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Connecting to College Students through Conversations

I serve my church as the head of a team that partners with parents to develop and encourage faith in eighteen-year-olds. I love it! Faith development has been my passion for twenty-four years. Over the last decade, I and others who serve in our church have expressed the desire to reach beyond the eighteen-year-old boundary and intentionally walk with students into their after-high-school years.

This post is the first in a three-part series about ministry to those who are walking with Jesus in their post-high-school and pre-family-of-their-own years.

The Need for Relational Connection

Our church has been looking pointedly at the trends in regular church attendance, youth program attendance, and family and youth engagement in our local church community. The things we see at our church are likely similar to what you might be experiencing: “regular” attendance often means about once a month, youth group participation is often not an indication of youth connection, and students seem to connect via relationships rather than programs.

While you might be unsurprised by these “findings,” take a moment to think about what the families and students at your church experience in your church community.

When we looked more closely, we realized that even while we knew the trends, we remained quite focused on programs. When new people visited us, for example, we relied on a new-members event and class to somehow bring them into the community. We rarely created environments for those new to our community to make friends. We often forgot that we used terms that are local and specific to our church. We neglected a thoughtful follow-up approach. 

Intentional Spaces

This summer, however, we made a change. Our small-groups coordinator (a volunteer position) redesigned the patio where many people gather to chat and have a cup of coffee after our services. The new layout was met with mixed reviews at first, but in the weeks that followed, we all began to notice changes to the flow and atmosphere of the patio. The redesign did not cost any money. It utilized all of the same elements (except that it did omit one sacred cow piece of furniture built by a charter member in 1955). The changed layout opened up many points for gathering and creating conversation. As a result, people stand or sit in conversation with dear friends and new people alike. It is so interesting how that one element has created such relational equity. 

I mention the patio layout because a bonus to the redesign is that our local post-high-school students are now also gathering with one another, other adults, and previous teachers or youth volunteers after church to catch up and make plans together. I was asked by a handful of college students to host a monthly event, and that group has grown from six to thirteen people over the summer. 

As our church was looking for ways to connect with high school students and post-high-school students, God worked a special blessing in the form of patio conversations caused by a small but significant change to the environment. How might a similar, thoughtful redesign allow for better interactions between those in your church? How can you work to leverage a simple layout design toward encouraging community and faith growth in those you serve? I would love to hear your ideas and experiences! I am convinced more than ever, after looking at the research, that it is relationships rather than programs that will influence and encourage faith growth and development in hearts and minds. 

Next time, we will explore collaboration between churches and the schools where our college students attend as we minister to them during their college years!


Looking for practical advice to help prepare for the changes that college brings?

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Written by

Shelli Haynes

Shelli serves as assistant Youth and Family minister at Red Hill Lutheran in Tustin, California. She has been a DCE in Southern California churches for 21 years! Shelli holds a BA from Concordia University in Irvine and a MA in Family Ministry from Concordia University in Seward. Shelli is wife to Travis and mama to two daughters, Megan and Mandy. She and her family love the beach, backyard badminton, and Giants baseball.

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