Many young people see University as a natural life stage. But what impact does this have on Christian faith and how should churches respond? Paul Hobson explores further
University is a pivotal period in life. For many it’s their first experience of living away from the comforts of home, with all the adjustments and changing boundaries that entails. It’s a time of opportunity when horizons are broadened, social circles expanded and the world seen with fresh eyes. Many thrive; others don’t. Whatever their experience – emotionally or academically - students’ lives are likely to be shaped in a fundamental way by their tertiary education.
Bangor University students at a lecture
Many young Christians drift from church involvement and their faith during this time. Fusion
, an organisation which serves churches, develops student workers and links students to local churches, reckons 73 per cent of Christians don’t commit to church while at university. It doesn’t mean that all lose their faith entirely – some will re-engage, but others won’t. It’s a reality linked to the absence of 18-35 year olds in our churches, a group donned the “Missing Generation”. Dig deeper and the overall figures are stark: according to Fusion, less than one per cent of students can be accounted for in churches or other Christian groups on campus.
For Peter Cousins, minister at Penrallt Baptist Church and chaplain at Bangor University, the statistics are both understandable and “alarming”. He explains that competing demands allied to new freedoms mean some Christian students simply fall away.
“They restructure their life at university,” he says. “They have to. They don’t have a place and have to find it. At home, their priorities are set by family and church.
“But at university it’s a clean slate, they are starting again. They get into new clubs – and so they should! – and make new friends. It’s a time of excitement.
“And if there are no Christians in their group, it can be easy to just drift away. They haven’t got time to do everything, … and that’s fine, provided you are grounded in your faith.
“But I know there is a huge pool of students out there without any Christian input – and it really does concern me.”
Peter says that student unions and churches which focus on students do a wonderful job of developing their faith. One of the biggest issues, as he sees it, is “hooking” the Christian students during those whirlwind first weeks.
“A lot of big churches are doing great things with students, such as Cardiff and Sheffield. Here at Bangor we feed them – give students food and they will come! It’s great and we love that. It’s great to give them opportunities, to see students leading worship when they haven’t before, preach, lead youth work, go to a nursing home. Certainly our students leave here with lots of Christian leadership potential. And the Christian Union too, there is lots of leadership potential.
“But it only works if they are in there. They come to university and there are other things going on. They very quickly get caught up in Freshers’ week… it’s a well-known problem.
“You can sit them down, tell them they must get involved with a church or CU or both, and they say “great”… but then don’t do it.”
How can a church help?
Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church in Plymouth. He has both worked with Fusion and engaged his churches with student ministry, and says preparation is key. “We need youth workers to be thinking now – how am I going to prepare our A-level students for next year? There should be a long preparation, not just at the end.
“Young people are tender shoots, they are still in the early formation stage. They are going to grow and develop. For example, many might have been brought up in Christian homes; then suddenly they have someone in their living room smoking a spliff and watching porn. Suddenly their world view is being changed. How will they react?”
The likes of Fusion
offer excellent resources to help prepare for some of the challenges ahead.
Part of the preparation may be investigating an area’s churches and Christian Unions. “Finding a church they are comfortable in is a very common theme,” says Anna Radcliff, Baptist chaplain at Nottingham Trent University.
“It’s very hard to find a church – but if they do, that’s so so important.” She adds that researching local cultural groups, if the student is not UK-based, will also help them settle at university.
Researching and getting in touch with university chaplains is another sensible thing to do, adds Anna. Though “the last thing a student wants is for the chaplain to come knocking on their door,” she notes, Christian students will often make contact if needed. Peter also explains that some students rekindle a faith interest as university life progresses and course demands increase. Knowing who the chaplain is will make that contact easier.
Michael also admires the way some churches see their students as though they are going onto the mission field (which given the aforementioned figures, they are). “The New Frontiers churches are very good at sending students, commissioning them. I’d like to see more Baptist churches do the same.”
2. The university cycle – and keeping contact
One of the best ways sending churches can support their students is by keeping in touch, and being aware of the different seasons of university life, says Anna.
She suggests that a church allocates one person to keep contact with the student, and respond appropriately to the university cycle. At the start of an academic year, she explains, there is a ‘freshness, an excitement of leaving home for the first time, money in their pockets.’ Then comes a settling in period when reality strikes; a bit of loneliness and homesickness creeps in. April and May bring the exam season, and extra stresses.
