Have I got a story to tell you! It happened on a Saturday afternoon in New Zealand, where the cost of public transport had persuaded me to navigate the city mainly on foot. I’d already walked over 15 km that day, and still had an hour’s journey left when I felt the first rain drops.
Island weather, the locals had warned me, was unpredictable. And temperamental. Soon, torrents of water were free falling from above, seeping through the collar of my saturated jacket and turning my shoes into squishy puddles personalized for either foot. No other pedestrians, apparently, felt compelled to join my waterlogged pilgrimage, so I sojourned in the rain alone.
“Do you need a ride?” a voice suddenly called from behind me, like sun rays piercing a dreary mist.
I turned to see a lady peering at me through the open door of a silver car.
“Actually, that’d be great!”
“Where are you heading?” she asked as I slid my sopping form into the left front seat. When I mentioned the road, her face brightened. “Oh, the ministry base!” she said. “I’m a Christian too. You’d be welcome to stay with me, if you like.”
Later I learned she’d felt God’s Spirit prompting her to offer me a ride when she first passed me on the road. So, she’d pulled over into a side street and had been waiting for me. She ended up welcoming me into her home for two days, even inviting me to prayer meetings and a church service at a local Marae, an indigenous meeting house!
While staying in this surprise new home base, I contacted two campus ministry leaders to ask them for interviews. One leader, a lady who serves as regional director for a country-wide network of student ministry groups, visited with me over the phone. The other, a man whom I’d heard adopted an especially involved approach to student ministry, agreed to answer my questions via email.
Telephone Interview Summary:
Because young Christians who move away from home will face different challenges than those who live with their parents, students leaving home should connect to a church and Christian campus community in their university town as soon as possible. The ministry director, therefore, advises highschool graduates to start looking for a church with solid Biblical teaching in their university town well before leaving home. She also encourages highschoolers to seriously think about how the Gospel affects every area of their lives from friendships to career considerations to time management skills, so that they can start shaping Godly habits before arriving at university. Therefore, the campus ministry director urges churches to help students secure a deep understanding of what the Gospel is, of how to apply it to their daily lives, and of how to really read the Bible for themselves. When I asked how the church can bring older and younger people together to achieve this, she emphasized the need for initiative on both sides, with older adults and students actively seeking involvement with each other.
“There’s a difference between regions in New Zealand,” she began, “in the challenges that students face. Students from this region tend to stay at home during university, so often live with Christian parents and go to the church where they grew up. But the top challenge for students from other places is deciding whether they are going to continue pursuing Christianity after leaving home.”
She relayed the story of one student, who said that many of the Christians in her dormitory had checked out a few churches but, not having found a place to settle, didn’t end up going to any church at all.
“I think that’s quite a common thing for people who move from elsewhere,” she said, “If you don’t find a church in the first couple months, it’s difficult to start making that sort of fellowship a priority later.”
Certainly, this fit perfectly with what Christian student housing managers I’d interviewed earlier in New Zealand had said. It also matched recent findings from the Canadian study I’ve cited earlier, showing that most students who attended church during university connected with that church within the first month after leaving home.
“There are also particular questions that come up at this stage of life,” she continued. “Students have to think about whether they really agree with their parents’ beliefs, or with those of friends and relatives who bring different perspectives which the students haven’t heard before. Meanwhile, students are also sorting out their own career paths and life decisions. So, it’s really important that students are able to join a church community or student group where it’s okay to ask questions and think these things through. If they don’t find good Christian input during this process, I think that ends up becoming quite a way for students to lose their faith.”
“So, what would you advise students to do?” I asked.
“I’ve got 10 million pieces of advice,” she laughed, “but my first advice would be to start looking at available churches well before you start university. Look up their websites, listen to sermons, ask perspectives of people in your family that you trust. The sooner you can commit to a particular church, the better it’s going to go. Going church shopping two or three months can lead to looking for a perfect church, which you’ll never find. So, maybe narrow it down to two before going, and commit within a month. Tell yourself, ‘It’s not going to be perfect, but I’m still going to commit to this church because it’ll give me good Bible teaching.”
Again, I realized, this exactly matched themes I’d been hearing from talking with Christian students in Canada, Christian hostel managers in New Zealand, and a former professor in Australia. It also reinforces the passage in Hebrew which I’ve cited in earlier posts:
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25, NIV)
But the ministry director wasn’t finished.
