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Keep in touch

Karen Marlow (right) knitted the large prayer shawl that Catherine Allen received a few weeks after enrolling at Appalachian State University. The shawl features Allen’s school colors. Both are members of Bon Air United Methodist Church.
Karen Marlow (right) knitted the large prayer shawl that Catherine Allen received a few weeks after enrolling at Appalachian State University. The shawl features Allen's school colors. Both are members of Bon Air United Methodist Church.

For decades, young people's church attendance followed a pattern: They grow up in the church, then they fall away while in college, but return as adults when they have families.

As young people are delaying having families, sometimes well into their 30s, there's no guarantee that if they've gone eight or 10 years without church involvement, they're coming back once they have children.

That's why it is vital for home churches to stay in touch with their college students, and for churches in college towns to connect with students.

The Rev. Lauren Lobenhofer provided the most unique idea when Interpreter used Facebook and LinkedIn to ask how churches stay connected. The congregation sends "our first-year students prayer shawls in their school colors during the first month," wrote the associate pastor at Bon Air United Methodist Church in North Chesterfield, Va.

Bon Air Church also uses the most popular way—the care package.

Tony Hess of Malden, W. Va., said, "I remember when I went away to college, the church I attended in high school and another local church sent us care packages at the beginning of the semester and before finals—snacks, popcorn, school supplies, Scriptures and verses to feed our spiritual needs. I remember feeling very thankful and happy that they took the time to put these boxes together and send them to us."

Finals season is the most popular time for care packages, but some churches also send them around Valentine's Day.

Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Roanoke, Va., hosts a lunch for students on the Sunday after Christmas. Eastern Parkway United Methodist Church in Schenectady, N.Y., has a Christmas breakfast and hosts Student Sunday in June. Another congregation gathers its students for fellowship and a short rehearsal before they sing in the Christmas Eve service.

The Rev. Joe Hansen, pastor of Mayfield (Ky.) United Methodist Church, said prayer partners "pray for, and hopefully, keep in some contact with the students." Other congregations also ask the prayer partners to send care packages or other gifts—sometimes anonymously.

While the best way to reach young people is probably through their stomach, their phone has to be a close second. Many churches routinely text their students and set up Facebook groups. They also forward the names and contact information of their students to the campus minister or Wesley Foundation director at the college each student will attend. The Rev. Roger Wolsey, Wesley Fellowship director at the University of Colorado in Boulder, encourages that.

Not all young people go to college reminds the Rev. Karen Bruins of Rosemount (Minn.) United Methodist Church. A care-ministry team at her church sends cards a couple of times a year to students and to all their military personnel and working young adults who are 18 to 21.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry offers tips for churches that students may attend in their college town:

  • Meet and speak to students when they come to church. Invite them to sit with you during worship.
  • Treat a student to lunch and a longer visit after worship.
  • Make a personal phone call during the week to answer any questions the student may have about your congregation.
  • Take a student for coffee during the week following their visit.
  • Offer to drive students to worship.
  • Include students on your newsletter mailing list.
  • Offer Sunday school classes on topics of interest to young adults.
  • Organize a fellowship activity.
  • Include students in worship leadership (reading Scripture, ushering, serving Communion).
  • Adopt a student for a year, inviting them to meals and calling to stay in touch.
  • Include students in your family's holiday activities.
  • Post a flier describing your church in the student union on campus. Include worship times and a map to your church.

Joey Butler is editor of young adult content at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

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