You Found Me: Reaching College Students on Their Level
You Found Me: Reaching College Students on Their Level

By Greg Swinney and Beth Swinney

He was scrolling down his Facebook page on a computer in the university library when I nudged him and asked if I could bother him for a few minutes. Tom looked over and immediately stopped what he was doing and said, “Sure, what’s up?” I knew I could count on Tom, a prelaw student, to level with me.

“What are college kids looking for these days in a church?” I asked. “I’m scratching my head to figure that one out.”

Tom didn’t flinch. He said, “We are looking for a place that’s real. A place where we can be who we are and bring all of our questions and uncertainties into the discussion. We want to be a part of something more.”

In that moment, I woke up to the challenge of what on earth do we do with college kids? Attracting and involving college students (generation Z), millennials, and baby boomers is at the forefront of most church leaders’ minds. The spiritual needs of these generations are both incredibly diverse and shockingly similar. As a campus minister for more than three decades, I’m often asked for advice on how to reach college students. I have learned from experience that relating to these young adults and the stressors they face is a challenge.

We can talk about this all day long and create some great plans, but it’s all pointless if we don’t include this generation in the conversation. We need their input or we will ultimately lose sight of their needs as we lovingly try to serve them.

I decided to discuss this situation with my daughter, Beth, who is a millennial, to gain more insight on how to share Christ with people of college age. We hope this discussion helps with your church’s efforts to welcome them.


Learn Their Language

BETH: When missionaries prepare to travel to a new country, they spend a significant amount of time learning about the language, culture,andcustoms of the people they will be serving. The same is true when college students come to your church. You may need to learn a new language to be able to communicate with them, or at least understand them.

Keeping up with the catchphrases and jargon is daunting, and by no means are you expected to speak fluently. Still, you need to know that mansplaining is when a man explains something to a woman she already knows (this is bad), that baeis a term of endearment for a significant other and stands for “before anyone else” (this is good), and that on fleek means something is pretty much perfect, such as an outfit or meal (I’m a millennial and I can’t stand this one . . . so I’m torn on whether it’s good or bad).

College students speak in extremes—something could be so powerful that they can’t even or something could be so overdone and fake that it is labeled basic. To reiterate, the church does not need to translate their message or mission to fit this generation’s language, they just need to be able to hang in a conversation with an individual member of the generation.

GREG: A word to the wise: College students can sniff out a lack of authenticity these days faster than you can shake a stick (and they don’t relate to that phrase, either). If they sense you are trying too hard or are motivated by anything other than connecting with them (such as when someone from my generation works on fleekinto a conversation) they will most likely bolt.

If you think you can attract and retain college students to your church by offering a swanky coffee bar or a free T-shirt for visiting, you are sadly mistaken. This is not what they’re looking for, and if that’s all you’ve got, it’s unlikely they’ll return.

College students and people of that age are looking for genuine connection in a world that often feels very disconnected through texts, tweets, and snaps. Their communication style is so different from mine. But they desire the same thing we all do—they want to connect with someone. A simple, “Hello, how were your classes this week?” in the church hallway is a great place to start.

BETH: Yes. Connecting one-with-one in direct and transparent interaction grabs them. To understand the uniqueness of each soul that is sitting in the pew behind you, just start the conversation. I spend the majority of my time training people (many new college graduates) in our workplace. These grads want to know that someone genuinely cares about them.


Learn Their Motivation

GREG: College students are connected to unlimited technology and information. Their phones have everything: alarm clocks, weather stations, social networks, and apps that connect to their online classes and bank account. Oh, and they can make phone calls from them too. This means their phones rarely leave their hands.

With this newfound addiction comes some interesting trends and potential correlations.

Recent studies show anxiety is a major health concern among young people. It affects two out of three people and has surpassed depression as the number one mental illness among college students.

News of school shootings, abusive coaches, and hearing about the new LGBTQQIAAP sexual diversity office on their campus causes overwhelming stress. Things that cause anxiety are everywhere they look. My gut reaction is to say, “Are you crazy!” I want to put a big cardboard box at the door of the church that reads, “Drop your cell phone here.” My daughter shakes her head at me during my rants,but then smiles and brings me back to reality.

BETH: Here’s the reality. The average student participates on five social media platforms, which translatesinto hours of scrolling, consuming of both positive and negative content, and an obligation to participate and respond to communication. The minute you mandate that your church, Bible study, or dinner table is a “no phone zone” will be the same time you make it a “no college kid zone.”

This is a fight that won’t be won by rule-making. Instead, demonstrate the behaviors you personally have found to be of value with regard to information consumption via the Internet and phone use. Set an example by modeling the positive effects in your own life. If you’ve learned the language and are in conversation as we described above, college students will see that and will interact with you inyour home or church. If they should ask about it, you could casually respond, “Yeah, I’m taking a break from Facebook in the evenings—I sleep better, and I don’t feel like I’m at the mercy of everyone demanding my attention as I’m trying to unwind from the day.”

GREG: While college students are driven by massive amounts of information and various ways of connecting, they are motivated by knowledge and relationship—and the church offers both! We just need to offer it to them in a way they can both understand and apply, as we would do with any other people group we are trying to serve.


Learn Their Spiritual Needs

BETH: The purpose of learning a generation’s language and motivations is ultimatelyto better understand their spiritual needs . . . and let’s not overthink this one—this generation needs Jesus. As college students or new members of the workforce sort things out, they need to know their identity lies not in the year they were born, but in a loving Father who purposely placed them in this exact moment, age demographic, and time frame.

To a generation bombarded with information and desperate for identity while drowning in the stereotype that says you are just like everyone else in your generation, the quiet but firm voice of Jesus whispers, “The very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid” (Matthew 10:30, 31, New Living Translation). They are hungry to hear, “You are so valued, unique, and special to Jesus.” We don’t have to make it more complicated than just leading them to him.

GREG: Thanks for opening our eyes to that truth, Beth. The other day, a minister in a local church leaned over his desk and asked me, “What do these kids really want . . . how can we connect with them?” I glanced over his desk—cluttered with bulletin announcements, sermon notes, and letters to sign—and replied, “They want the same thing as you and me. They want to belong. They want to feel a part of something, a part of a family, a part of a vision.” He nodded.

I recently sat in the student union of a Midwestern university as a worship team led a session of praise music for about 300 college kids. The atmosphere was electric. The lyrics to “Give Me Jesus,” especially, seemed to permeate every heart—keep the world, “but give me Jesus.” That’s what they want. And isn’t that what the rest of us want too?


Greg Swinney serves as national representative for the Association of College Ministries and leads Crossroads International Student Ministries, an organization to mobilize churches and campus ministries in reaching university international students.

Beth Swinney works as a leadership trainer for a global Internet security corporation. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where evening walks with her dog, Penny, make her smile.

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