While many college students were enjoying spring break, their world turned upside down. In several fast-moving days as COVID-19 became a pandemic, breaks were extended, classes were canceled, campuses closed, students returned home and learning shifted online.
With stay-at-home orders and limits on public gatherings, students who were connected to churches learned they could not meet with friends and family at church, either. With their semesters over, many students soon realized that they were, in a social sense, orphans — neither connected to their campus nor connected to their summer friends.
In the midst of the current pandemic, churches might think there’s not much they can do to minister to college students. That would be the wrong assessment to make for the many college students in our communities and church families. There is actually a lot churches can do right now to minister to college students. Here are some ideas to reach students during the pandemic.
Engage students who are ‘home’ and ‘away.’
Combine the “away team” of students who have returned early into community groups with the “home team” that may be attending community college or local colleges. Find a platform like Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams to study the Bible together. Keeping them connected to other Christians is an important spiritual lifeline at this point. Jeff Humphrey at Chalybeate Springs Baptist Church has kept his college group together at Wake Technical Community College through a weekly meeting on Microsoft Teams. His group has actually added several students during the school closure.
Encourage social, intellectual and spiritual engagement.
Find creative ways to use virtual platforms to connect students for social engagement that has an intellectual and spiritual side. Maddison Perry at the North Carolina Study Center has recently started a “Chronicles of Narnia” reading group for students. It’s a fun way for students to do some light reading that has rich spiritual themes to explore. Think about books, devotionals or topics that would lend themselves to reflection and discussion.
Connect college students and church leaders.
Set up a “hang out time” with a church leader to talk with students who may want to ask spiritual questions during this crisis. Unstructured time can lead to great discussions about God’s providence, current events, future plans, and what we miss and relish during stay-at-home orders. What do we need to rethink as Christians as we emerge on the other side of COVID-19, and how can students do a “restart” to their college experience?
Understand the stress college students are facing (especially seniors).
Don’t diminish the fact that college seniors are facing a lot of stress. Take it seriously. Not only did they lose saying goodbye in person to their friends and professors, they also won’t graduate with “pomp and circumstance,” nor will they have normal celebration events with friends and family. They also face entering the workforce in the midst of a crisis and a weakened economy. Find a way to honor and encourage them.
Help students sharpen their spiritual engagement skills.
Though few are meeting in person, students still engage privately and in small groups online, in texts and through social media. Crises have a way of forcing people to face ultimate questions. Help Christian students look for and recognize the signs of depression, fear and loneliness. Give them the tools they need to share the gospel, be a listening ear and a great friend.
At some point — hopefully this fall — college students will go back to school. The question for churches is what did we do during the crisis to engage students? The mission to reach college students rests on the shoulders of the church, and we cannot afford to wait until school resumes to re-engage in this important work. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, and now is the time for the church to be creative in how it ministers to others.