missionary or an outgoing church worker. This reinforces the evangelical aspect of your youth and college ministries and connects it with the overall congregational mission.
Program Idea: Host a “College Send-Off Brunch” on one of the Sundays in late July or early August. provided a breakfast buffet for those who attended (food is a big draw for most events). The college students and their families were the guests of honor, but our other adult Bible classes were invited to join as well. The actual Bible study time was a “sending” Bible study, focused on how these young people have been equipped by God to be His witnesses on their various campuses, and how we as a congregation are going to continue to support them.
This is also a great time to get people to sign-up to be prayer partners, to get emails for a regular newsletter, to get updated mailing addresses for your college students, and any other contact information you need for your college ministry efforts. Our church hosted this during our Bible class hour and every year it brought in families that otherwise were disconnected from the church, and when you do something like this year after year, it builds an evangelism-centered culture in your church when it comes to your youth.
Connect them to local support in their area
A missionary that is sent to a region previously unknown to them is rarely if ever sent without support. One of the first things that a sending group will do for a missionary is help them connect with local resources. In the same way, one of the highest priorities in supporting your college students is to get them connected to a local congregation and campus ministry wherever they are going. This is something you have to be diligent on from the get-go rather than waiting for it to happen later on because habits are formed quickly in terms of church involvement.
Program Idea: Gather together a “College Connect Team” and assign one or two team members to each of your college students, to help them research churches in their area. Ultimately it’s up to the student whether or not they get involved or plugged in, but try to remove as many barriers as you can. Have your team work with their assigned students to develop an accountability plan (who am I going with, how often do I want you checking in with me, which service am I going to try to regularly go to, etc.) for each individual rather than blanket rules for everyone.
Support their physical needs
Many churches support their missionaries by collecting needed donations for their ministry. One way to do this for college students is through college care packages, which I think are always well received by students, whether it’s a full-on care package or just a letter with a gift card. That’s a great way to keep touch with your students as well. But I think we can also take it a step further. When you’re supporting a missionary, you rarely send supplies to the missionary for the missionary to use themselves. It’s almost always for the people around the missionary too. In the same way, consider how you can support not just your college students, but also those around them. Ask the question, how can I help my students serve and support those around them with the love of Christ? I think that question will lead you to all sorts of program ideas.
Program Idea: Give a couple of different options for a care-package and let each student pick which kind they would like to receive. Each of these options would be ways to equip your students to reach out to others their dorms or with their group of friends.
For example, option 1 is a care package full of baked goods for them to share with others on their hall. “My church sent me these cookies- would you like some?” is not only an invitation that I think will be well-received by most college students, but is an opportunity for a spiritual conversation. That’s what you want to help your students with.
Option 2 could be Bible study materials for a topical study on worry and stress, or something like that, for the student to invite a couple of friends into a small group study with them.
Option 3 could be a grant or seed money to help that student with a project to impact their community. The student could choose this option and then work with your team to identify a need in the community that surrounds their college. The congregation would then help fund some of the needed materials, and then the student would recruit some of their fellow students to actually carry out the project.
Having a couple of different options that are mission-focused and letting each student choose (while maybe also giving them a coffee gift card or something like that) which option best fits their gifts and setting is another way you can be active rather than passive in supporting your students.
Congregations that adopt a missionary pray for them regularly. Do the same for your college students. Either pray for them as a group maybe once a month, or even pick a different student each week and pray for them by name in worship. Have a prayer partner for each youth and give monthly prompts to parents and prayer partners of specific ways to reach out to their student each month.
Program idea: We put together a compilation of letters to each graduating class from important people in their lives (church staff members, small group leaders, a church elder, congregational president, favorite teacher, current college student, younger youth group member, etc.) and gave that letters book to each graduate every year from our church. But this same concept could be spread out over the course of the year, so that every month or so a different letter gets sent out to the college students, reminding them of God’s promises to them, that they’re being prayed for, and maybe giving practical advice from the letter-writer.
Giving regular updates and sharing stories
Every missionary that I know of has some kind of a newsletter or other way that they share the work that God is doing on their journey. What are some ways that you can share what God is doing in the lives of your college students? What are they learning about in their campus ministry? Are they plugged in a great Bible study or small group? Is there local congregation where they are now doing some unique ministry that they get to be a part of?
As you check in with your students regularly and you pray for them, ask their permission to share some of the great things that God’s doing (perhaps your pastor could use one of those stories in a sermon or Bible study even). Invite one or two of your students to your youth group or Bible study when they’re home on break, and have them share their story of how God is at work on their campus and their local congregation there.
Program idea: Utilize the talents of your congregation and your college students. Who do you have that is gifted in writing or journalism? Pair a member with those skills with a couple students that also have those interests and have them put together some newsletter articles, bulletin blurbs, or video testimonials. Ask a student who is a graphic design major to put together a theme or graphic for your campus ministry (how many campuses your students are at, where are they, what types of ministries people are involved in, etc.). Do you have students that are interested in education? Maybe they could teach a youth group lesson in the summer about being a Christian in college. Whatever their area, combine their gifts with sharing their story.
My prayer is that this article sparks some ideas and creativity in you and your ministry team. But more than anything, I pray that you would trust that the Holy Spirit will work through your college students as God gives them opportunities to share the reason for the hope that they have in Christ Jesus, and that you would be excited to be a part of the multiplication of the Lord’s ministry as it goes from your congregation to various campuses across the country and even the world!