“I’d also tell students,” she said, “to really think through, before coming to university, how the gospel should impact every area of their lives. Time and friendships are huge areas to start forming those habits in. For example, start thinking now, ‘what does it mean to glorify God with use of my time?’ to form good time management habits before you begin university. Also, ask, ‘What does it mean to live out the gospel in terms of my friendships?’ This might include loving and caring for people, sharing the gospel with others, and finding people you can really trust and depend on to help you in your walk with God.”
“Good words,” I affirmed, noticing that developing these habits before starting university represented an example of spiritual foundation-building. “How do you think churches can support students through this process?”
“I think the key thing,” she answered, “is to teach the Bible. It’s kind of simple, but the best way we can be preparing students is if we’re teaching them the Bible well so that they go into university with a deep understanding of:
- The gospel—and not just as a ticket to heaven!
- The way the Bible impacts how we live our lives now
- How to read and understand the bible for themselves, without just relying on the pastor to explain everything.”
Yes! Spiritual foundations which will sustain students in university are built not from a weekly dose of watered-down theology, but from the steady application of concrete-solid Scripture.
“Teach the bible and how the gospel should be lived out and how it impacts the rest of lives,” she exhorted. “I see that as lacking in some churched students’ upbringings. They don’t really know what the bible says, how to open it up and see what it’s saying, or how to link the gospel to daily living—for instance, having a conviction around evangelism and living for God in everything they do, and everything they study.”
This, she explained, doesn’t just mean teaching high school students about how to be active Christians in university, but also teaching university students how to be active Christians in their later careers. For example, students can ask, ‘What the gospel says about engineering,’ ‘What does it mean to be a Christian nurse?’ or ‘What does it mean live out my calling as a statistician?’ Part of what we’re doing as a campus ministry, then, is preparing students for the next stage of life. So, in the last stage of university, we do a workshop to help students think through what they’ll face after shifting from student life to the working world—things like working relationships, money management, friendship sustainment.”
“So how do you think churches can teach these things to students in a more multi-generational way,” I asked, explaining the emphasis I’d heard in earlier conversations about the importance of connections between students and older church members. “So often in churches, a gap arises between older and younger Christians.”
“It’s a good question,” she answered. “Older people need to take initiative to invite younger people to their homes to meals or coffee. Younger people also need to take the initiative to ask older people, ‘do you mind meeting up with me to study the bible together, because you’ve got a lot to share?’ So, there needs to be initiative on both sides. Church leaders also need to show that this is possible to do: it doesn’t need to be big, just opening up bible with a student, talking about it, and discussing the different discipleship issues that will naturally arise.”
“Awesome,” I said, thinking back to a conversation with a Canadian student who had faced hostility in a social science class. At that time, she said, she wished she had been part of a church family with whom she could have debriefed about the class over dinner or coffee.
This topic of how churches can support Christian students is also something I brought up, via email, with the second campus minster. His especially intentional approach to campus ministry, I’d heard, involved strategically backing his investments in students with findings from research on New Zealand’s spiritual climate. So, when he agreed to send his insights via email, I couldn’t wait to see what he said.
Upon clicking on his letter which later appeared in my inbox, I found the following list of suggestions for how Christian leaders can equip students for university:
- Teach students the importance of their faith, what their basic purpose in life as a Christian, and what is Gods plan for us as Christians.
- Teach students how to handle information to contradicts with what they believe.
- Teach, encourage, and model to students how to share their faith.
- Keep them accountable for taking growth steps in their faith.
- Give them an eternal perspective on how God uses us, as Christians, where we are.
- Encourage them to join a fellowship on campus and be actively involved in it.
Interesting, I thought, closing my laptop. Even though countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand may literally be oceans apart, I realized, the challenges which Christian students face—and the themes which arise in conversations about how students can overcome those challenges—are much the same.
But, I wondered, wrestling my belongings back into my massive green backpack, will these similarities extend to non-Western countries as well? I could only imagine the answer. But as I waved goodbye to the kindly stranger who had lodged me, boarded another plane and left New Zealand’s cities twinkling in the ocean behind me, I knew I was about to find out.