IT’S that time of year again. Parents are piling up cars with their offspring’s worldly possessions, and helping them to leave the nest and spread their wings at our nation’s great higher-education establishments. You might have just done this yourself, and said a little prayer or shed a tear on the way home.
But what happens to them now? There are chaplains, Christian Unions, and various student-led societies, as well as “large student churches” waiting for their arrival; but these might not be where they find a spiritual home.
A study by Matthew Guest and others (Christianity and the University Experience, Bloomsbury, 2013) surveyed 4500 students at 13 universities. Of those who said that they were Christian, only 26 per cent went to church frequently at university. “A little low,” we might think, “but not totally surprising.”
But then we read that a further 25 per cent of the Christian students said that they rarely, if ever, went to church in term-time, but did go in the holidays, often frequently. They haven’t given up on church, they just don’t go at university. I suspect that this is mostly because they are not finding a church that feels like home.
STUDENTS are desperate for “home”. After recent economic changes, universities and students themselves are more focused than ever on productivity. If they live on campus, they live within an institution made up of 18-to-25-year-olds which is constantly judging them: how intelligent they are; how cool; and even how valuable.
They miss hanging out with grandpas and mums and toddlers. They miss pets and sofas and gardens and proper roast dinners. They miss home.
Larger churches are struggling to keep up with this. Just as Starbucks has adopted a more personal and local approach — asking all customers by name to give them their orders, and setting up community boards advertising local events — so many “large studenty churches” are bending over backwards to foster a sense of familiarity and belonging for their students.
It is the first thing you see if you look at the student section on their websites, and many students do find a home with them. But there are many more who don’t, and I suspect that smaller churches have a head start on being places of belonging for them.
IF YOU want to do something for them this year, it is not too late. In places such as Oxford and Cambridge, Durham, Nottingham Trent, and Warwick, freshers are yet to arrive. And even if your local university first-years have already got there, giving them a few weeks to settle in is no bad thing.
There is a great deal that “bijoux” churches can do to attract and keep students. Here are the top ten ideas that I have seen work:
1. Let Chaplains, Christian Unions, Student Christian Movement, or Fusion groups know that you exist: email them a one-sentence description with the location and main service time (you can find their contact details on various websites). Brag about the fact that you are a small, friendly church.
2. Nothing says “home” like food: put on a lunch for freshers a few weeks into term as a chance to meet some of the congregation and hear a little about your church.
3. Preach on being a welcoming congregation, and recognise those who are good at welcoming newcomers. Encourage your congregation to invite small groups of students for Sunday lunch, Sunday-evening pancakes, or to offer to teach them how to knit or bake, or to have a go on your allotment.
4. Don’t forget to show hospitality to international students. Get your whole congregation involved in putting on an afternoon tea to welcome them to the UK (contact the university international department or student services to advertise it). You could give a short, funny talk on English eccentricity, and take email addresses if they would like to be reminded of your Christmas services.
5. Websites: I have yet to meet a student who does not check out the website of a church before visiting it. If you have a little section for students with events and ideas in which they might be interested, then they will know that they are welcome.
6. If you are LGBT-inclusive, make sure you say it explicitly on your website, perhaps amid a long list of other things: “You’re welcome here whatever your race, faith background, sexual orientation . . .” You could even email the LGBT society to let them know this fact: most of the LGBT Socs I have known assume that all churches are against them. If nothing else, it should show them that you are friendly.
7. Students don’t always want to be part of a student group; so let them know they are welcome to join existing church groups and activities.
8. Mention students in sermons and intercessions, and take risks in giving students themselves a part to play in the services.
9. Welcome back returning students in the holidays, and help them to find a church where they fit at university.
10. Find things you love about students. They are the most optimistic people on the planet: who knows what they might become? One in seven world leaders studied at UK universities. And they are great fun.
Students are usually a mix of idealism, newly found freedom, and the beginnings of ability. Your church could be just the home that they are looking for.
The Revd Sally Hitchiner is Chaplain to Brunel University, London.