One of the key influences on a student coming to faith in Jesus today is how they are welcomed by the local church.*
These were some of my favourite stories. The ones where first impressions of church utterly blew the students away and completely changed their perception of God and his followers. Descriptions of the church being a welcoming, accepting and non-judgemental community made me want to stand up and fist-pump the air, "COME ON THE CHURCH!" You guys have been nailing it on first impressions. So proud.
It can be very easy and almost go unnoticed when we rock up to a church gathering and end up sliding into our familiar friendship groups, generational ghettos and engage in legitimately important conversions with people in our community. But to a new student walking in for the first time, to see turned backs and intense conversations of which they have no access to, can make churches feel a bit tricky to get involved in.
However, there were so many beautiful stories of the opposite experience for the students who identified this aspect of their faith journey as being vital in their coming to know Jesus, that I have fresh hope that we aren't being as cliquey and unaware as I often worry!
Here's some of the brilliant things the students said about you, the local church:
“These people were treating me like family and I had no idea why.”
“I found this church because of the way it looked after students.”
“It was the people that got me involved and helped me want to know more.”
“People were genuinely interested in how I am.”
“I walked in and everyone was so friendly and so nice.”
“I experienced overwhelming love, not just from God, but from the whole community.”
“It got rid of all my misconceptions and allowed me to work from zero.”
“I didn’t feel judged at all and I didn’t feel outside.”
This is good news. I'd also encourage us all to take this as a chance to look at our own lives, our friendship group and our wider church community, and consider if a new, not-yet-Christian were to rock up for the first time, would they be able to say the same about us as they did in the quotes above?
How’s your welcome? Have you planned how every student is going to feel both seen and known and yet given space to breathe and experience?
How trained-up is your church culture to be on the look out for new people, not just forming catch-up cliques on Sundays?
What does follow-up look like if someone new doesn't have any previous contact or connection to your community? And what are they invited to next so that they know church isn't a Sunday but a family?
I think something is going theologically well if a church community knows the church isn't about them and their needs alone, but is as much about looking out for the new one and welcoming another into the conversion and around the meal table. Let's all be on the look out for new people this week, and let's remember we are the welcome team, no rota or badge necessary for that one.
*These statements are taken from research completed for my Masters degree in which I explored commonalities of students coming to faith in Jesus in England today. I gathered data from a spread of institutions, geographical locations, church expressions and interviewed an equal number of male and female students, with some diversity in background and ethnicity as well. Although my findings have limitations and my scope of data had to be small, I believe what I have discovered is still very useful for local churches seeking to share Jesus with students and so this blog series explores the top 12 commonalities discovered. Enjoy!