Howdy Week (that is what Texas A&M calls their welcome week) is in the rearview mirror. If you are anything like me, you are still trying to catch your breath and find your rhythm for the semester. You have connected with hundreds of students, invited them to your events, followed up with personalized texts and done everything you can to connect with them. Is that enough?
I don’t think this is news to you: Students want a place to belong. Check out this thought from the Dean of Religious Life at USC—“I never got the question in my first five years at USC that I now get almost daily from students: ‘How do I make friends?’ Students may have thousands of friends online, but few in real life; they may be experts at talking with their thumbs, but not so much with their tongues. As a result, many feel as though they don’t have a tribe or a sense of belonging. They feel disconnected from what it means to be human.”
What an indictment. Lacking a sense of belonging is disconnecting students from what it means to be human. Sure, students might be attracted to flashy, fun, innovative ministry. But those things will only get them in the door; they won’t keep students there. It won’t give them a true sense of belonging. So, what do we do?
I have asked this question a lot. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to do what everyone else does. John James wrote about it last semester. He said, “If we are not careful, we can hear about what other ministries are doing and decide to ‘copy and paste’ their habits and activities into our own ministry.” It is so tempting. But it leaves your ministry with no identity and no reason for students to stay.
I want to touch on three things we need to consider in the search for belonging.
MEET A NEED
We are selfish. OK, don’t take it personally. I am selfish. There. Is that better? Part of the human experience is constantly asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” It’s just how we are wired. I feel confident in saying it is true of most students walking through our doors. They want to know what is in it for them.
This isn’t a new idea. Even at the inception of the early church we see this play out. Check out Acts 2. The Holy Spirit shows up. Peter preaches a fire sermon. People start paying attention. But then what happens?
Acts 2:44-47 says, “And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.”
They showed up because of what was happening in the street. But they stuck around because of what was happening in the home. Needs were being met and God was adding to their numbers daily. The most important need in the life of a student is the status of their soul. But they may not realize it yet. How can we meet them where they are and engage them in a way that opens their eyes to their need for a Savior?
PROVIDE A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP
It is like the smell of a new car or the first time you walk into your new home. You just want to be there. You come up with reasons to engage with that thing. You rearrange your schedule just to be present because it is yours.
How can we tap into this innate desire? How can we connect in meaningful ways with students as they pass through our doors? I think it starts with providing a place to belong and challenging students to take steps toward ownership.
In our college ministry we constantly challenge students to “water the grass.” When you are renting a duplex in college, you don’t care about the lawn. You do just enough so you don’t get fined. Renting is temporary. Renting is a short-term commitment.
But when you own a home, everything changes. Owners are in it for the long haul. A healthy yard keeps out the weeds. Well-watered soil is good for the foundation.
How can we help students shift their mentality from renter to owner? To own their emotions? To own their faith? To own the ministry? I don’t have all the answers (actually I don’t have very many answers at all. Why did Mitch ask me to write this?!). But here is something I believe deep in my soul. A student won’t ever take ownership of something we aren’t willing to give them keys to.
When we meet a need, students know we care. When we offer opportunities for ownership, we help students see the bigger picture and think long-term. Now you have their attention. Challenge movement. Call them to places they never dreamed they could go.
Ephesians 4:16 says, “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
The local church needs students to do their own special work. The world needs students to do their own special work. It isn’t always fun to be challenged. But it is always worth it. What are you doing this semester to challenge movement in your students? To see them step into their own special work? When we can send students out to engage in the mission of the gospel, then we know we are headed in the right direction. Welcome Week may be behind us, but the work is just getting started.