"If a first-year college or university student does not connect with an on-campus Christian group within the first three weeks of their post-secondary education, or connect with a new church if they have moved away from home for this season of time, then most likely they will not."
Do you ever find yourself hearing a statistic and having it shake you to the core of your being? A few years ago, when I was in a pastoral role leading youth and young adults, I heard a speaker at Lakeshore Pentecostal Camp mention a statistic that spoke loudly to me. His statement was this: If a first-year college or university student does not connect with an on-campus Christian group within the first three weeks of their post-secondary education, or connect with a new church if they have moved away from home for this season of time, then most likely they will not.
Those words continued to ring in my head and heart after that day, especially so when I found myself chatting online with Jonathan a few weeks later. Jonathan shared with me that he was going to be heading off to college at an institution that was three hours from home. Immediately, I asked him what his plans were for connecting with a new church or campus group. He told me that he planned to get around to it once he was settled into his class routine, commenting that his course load was going to be very heavy.
I responded with an uncharacteristic boldness! I immediately went online, brought up Google Maps, told him to do the same, and we searched together for churches that would be near his campus. We found one that wasn’t his denomination, but it was closest to the campus. We agreed that he would try that one the first Sunday and get back to me. Jonathan did go. He said it was OK, but he wasn’t excited about it.
Now he was approaching his second Sunday away from home and engaged with his new school. Recalling the statistic, I continued to journey closely with Jonathan over the phone. Once again, we found a church for him to connect with. It was a part of his denomination but further from campus. He loved it and got involved—even to the point of going on a mission trip with them at the end of his first year.
More recently, I was talking with a youth and young adults pastor who told me a similar story of how he more or less held a student’s hand through the process of connecting to a faith community at college and didn’t let go until the student was well connected. I smiled from ear to ear. My uncharacteristic boldness had been affirmed!
A few years ago, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) published a study called “Hemorrhaging Faith,”1 looking into why so many people raised in church in Canada abandon church when they hit adulthood. One of the conclusions was that we lose our youth during the transitional times of life—the big one in particular being the transition from high school to college and university.
I attended a presentation by one of the researchers who worked on the EFC study. In his view, the transition strategy in many churches is simply to give their students the business card of the nearest church that belongs to their denomination and tell them their home church will be praying for them as they head off to school. The presenter then pointed out that in a world heavily saturated with social media, our first-year college students tend to stay in touch with all their friends back home, but sadly the church often loses contact with them. It might be because of busyness. Sometimes it can be a feeling that the church and pastor in the new town are now their church and pastor, and they need to step away. Personally, I’ve never understood that thinking.
When relay sprinters train for a 4 x100 metre race, they don`t work on speed. They are already as fast as they are going to get. What they do spend hours of time working on is the transfer of the baton. The smooth transition from one hand to another can be the key to a successful race. It’s often the difference between a win and a disqualification.
There are many things that vie for the time and focus of lead pastors, youth pastors, and those who pastor young adults. Many things are important and urgent. May I strongly suggest that time and effort spent in helping our Grade 12 students to navigate the transition from high school to university is time well spent—time that will increase the odds of our students staying connected to the church through their post-secondary years and into adulthood.
The work of helping students through this transition doesn’t begin on Labour Day weekend. It starts while they are in their final year of high school. It starts as we take the time to talk with our students, hearing their excitement, their reasons for concern, and their apprehensions. It starts as we begin to think about how to assist them in making the transition. It starts as we do our homework, finding churches where they can make a solid connection with the larger body of Christ and get involved. It starts as we check out our Campus Mission Canada website (www.campusmission.ca) to find the PAOC ministries we have on post-secondary campuses across our nation. It starts when we are informed and can pass on that information, helping to make those connections with a transitioning student who is already feeling overwhelmed. Our encouragement during the first month can mean the difference between their engaging with a Bible-believing and prayer-focused group on campus—or not.
It may take some “uncharacteristic boldness” on our part, but if our students will allow us, let’s not be afraid to run alongside them as they make this critical transition in life. There is a greater race that must be won—one that goes beyond four years in residence and a degree in the hand. Journey with your students through life. Stay connected. Cheer them on from the sidelines. Be their greatest fans. Celebrate their wins and make yourself available in the tough times. Ensure that each baton pass is not a speedy one, but one that is smooth, precise and well planned.
Jeff Snow is a Mission Canada worker, serving Christ by serving young adults on the campuses of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and Durham College in Oshawa, Ont.
1. See http://hemorrhagingfaith.com for more information.
This article appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photo: iStockphoto