I recently listened to an interview with Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is an attorney and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. He has done an incredible amount of good in a deeply broken system. In the interview, he shared about the influence of his grandmother on his life. He told about a time when she took him aside and told him that he was special and had amazing potential. This stuck with Bryan and shaped his identity. Years later he found out that she said the same thing to all her grandchildren, but it didn’t impact the power of her words on him.

I have come to realize that there is great power in the stories we believe – especially those we feel are given to us by others. There is even greater power when a story becomes a cultural narrative, one in which certain assumptions are taken as givens. I believe this has become the case with many Christian churches in America regarding youth, college students, and young adults. The story goes something like this: We want you to attend church and grow in your faith as children and youth. But once you graduate high school we assume you won’t have anything to do with church for a while. You will do a lot of exploring. We hope at some point you will “settle down” and return to church.

Of course I have never heard this expressly said in a church. But I have been in churches where there are incredible facilities for children and youth – where no expense is spared – but there is no place for college students. I also know students who felt no preparation to transition from high school to college and beyond regarding their faith. Many aren’t sure what to do with church after high school, but they feel that the church has told them by assuming they won’t show up anyway. So more and more students believe the story that they are given about being actively connected with a church in the college years and after.

What strikes me so much about this story is its similarity to the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. Most of us who look at this story condemn the son who leaves home and engages in wastefulness and debauchery. We celebrate the son who stays and is faithful. Yet, the father’s words underline the reality of a place that is always welcoming and loving. We have much work to do to create places where all people, at every age and situation, are welcome. Here are a few ideas to change our story when it comes to college students:

– Start sowing the seeds of belonging early with college students. When they are still in middle school, connect them with mentors who commit to shepherding them through their college years.

– Tell college students that there is a place and group for them, and make sure to show them where this place and group is.

– Place less emphasis on graduating from high school (which for many can be synonymous with graduating from church) and more emphasis on accomplishments and transitions throughout life.

– When youth are in middle school, take them to visit a campus ministry and share expectations that they will belong to one when they are students.

– Take half an hour and e-mail the campus ministers or pastors of churches where your students are headed to college.

I would love to hear your ideas of how your faith community has changed its story regarding college students and young adults. Feel free to comment on this post or e-mail me at belmontwesleyfellowship@gmail.com