“This is great,” I told the couple sitting with me at the table. After days of living on backpacking food, this lasagne dinner at the Christian student hostel in New Zealand was the first real feast I’d enjoyed for awhile. But it wasn’t just the food that impressed me. The whole setup, with about forty Christian students living in this housing centre managed by two Christian couples, had piqued my interest from the start.
Until I spotted the hostel website while researching local Christian student groups, I hadn’t even known that such places existed. So, when the managers welcomed me to come visit over dinner, talk with the students, and learn about this practical ministry to Christian freshman, my heart shot through the roof. I had a lot of questions for the managers, more than I could include when I documented part of our visit in my last post.
Far more than just a place for students to stash their textbooks, the hostel is a community where Christian students find physical, mental and spiritual support during the transition from being at home to living independently. Here, first-year students can learn basics like how to cook, do laundry, and eventually rent a flat, while maintaining personal foundations through ongoing worship meetings, devotionals, mental health workshops, and fellowship with both Christian peers and caring older adults.
Among the many advantages which the hostel environment affords students, these are just a few:
- Encouragement from being around others who are successfully navigating, or have navigated, secular university as Christians.
- A safe, supportive space for students to process and develop their mature identity after leaving home.
- Ongoing connection with older Christians, which is especially vital because locally-active cults strategically recruit lonely students.
Additionally, the hostel managers invest special attention into making sure that every student becomes securely connected with a home church. This is especially important–as both the managers’ stories and recent research1 confirm–because students who don’t connect with a church soon after leaving home are at greater risk of stopping church attendance altogether. Therefore, the hostel managers advise that students to start seeking a new church before leaving home, and that pastors actively assist students to connect with a church in their new city.
“Can you tell me a little more about how this place works?” I asked the kindly middle-aged couple as we lingered at the table after dinner.
“The aim of the hostel,” the wife began, “is to assist students in transition from living at home to flatting.”
Flatting, translated my inward Kiwi-Canadian dictionary: 1. (verb) the process of living in a rented apartment or single-level housing unit.
“We support students in all spheres,” she continued, “physically, mentally and spiritually. When students first come, we take them all through how through how to do laundry, how to use the oven and dishwasher— catching the basics. We did some cooking lessons too, for those who were interested. We also have past students come in and talk to the new students about how to rent a flat, and what the legality is. So, if they’ve never rented anything, they can learn how to go about doing that. So those are some of the practical things that we do.”
Seriously! I hadn’t realized that student ministry could be so holistic.
“Physical and mental support is ongoing,” she added. “We have weekly meetings with worship, student testimonies, or devotionals from guest speakers. We also try to include teaching about looking after yourself physically and mentally, and we have quite a bit of work on what good mental health looks like. Tied in with that is the spiritual side of supporting students. As part of preparing them for the university transition, we want to help them find a church family. For the first few Sundays at the start of each year, we all go as a group to some of the local churches here. We introduce the students to people in the church, help them make connections, churches, and ensure that everyone who wants to go to church has found a place they’re comfortable with.”
That’s awesome,” I affirmed. Everywhere I’d gone, students, campus ministers and even a former professor had stressed the cruciality of integrating into a home church as Christian at secular university, but here were people personally, actively helping to make that happen.
But there was more!
“At the beginning of the year,” she said, “we also have an evening where pastors from different churches come and introduce what their church does. I think, from raising our own children, that the first year away from home out of high school is the first time you’re really ‘on your own,’ making decisions about what you do minute by minute. So, we’re there to provide support, while allowing them to make decisions.”
“So, this is way more involved than I thought!” I exclaimed.
She smiled. “We’re very careful to select people who do want to come into this environment. It’s not just about housing and food: we see this as a family, as a community. Some students will see us as parents, but it’s a very pastoral role as mentors and people they can go to. But it’s transitional. They’re only with us for nine months.”
“Are there other hostels like this here?”
“There are a few Christian hostels in this country,” replied the husband, “but we’re possibly a little unique in the way we go about things, as a transition place. It started 60 years ago as a stopover house for missionaries but has been operating for students for about 55 of those years.”
“There are so many advantages to a place like this,” said his wife. “Students see that there are other Christians living out their faith at university, which encourages them to step out in their faith as well. Another thing we do is hold events with past hostelers, so other students can meet people who have gone through the same thing and kept their faith.”
I nodded, noting that this represented another example of how valuable connections between students and older Christian community members can be. Even if those community members are new graduates themselves, they have something significant to offer new students.
“This is important,” she continued, “because there are a lot of reasons why young person moving away from their faith during the first year of university. They move away from home, from their church, and come up against a lot of ideology that may be foreign to them, but which is expressed as truth. Universities here are very liberal, and extremely politically correct. A Christian is at the bottom of the heap, and it’s hard to be that one dissenting voice, and to stand up for what you believe.”
I nodded, recalling the many times I felt alone in my own secular classrooms.
“It’s quite common in New Zealand for Christians to go to a Christian school,” she said, “while being naïve about other ideas. When they are challenged, they don’t actually understand their faith. Meanwhile, when they’re with their parents, their school, sports clubs and friendships are constants in their life, part of their identity. But when they move away, all of that disappears. Then, students can feel like they must reconstruct who they are and who they want to be. Part of our role is to help them discover that in a safe environment.”