“So maybe a letter or email to begin with;” Anna continues, “sending a food parcel or voucher during that settling in period - students love food!; during exam time letting them know that you are thinking about them, praying for them; as they’re leaving for summer send a card saying well done for getting through the year. Be prepared for the loneliness. Loneliness and homesickness are normal. The reality is that most students experience it. It will happen.”
Keeping contact with students and noticing when they return were points highlighted by Michael, as it both values them and gives them potentially a vital reference point. When he was at university 20 years ago, his church in Esher wrote letters to him. With social media, skype, texts and email, clearly connectivity is much easier now: the point is to actually do it.
“Make a fuss, include them,” he says. “If you can take them out for lunch, have a barbecue when they return, gather with other the students, that’s all good.
“Also when students come back they will have learnt new skills – utilise them in the church.
“It’s all about recognising this is a journey they are on, making them feel valued.”
Inevitably, some students’ faith will drift amid all university has to offer. But there is much a church can do to ready them for the journey ahead and encourage them while they’re there. And as Michael notes, it’s not simply about preparing for a three or four year period of studies, but a life of discipleship.
“If you are a follower of Christ, how does that impact your life?” Good preparation and thoughtful, sensitive support are wonderful values to model.
Six ways churches can support their students
Help prepare them for some of the challenges they will face at university. Talk them through what they might face, get them to think about how they will respond. Useful material can be found at Fusion or UCCF.
Have one person designated to contact them regularly throughout the year. Remember birthdays, send food parcels or vouchers for restaurants; make a fuss when they return; be interested in all areas of their life.
Help them research the churches in the area. Discover if there are Fusion Student Linkup churches there. Recognise that one size doesn’t fit all, and encourage them to find a church that will best suit them
With their permission, contact a university chaplain on their behalf, and ask the chaplain to drop them an email.
Big up the Christian Union. Having other Christians in their peer group is very beneficial. Visit www.uccf.org.uk to find out more.
When they leave for university, commission your students as you would a mission worker. Remember them in your prayers as you do with the mission workers you support. Check out the Student Linkup Box, a school leaver’s gift just released by Fusion.
A student’s experience (1)
Amy Burrows, 20, attends Penrallt Baptist Church in Bangor. In September she enters the third year of a Media and Communications degree at Aberystwyth University.
“My home church has been wonderful – very encouraging in prayer, and very welcoming. When I come back, it doesn’t go amiss. A lot of the congregation shows an interest.
“There was lots of prayer in my exams. The youth worker sent me a Bible verse, which I found really helpful. They’ve also supported me in my decisions. It’s really good to know I’m still part of the church, even when I’m not physically there, and has definitely helped me settle at university.”
A student's experience (2)
Apprenticeships, full-time work, correspondence courses, NVQs… there are many routes for school leavers besides a traditional university route. If we are going to see our young people flourish we need to think about how best to support them. Here is one person’s experience…
As a student who didn’t take the traditional route of going away to university, I’ve found the support I receive from my church is completely different.
Here a typical student has an unrelated church member assigned to them, someone with whom they can talk through situations and request prayer. When they return home from university, people take the time to enquire about the course, the minister of the church welcomes them back, the student provides an update and they are prayed for.
This is great – but I don’t receive any of that. I took the decision to go straight into paid employment and study in my own time. There are no church mentors. People are quite dismissive about the route that I have taken. In my case the minister even trivialised what I was doing by telling me I wasn’t “a proper student”.
For me it was incredibly hurtful. When you study a course through an alternative route you have to be self-motivated and disciplined to achieve the results you want, especially when working full time. Yet there has been a lack of appreciation, understanding and support for this. I feel unable to give the church an update on how the course is progressing - and it’s made me question whether I should find a church where I’m more valued.
Anonymous, student in a Baptist church
The Barna Research Group has explored the lives of young people who drop out of church in the US. According to them it is “a myth” to say university experiences are a key factor that cause people to drop out, even if those experiences are “adversarial” to faith. More telling is how young Christians have been prepared for life beyond youth group. Only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture, it says. Most lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians “who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies.”
For more on:
Including its White Paper on Discipleship and Gen Y, which looks at some key characteristics of Generation Y and how that might shape our discipleship and evangelism
UCCF: The Christian Unions
Barna Research Group
Including its article Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts
This article first appeared in the Autumn edition of Baptists Together magazine