Want to involve students and young people in building the common good? Let’s start by forming real, honest communities

As Christians, if we want to start building the common good, we must begin with the church – they are an integral part of local life, meeting people where they are to share the love of God and bring disparate communities together as one body.

At SCM, we want to see churches embracing the call to justice and involving students in the process.  But how do we get students and engaged in the church? What exactly are they looking for? Hundreds of thousands of words have been devoted to answering this question, and yet sometimes it feels like we still don’t know.

Perhaps we need to reframe the question and instead ask how we can work together to foster values of authenticity and hospitality in our church life. SCM’s new resource, Welcoming Students to Your Church is focused on that question and combines statistics about student life and belief, articles from researchers on the topics of spirituality and discipleship, case studies from churches and practical tips on student ministry.

The transition to university is a time of great change, leading to significant development in a young person’s life. According to Jenny Morgans, a Deacon at North Lambeth Parish and author of the article ‘Student faith: intentionality, identity and safety in a time of upheaval’, students are keen to re-create a sense of family as soon as possible – by meeting new people and making friends. Churches can play a significant role in this process, organising welcome meals, providing space for small groups, or running activities tailored for students.

Jenny’s research found that within this church context, the feeling of being part of a community often trumped the need to agree theologically with a particular teaching. Making friends is what mattered, with many students settling into the first or second church they attended because they found a solid friendship group. ‘Friendship with fellow sojourners contributed to a sense of belonging, helped Christian life feel more normal and acceptable, and helped to break down the debilitating effects of ‘imposter syndrome’ that almost every student will feel to some extent,’ Jenny says.

There is a flip side to this. Life at university can often feel like a bubble – and that feeling of insularity can apply as much to church life as it does to student life. This inward-looking focus can be damaging. Many of the students surveyed were not aware of the diversity of Christian belief and expression at university. This means they ‘do not realise that they have scope to make decisions about what is most important to their faith.’

To build common ground and form real, honest communities, we need to start engaging with each other outside our cosy bubbles. Could we – church leaders, mentors and fellow Christians of all stripes – work together to shine a light on the breadth of Christianity that exists in our towns and cities? Could we confront our differences and explore our disagreements? That might mean some students come and go, but ultimately we must recognise that we are part of one body. Only through honest conversations and encouraging questions can we begin to nurture people’s faith, especially during a time of great change.

The importance of diversity cannot also be understated. Diversity helps us realise what we have in common. It offers us opportunities to demonstrate love and care, learn from each other, and more fully understand what it is to be human. Sarah Derbyshire, a current student and attendee at All Hallows Church in Leeds, sums it up well: ‘I like how diverse All Hallows is. There are local people, not-so-local people, people who are doing well, those who are struggling, and members of the LGBT community. We care about each other, support each other, and pray together outside of church. It’s a very active and pastoral community.’

So what are some practical ways to build common ground and develop your student ministry? Here are a few suggestions:

Welcoming Students

1. Work out who is going to do the welcoming – it could be a student worker or volunteer.
2. Think about what you can offer to students – share existing opportunities or new activities.
3. Tell students about your church – create a section on your website just for students, letting them know about service times, your values, and ways to get involved.
4. Work with students to develop your ministry – give them leadership roles and nurture their gifts.
5. Run a ‘Sponsor a Student’ scheme – this usually involves a member of the congregation (e.g. a family) inviting a student for regular meals and a chance to catch up throughout the year.

Working with Others

1. Get in touch – start by meeting with other local church leaders.
2. Organise joint events that are easily accessible for students – for example, you could organise a joint monthly service based at the university chaplaincy.
3. Contact the chaplaincy – reach out to the university chaplain to see how churches in the area can support students. For example, you could ask different congregations to donate items to include in student welcome packs, to be distributed through the chaplaincy.

Find more tips, resources and ideas to build a vibrant student ministry – download SCM’s ‘Welcoming Students to Your Church’ guide for free from the SCM website, available from 22 May: https://www.movement.org.uk/resources/welcoming-students-your-church