Effectively transitioning students from youth ministry to college ministry can be a difficult but rewarding task when handled well and with love. Students, at least most of them, for the first time in their lives will have freedom – freedom to create their own schedules, hang out with their own friend group, and even choose to go to or skip class. These freedoms create more choices. Therefore, students must already be prepared to make the best decision. This makes parents and student ministers pivotal in teenagers’ lives leading up to this transition. It is in the years leading up to that transitional moment that we must have discipled these students well to make this transition – a transition that, if handled well, sets these students up for success – or a transition that, if handled poorly, can make for a rough several years of life.
Based on several conversations with students and church leaders, I have developed some strategies in making a successful transition into college. I must say these conversations have been very insightful and intriguing to me. Here are a few of the highlights.* I pray the following ideas will help guide students, parents and student ministers.
1. Know the Why
The single most important thing we can do to prepare any person for a time of transition is to make sure they know why they believe what they believe. Anyone in transition, especially those students leaving our student ministries, must know that they have a relationship with Jesus Christ and a firm foundation. I remember the first college class I ever walked into and the nervousness I felt in that moment. We have all found ourselves in the places where we are the new person in the room. The room engulfs us and no matter if there is one person or a thousand people in the room, uncomfortableness sets in. The ice breaker games are played, and the interesting facts are shared, but the whole time we are thinking, “Please don’t ask me a question because I am not sure I can answer it.” However, if we know the “why” in these moments, though we may babble through it, we will still be able to give some clear answers. This potentially uncomfortable moment is exactly what we must prepare our students for. We must give them a solid foundation in the Bible. We must help them answer the “why” behind their beliefs when they are in these uncomfortable moments. College students will be confronted by many different challenges, but a challenge to their faith in Jesus Christ should not cause them to blink an eye in the moment. Students will find it easy to share when they are prepared, but in those moments of nerves and lunch table discussions, they will truly know the reason behind what they believe. As student ministers, we need to have tough conversations with them and disciple them well enough so they can face the stress and anxiety of the new dorm, new schedules, new professors with different personalities and beliefs, and new friends who don’t believe in Christ while standing firm and knowing the “why.”
2. Plug into a Local Church
Too often in churches, we allow our student ministries to be stand-alone ministries housed under the local church umbrella. This leads to a lot of students walking away from the churches when they transition from student ministry to the next stage of life. I am guilty of it in my own ministry. Unfortunately, we get students to church on Wednesday night, then we don’t see them again until the next Wednesday unless we plan a student ministry trip or event on the weekend. While they are in high school, we must teach them to plug in at the local church and then continue that involvement at a local church in their college town. We student ministers understand the importance of the local church, but are we relaying that to the next generation? We must encourage them to quickly find that local body of believers where the Gospel is being preached and get involved. This will not only help them in their walk with Jesus, but it will also give them some community contacts to help guide them in this time of transition. When talking about preparing for college, State Missionary Matt Daniels – Baptist Campus Minister at the University of North Alabama – said, “Encourage the parents to come multiple weekends with their students and stay for the entire weekend and go to church in a few different churches to help get their students plugged in. Don’t just check out the campus and the living conditions, but check out churches as well.”
3. Prepare Them for the Mission Field
Students who are transitioning from high school to college are leaving all that they have known for most of their life and entering a world, where, for the first time for many, they will encounter the true lostness of the world. As I type this from a rural Alabama community, I see it yearly. Students’ first conversations with me are, “Zane, we were prepared to share our faith, we knew what we believed, but we were not prepared for the lostness that we would encounter.” The only answer I have for this is to tell them they are called to do mission work for the Kingdom of God on the campus where they are. They must build intentional relationships with people from a plethora of religious backgrounds and even those with no religious background. They need to know they are going to encounter people who don’t believe what they believe, and for some of them, this encounter will be the first time in their life that they truly share a space with someone who knows little to nothing about Jesus Christ. However, the beauty of going to college is it brings the world to you. These students must be prepared to literally go be missionaries while they train to serve in the profession God has called them to.
4. Teach Them to Listen Well
I have had several conversations with my own students, and they all said, “We know what we believe and we know why we believe it, but we don’t feel as though we are educated enough in other beliefs to have conversations with them.” My initial thought was maybe I have failed the students by not teaching more about world religions. But that is not my responsibility. So again, in conversation with Matt Daniels, he stated, “Students need to be trained to listen with intentionality.” We don’t have to teach our students about world religions as much as we need to disciple them to listen with purpose. To help our students transition well, they need to be able to listen well and ask questions that have a purpose and meaning behind them. I can’t tell you exactly how this is going to work out, but I am going to use a few small group sessions working on training students to listen well and ask questions that lead to Jesus Christ. Surely, I am not the only one sending students out that feel like this is the one area in which they lack preparedness. So, I believe we, as student ministers, would do well in helping our students to transition by training them to listen well.
Transitions are challenging, but they should not be dreaded. I hope that some of these highlights from my research will help. I can say that writing this blog post has helped me see some strengths and weaknesses within the student ministry I have been entrusted with. Statistics show that large percentages of students who profess to be Christian walk away from the church and the faith during their college years. So, we as student ministers play a vital role in making sure they are prepared for this transition. While we are not responsible for their Christian walk, we have been called to disciple them in a manner that will prepare them to face the challenges of the transition from high school to college.
* Sidenote from my findings: I encourage you to call and check in with your former students from time to time. It has been encouraging to hear from them and how things from our ministry are still impacting their lives. I also think it brought a little encouragement to the students to know that they are still being prayed for and thought about even after leaving the student ministry.
Zane Miles serves as the student pastor at First Baptist Church, Guin.