GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When new students arrive at the University of Florida each fall, Eddie Gilley and student leaders from Baptist Collegiate Ministries are eager to help them get plugged into a local church as soon as possible.
They do this through two events that help introduce them to six local churches that have large college student ministries. The first event is a church fair, which allows students to meet with pastors and other students from each of the churches. A few days later, it’s the popular church dinner tour, which is organized like a progressive dinner with each of the churches providing one of the courses for the meal. Each church has about 20 minutes during its course stop to make a presentation to the students, who not only learn more about each church but also their exact locations.
“Instead of having to go to six separate churches over six weeks, they can do it all in one night,” said Gilley, who has served as director of UF’s Baptist Campus Ministries for the past 21 years.
The goal, Gilley said, is for the students to find a local church within the first three weeks of the start of classes. That’s when routines are set.
“We’ve found that whatever you decide to do in the first three weeks of college, that those are going to be the patterns that you establish,” he said. “The people you become friends with, the routines that you set – they become a pattern that’s really difficult to deviate from during your college experience.”
Gilley is big on encouraging Sunday church attendance to students, even those who are involved in other collegiate ministries like BCM, Navigators or Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “The local church is always going to be there for you,” he said. “If we have students who say they don’t have time to do BCM and be involved in a local church, we tell them you need to be in a local church. We’ll find someone else to do whatever it is you’ve committed to do here.”
Spring Hill Missionary Baptist Church is one of the churches that always takes part in both the church fair and dinner tour. Leading the collegiate ministry are two UF graduates who came to the church as students and are still members today, said Pastor Adrian Taylor. While that speaks well of the church, new students will also find a warm and caring congregation
“It’s such a transformative time in their lives as students move from home to a new place,” he said. “We let them know that we are going to love and support them here at Spring Hill and be there for them during this time away from home.”
Students can also count on receiving sound theological teaching at Spring Hill, which Taylor says is very important for young college students. He also encourages them to reach out and pray for their friends on campus and invite them to church. Each student receives a copy of Prayer for Friends, an actual prayer they can pray for their friends, which includes Scripture references and space for jotting down friends’ names to pray for.
Jeremy Large, college pastor at Westside Baptist Church, raves about Gilley and BCM for helping students find churches through the two events. “It’s really beneficial that our Baptist Campus Ministries brings freshmen directly to our church,” he said. “But how do you communicate yourself clearly to a bunch of freshmen who are there for only 30 or 40 minutes? We’ve found it to be more beneficial to focus more on conversations and less on programming.”
At this year’s dinner tour, several pastors attended along with active college ministry students and leaders. Student volunteers covered all the tables in brown craft paper and then drew individual info boxes at each seat. As freshmen sat down to eat the entrée portion of the tour, the volunteers sat with them to talk about the church and to write their names, contact info and Instagram handles in those boxes. “Our students help write all that out,” Large said. “But then right after the event, our students will collect all of that info, and we’ll follow up with them within 24 hours.”
What they learn about Westside Baptist, Large said, is that college students are known, encouraged and cared for. “You’re not just going to be stuck in a room somewhere. We want people to know who you are. To fully be known leads to encouragement through our life groups. To be cared for means we’re caring for each other and building a community of caring for one another as we are trying to live out the Gospel.”
How home churches can help their college students
While Gainesville churches do their part in helping new students get plugged into their ministries, Gilley says there are several ways home churches can help their students adjust to their first year in college.
Once-a-month Zoom call
The popularity of Zoom calls during the recent pandemic has made this a great tool for student ministers, pastors and Bible study leaders to check in with students away at college. “It’s a great way to check in with them, see how they’re doing and let them know you want to encourage them and pray with them. It’s a great way to stay attached.”
Send a care package
Leaders from home churches can certainly create their own care packages, filled with cookies, gift cards and such, but an Amazon care package is also convenient, Gilley said. “Send them a sweatshirt or T-shirt from whatever college they’re attending. It could be a coffee mug or any little thing that says ‘Hey, we’re thinking of you and praying for your success at college.’ These days anybody can do that from anywhere.”
Take them to lunch
Make a personal visit, if possible. If you’re close enough to drive, consider making a visit sometime and taking the student out to lunch. Gilley suggested something like this: “Hey, I’m coming through town. Can I take you to lunch? Can you show me one of your favorite lunch places? We’re just stopping by to say we love you and care for you. Even if they say no, they’re busy, they at least know that you tried.”
Pastors can also introduce their students to a pastor at a local church or the BCM. Whether it’s in person or via email or text. “Send us their info. If [we] get those, we are more than happy to text or call and try to arrange a time to meet with them as soon as they can get on campus,” Gilley said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Moore writes for the Florida Baptist Convention.)