Imagine a church without students (Most of us have to)


empty-lecture-hallMany of us were deeply influenced for Christ by the churches we went to while we were at university. Those of us who are graduates probably have fond memories of packed churches, open bibles and full notebooks. And it tugs at our hearts strings when we think of the Sundays we normally face.

Now, we should rightly be grateful for such ministries, which still continue; we should pray for them, and support them financially. They are hugely valuable, and nothing I am about to say should be thought to question that.

But there are problems with the dominance of the model when it is applied outside a university context.

The first is that many student churches will have a three year curriculum for their discipleship program, to equip these young adults with good basic doctrine, a bible overview, and key bible books covered. That’s all excellent, and I have no quibble.

But those of us who move into other church-based ministry must recalibrate that model. Unless we are in a student church, we won’t have a three-year turnaround for a large number of our members. We need a life-long discipleship pattern, that takes people further. We need to address ever-deepening content.

Related to that, the ideal undergraduate model is a note-taking student, but that’s not where most adults are, educationally. Many will have left school at 16, many others will prefer to discuss and debate, and many will have competent jobs which require them to critique material and not just accept it. We need to address how we expect people to learn and teach.

Third, an undergraduate church is a high turnover church, but most ministry happens in congregations where the relationships in the small groups last decades, not terms. We need to address issues of love and forgiveness, not just friendliness.

Fourth, many of us who went to college or seminary, went in a context where we experienced those student churches for a second time around, this time when we learnt about pastoral ministry and church leadership. And so the experience underlined those structures for us. If you think you were not affected by that, ask yourself why your church issues a ‘term card’, or why we have long summer breaks.

Fifth, therefore, those of us who lead churches which are not in a student context need to notice why we flounder. It’s been borne in on me by becoming the pastor of a church in a well-educated setting, but without any tertiary education. We export most of our 19 year olds.

If we took a standard undergraduate-church model off the shelf, we would simply run round in circles. There are no undergraduates willing to take on a two- or three-year curriculum. There is no big influx in September.

Now, I know I am not alone in this, because even as I have typed I have thought about a number of my friends who pastor churches in a similar context as ours. So here’s my question for discussion: which are the churches and ministries that you look to and learn from, which thrive in a world without students?

Pile in!

8 comments on “Imagine a church without students (Most of us have to)”

  1. It’s exactly the same here in Chesham. One of the issues is that we tend to look at larger churches for models of ministry. Often large churches are large precisely because they have lots of students. But there are some fairly large and growing churches that don’t: St Nick’s Sevenoaks, St Mary’s Maidenhead, St Peter’s Harold Wood, St Andrew’s Leyland, Emmanuel Wimbledon, to name a few… Some of these probably look more like student churches (with no students) than others.

    1. On the money, Tom – and bear in mind that I think it’s a good idea for us to learn from other (usually larger) churches that have cracked problems we are facing. But we need to choose those models with care; and the more a church has influenced us, the more careful we need to be. Multiple models, eyes wide open.

  2. I was a member for 10 years at Rochester Baptist in Kent after University so what I learnt there influences me. Long term discipleship was the key thing -a place where I’d be challenged, encouraged, given opportunities to serve and learn. This was probably important for them in that it gave some of their own young people who went to University a reason to come back.

    I think the picture is a little bit more complex though. Even those University churches must surely have people who grew up there and must want some of their students to stick around post graduation -so are they really relying on just the three year cycle?

    Other things impact on turnover. In the South East it was people moving around for careers, very different to a settled northern city community. Here we have people who come through because of immigration and for various reasons this might not be the final place they settle. Sometimes there’s the experience of seeing people who don’t settle in one church and move around especially between smaller churches where the ups and downs are very noticeable.

    This does mean that part of our thinking still has to be about doing best by those who are only with us for a short time, things that may bear fruit when they move on. I think it also means thinking about how we encourage some stick-around-ness.

    1. All true, Dave — and I’ve seen a number of university twin churches operate a ‘dual track’ approach, which seems sound to me. My anxiety would be student pastors coming through the church only ever having seen one of the two tracks, and assuming that that is all there is, or should be.

  3. We do have a small university in town and have some student ministry, but in our context we’re still shaped by the ‘term’ thing for different reasons. In leafy Surrey we often do have an influx (or at least a small trickle) of people moving out of London into bigger houses and nicer schools, and that does tend to happen in the summer – making a September ‘push’ appropriate. In fact, broadening that point out, in our context children and family ministry is quite key so again the term model does still fit quite well I think. That being said, I completely agree with the need for life-long discipleship as the aim. But there is clearly a need to contextualise any ‘model’.

    1. I think a September push is helpful on a number of fronts, enabling us to regroup and refocus after a summer lull. Context is king (I’ve said that before, somewhere…), so you obviously have a particular reason for focussing on newer folk that time of year. I don’t think we see that pattern in our part of N London – although we might be losing people to you in the summer!

  4. Dear Chris,

    Large London churches often have numbers of ‘post students’ in the congregation. A first job in London means that they may only be around for a few years. Having found a life partner in the congregation, many cannot afford a local family home. This has been true in outer London for many years, currently exacerbated by ridiculous house prices.

    This creates a second exodus of potential leaders to the Home Counties or further afield. We also export ordinands. Maybe large churches should simply recognise that one area of mission is to train young adults in leadership as a gift to the wider church?

    To follow the school (or academic) year makes a lot of sense, when large numbers of families are absent over school holidays.

    Pastors please note: we, the longstanding members of the congregation are in it for the long haul – you come and go. We need life-long discipleship. We don’t always get it. It is exciting to hear it discussed.


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