“Sounds good,” I replied. “So what advice would you give to a student like that, who’s moving away from home for the first time?”
“Come here!” she joked. “Honestly, though, I’d tell that student, ‘Connect with a church. Before you leave, research a church you can go to as soon as you move. If you procrastinate and delay, you may never go.”
Confirming this, I later learned about a recent Canadian study which found that 78% of students who joined a church in their new university town made that connection within the first month after leaving home. 1
Both the sending church, in the student’s hometown, and the receiving church in the university town should play an active role in this process, explained the hostel manager.
“If I were in small town New Zealand,” she said, “and I knew that a student was going to the city, then—knowing what I know now—I would get alongside them and ask, ‘Where are you going to live? Have you found a church?’ And I’d help them with that. So, sending churches should be more involved and proactive with students. After all, small town churches know that when the kids finish high school, they’re going to leave home. But we can’t just let students go; we have to help them go.”
The Canadian study’s results supported this, showing that students in transition from home to university are three times more likely to attend church in their new city if someone from their “sending church” had helped connect them with the “receiving church.”
“What else would you tell pastors?” I wanted to know.
“I would say, be certain that when the children are young, that they know what the Bible’s about. Students should also understand that their identity is not in what they do, what their parents do, or who their friends are. It’s in what Christ has done for them and who He says they are. A lot of students don’t know that, and when everything is really shaky around them, they have nothing to hold on to.”
My keyboard clattered furiously under my fingers as I made notes, not wanting to miss a beat.
“I think a real lack in churches at the moment, especially when dealing with young people,” she continued, “is teaching them how to—more than defend their faith—be able to take issues that Christianity has a particular view on and be able to defend that. Some Christians would say that we don’t agree with something, but why not? How do you engage in an argument like that, discuss well, and express your point of view with love and grace? There can be such fiery debates, and young people aren’t the only ones that face these issues. The whole church has to have this discussion.”
Certainly, this agreed with what students in Canada and Australia had told me about the challenges they faced when engaging with their peers.
“Speaking of the whole church,” I said, “I’m also interested in your thoughts about ways students build connections between older Christians in the church. How do you think we can bridge the intergenerational gap in churches?”
“First,” explained the managers, “there’s the top-down approach. Pastors and church leadership have to talk about this issue. Then there’s the bottom-up approach: individuals in the church have to make an effort to connect with each other, even when they don’t think it’s successful. Because sometimes the other person’s not in the space to talk to a person at that particular moment.”
“I think there’s a mentality in churches,” said one, “that once you get to 60 or 70, it’s easy to think ‘I’ve done my bit. I’ve done Sunday school and cleaning and now I can relax; I’m the one that’s waited on.’ I think we really need to change that because a Christian never retires. You’ve always got something that’s worth giving. It might not be physical stuff any more but you can still talk and you can still connect.”
But more than just speculating about what should be done, this couple wanted to take steps to do it.
“We are thinking of being more intentional next year,” they said, “that before we go to churches at the start of the year, we’ll ask whether there half a dozen people in that church who would like to entertain a few students in their homes after the program. This is another opportunity to provide a connection and understanding on both sides.”
YES! My soul cartwheeled at the words, but fell somber when the managers warned what sometimes happened when students miss those intergenerational connections.
“Young people want to be connected,” they said, “and if the church is not going to connect them with more mature figures, some other organization will. We have cults activating quite strongly around New Zealand. They’re huge organizations, with tens of thousands of people worldwide.”
Here, the husband walked to a nearby bulletin board, removed a pamphlet which warned about one such cult, and handed it to me.
“There are some terrible stories of people that have been brainwashed by these organizations,” he said, “and end up leaving their families and losing their money. I think these groups target campuses because students can feel very isolated and alone.”
I turned the pamphlet over in my hands, a heaviness clutching my heart. Suddenly, campuses seemed a lot more like spiritual chessboards. What should be the church’s next moves?
“I think that churches need to be willing to step out and connect with students,” summarized the managers when I asked if they had any final thoughts. “Doing so on an individual level is a great ministry for older people, who can step in, find out a student’s name, check what exams he or she has coming up, and ask how they can pray for the student that week. Church communities should also understand that the whole first year exams can be exceptionally stressful, and that the struggles surrounding mental health issues need a huge amount of prayer. We should pray for a covering for students.”
Nodding wholeheartedly, I closed the laptop that now held over 2000 words worth of insights from this discussion, which I believed to be invaluable.
“I wish there were more places like this in Canada,” I remarked.
The woman smiled. “We’d be happy to come over and help let people know how to set one up!”
- Hiemstra, R., Dueck, L., and Blackaby, M. (2018) Renegotiating faith: The delay in young adult identify formation and what it means for the Church in Canada. p133 Full report available at https://p2c.com/wp-content/themes/avada-corp/files/Renegotiating-Faith-Report.pdf.
- Ibid p. 143
- Resources suggested by the hostel managers for Christian identity formation: http://www.ficm.org.uk/disciple (aimed at 18-30-year-olds)