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T he other day I was walking through the lobby of my church on a normal Sunday, when I looked up to see two of my former students, Erin Kloostra and Anna Rabe, who were home from college for the holidays. (I’m the director of Student Ministries at The Bridge Church in Portage, Michigan.) They were just home for a short weekend with their families and they made it a priority to be at church. After I shouted out loud for joy (which scared a few older ladies), the girls gave me huge hugs, and we caught up in person about their lives and what God is doing in them. 

As a youth pastor, I have grown to know so many wonderful joys with students as well as some pretty tough moments with them. One moment that is both pure joy and very difficult is graduation. We train our students, right? Our job as youth pastors is to train them up to follow Jesus and listen when the Holy Spirit guides them. So to let them go is beautiful and right, but we grow so close to our students and then let them go out into the world. Confession time: it is rough on my heart. I have such big hopes for them all and I pray for them to be strengthened in their faith. But I am human, and I wrestle with fear. Fear that they will fall away, fear that a roommate or professor will attack their faith and lead them to doubt the truth, fear that their faith will not be as strong as I thought it was. Those fears can sometimes lead me to question the effectiveness of my work. I wonder if all the lessons, the games, the retreats, and the “program” were enough. 

Well, the answer is no, a program is never enough. Teaching our students “about” God is fine, but teaching them to know him is best! Giving students the opportunities to experience God and make their faith active helps make their faith become real. They will find life as they learn to discern God’s leading in their life, to live in the gospel daily, and to rest in the good news.

So during this season when our graduated students come home for the holidays, I want to hear all about what their first semester was like. 

Be intentional

But I won’t hear anything from them unless I am intentional to have time with them. This year we will host an appetizer night at Applebee’s for all the graduates to come and reconnect with old friends and dig into life together again. 

What do we talk about? It’s always best to let conversations happen organically, but I suggest asking a few questions to steer the discussion towards God. Things like: “How has this first semester helped or hurt your faith?” or “Have you found other believers on campus?” or “Are there many churches by your campus and have you plugged into one?”. Asking questions shows that you care and gives your students the safe space to speak openly with peers going through the same things that they are. It also opens doors for you to speak into their lives with encouragement and truth! Win-win!

Ideas for reconnecting

How might you reconnect with former students? Here are a few ideas:

  • Get everyone together for a meal out. Whether your budget will let you pay for the entire event or the night is all on separate checks, your students will come when friends and food are involved!
  • Host a game night at your church.
  • Ask your student ministry leaders or other families at your church to host dinners for groups of four or five students.
  • Meet up for bowling, or sledding, or some other fun activity in your area.
  • Have a special night at your student ministry for your graduates to share with your high schoolers about their experiences.

You could also try prepping your congregation just before each break of the year to get them ready to engage those returning students. Many times students can come back and feel out of place. Let’s battle that by recognizing and engaging them at every service.

Why it matters

Graduated students love to talk about the experiences they have had. And I love hearing about where they have seen God moving in their lives and what they sense God telling them and leading them in. I want to hear about the struggles and tough things they have had to walk through and what that has done for their faith. These kinds of discussions are so awesome. My heart was so full to hear Erin and Anna tell of what God is doing. Your hearts will be full too!

As we reconnect with our former students over break, let’s be intentional with our time for them. Set up a time to see them and hear them, to do life with them, and to remind them that they are the church wherever they go! Let us encourage and build up the body of believers, especially our college-aged friends.

Jeff Fernandez

Jeff Fernandez is director of student ministries at The Bridge Ministries in Portage, Michigan.