EVERY year, hundreds of thousands of students start university, many of whom move to new cities. There can be an assumption that, while packing up their things, they choose to leave their faith or commitment to church at home.
In 2013, a study of 4500 students at 13 universities found that, of those who said that they were Christian, 26 per cent went to church frequently at university. A further 25 per cent, however, said that, while they went rarely, if ever, in term-time, they did go in the holidays, often frequently. Only 11 per cent felt that their religious identity had diminished (Features, 13 September 2013).
Many students fall away from church during term-time because they decide to “settle in” first. Before they know it, the first term is over, and they haven’t been to church once, or they can’t find a church that they feel cares about students.
When we took our app, Student Linkup, to freshers’ fairs last year, we saw thousands of students sign up. In all your communications online, it’s a good idea to think about the language that you use, and avoid jargon. The most common question asked at one freshers’ fair was “What do you actually do in a church?” The second was “What day of the week do you meet?”
There are plenty of practical ways in which churches can reach students, including running Student Alpha. It is also a great idea to form a relationship with the student union: they will have loads of events throughout the year, and it’s worth contacting them and asking how your church can help out. You could start this relationship by running a stand at freshers’ fair, or by serving at freshers’ night events.
Churches should find and nurture Christian students in their discipleship, but they also have an amazing opportunity to open their doors wide to students who don’t know God yet. There are more than two million students in the UK. Imagine if every single one of them heard the gospel while at university.
Churches don’t necessarily need slick services, funnier preachers, or stylish worship leaders to entice students in. They need to be filled with people who really love Jesus and, because of that, really love each other and everyone outside the church walls.
I became a Christian at university not because I thought it was cool, or because the pastor was wearing ripped jeans. I became and remained a Christian because I met a group of people who really loved and needed God so much so they made me wonder whether I needed God. The way they lived and loved was radically different from anything I had experienced before. It was contagious.
I, like the majority of students, was looking for community, home, answers, purpose, hope, and freedom. After a friend died, I started asking big questions about life and death. One of my friends, with whom I’d been to church a few times, told me about the joy God gave her, a joy that wasn’t based on circumstances; and I really wanted that. So, while I was waiting for a train, I said to God: “If you’re real, let me feel this joy, and I’ll give you my life.” In that moment, I felt the weight of grief lift. I decided that God was real, and I gave my life to him.
Shortly after this, a girl in one of my classes, whom I didn’t really know, came up to me and said that she felt she should invite me to her church. I went, and met a community of young, excited, life-giving, and loving Christians.
This is what we need in our churches: people who shine with God’s light, in and out of church, and are ready to share it with others. If you can design amazing websites, do it; if you’re stylish, be very stylish; if your talks are hilarious, be as funny as you can be, and do it all to the glory of God. But it’s so freeing that God doesn’t require these things to reach students successfully. He just asks that we really love him and the universities that are our neighbours.
I love that we have a simple gospel. Reaching students can be simple as well. Let’s show up for them, pray for them, and invite them in. Let them know you’re there, and that they’re more than welcome to come and join, no matter who they are. Tell them how God’s love has changed your life, and let them know that they can ask God to help them, too, if they want.
Katherine O’Shea is a Student Mission Developer at Fusion, focusing on drama schools.