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Want to reach college students? Build connection points that last.

First Baptist Statesboro, Ga., College Pastor Drew Felts leads a Bible study. Photo courtesy of Drew Felts

MONROE, La. (BP) – Chris Craighead, Jr., has been in college ministry for 12 years. But in that relatively short period of time he’s seen a shift in how students see the Church.

More to the point, there’s a difference in how much they trust it.

“Students are leery of the Church,” said Craighead, college pastor at North Monroe Baptist Church. The reasons for that, he added, include self-inflicted wounds such as what has come to light with regard to sexual abuse.

But there is also a general mistrust among Generation Z of institutions, including higher education and organized religion. For someone like Craighead, who works within both of those circles, the needs have become apparent.

Chris Craighead, Jr., college pastor for North Monroe Baptist Church, cooks hot dogs and burgers at a tailgate this spring at a ULM tennis match. Photo courtesy of Chris Craighead

“They want to know what churches are offering that the world doesn’t,” he said. “They’re trying to figure things out and want to see the Church being intentional before they get involved.”

That comes through sharing the Gospel and creating opportunities for discipleship. But it also has to include connection points that don’t happen just once.

North Monroe’s college ministry has worship and Life Groups (Sunday School) that meet on Sundays. Community groups, which are peer-led Bible studies, gather throughout the week alongside a midweek worship service at the church that includes a free dinner.

Craighead’s time out of his church office, though, is where he observes significant progress.

It takes place mostly at the HUB, where University of Louisiana at Monroe students choose from on-campus dining options. It’s not uncommon for Craighead to go there with his laptop to get some work done. He’ll find a booth and send out a text to the ministry’s group chat, sharing where he is if anyone wants to drop by to talk.

“Just by being on campus, I’ve seen a lot of students walk up and say they needed to talk to somebody,” Craighead said.

Making those connection points away from church can lead to connections in the church.

Statesboro, Ga., is the home of Georgia Southern University. Students from there make up the majority of those in the college ministry of First Baptist Church, just as ULM students dominate the one at North Monroe Baptist.

But there are also students attending nearby community colleges – Ogeechee Technical College near Statesboro and Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe. Craighead and Drew Felts, college pastor at First Statesboro, also want to reach those who are college-age but have entered the workforce full-time.

Regardless of their category, one factor remains constant.

“We have limited time with them and want to equip them to be disciples of Jesus,” Felts said. “We want to teach them how to make other disciples, how to serve in the local church and how the local church is important to their spiritual health.”

College provides a time away from home for most. With that comes the opportunity to find out the level of ownership a student has on his or her faith.

“Mom and dad aren’t there to get you out of bed,” Felts said. “Your faith isn’t something you can just do halfway or fake. You have to put effort into it or it’s going to dwindle.”

North Monroe and First Baptist are larger than the average Southern Baptist church, but the precepts for reaching college students apply, regardless of size.

Be welcoming, but after that remain available both spiritually and professionally. College students are starved for relationships with older adults who model living out one’s faith and vocation.

“Churches think you need something big and flashy, and that’s just not true,” said Felts. “It’s very simple to reach college students. You just have to be willing to go where they are.

“This generation has been marketed to so much that they are tuned into whether someone is genuine or not. They can tell very quickly if someone cares about them.”

That doesn’t mean the occasional event geared toward college students is out of line. First Baptist, like other churches during the first week students returned to classes, held a college emphasis Sunday. North Monroe created three pickleball courts in its multi-purpose room so players – the overwhelming majority of which returned for worship the next night – could escape the Louisiana summer heat.

Then there are the events that show groups who may slip under the radar that you care. In the spring, North Monroe’s college ministry hosted a tailgate cookout … at a ULM tennis match.

“None of the players were involved in the ministry, but they’re away from their families and we wanted to support them,” Craighead said.