Ministry helps collegians continue in faith
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--Alana Blackwell was a junior in high school when a friend at church invited her to hang out with a group of Baptist college students at Louisiana State University. Blackwell, a future LSU Tiger herself, jumped at the opportunity to build relationships with the collegians.
For the next two years, Blackwell frequently met with the Baptist Collegiate Ministry group at LSU. She took part in devotionals on being a leader among her youth group and how to stay involved in church as she transitioned to college.
Blackwell now is a leader of "Transitions," a BCM outreach at LSU focused on connecting with high school students and college freshman.
Attending college for the first time "can be overwhelming," Blackwell said. "It is very important to connect with students while they are still in high school so that they feel comfortable getting involved with the BCM when they get to college.
"It was during those meetings in high school that I met some of the people that helped get me through my first year at college and really helped me step up to a leadership role in the BCM."
Steve Masters, BCM director at LSU and also transition ministry coordinator for LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted, "The days of just opening the BCM doors and expecting students to come in are in the past.... As freshmen begin their college years they are facing a variety of changes and transitions.... Our goal as campus ministers is to help them find Christ if they haven't and to help them grow in Christ and to either stay or get involved in a local church."
Such goals "can easily get lost in all of the other changes and transitions freshman are going through," Masters said. "The sooner we can establish a relationship with a student and the stronger that relationship is, then the better chance we have to involve them and help them become or stay involved in church."
The LSU Transitions ministry team is proactive in searching for prospective students by:
-- mailing letters to youth ministers in local Baptist associations, asking them to partner with LSU's BCM. Each youth minister is asked to provide the Sunday School and church roster of all junior and senior high school students as well as provide additional contact information on students who are active church members. These students are invited to the BCM's monthly Transitions fellowship held on a Sunday night at local Baton Rouge church. Each graduating senior is mailed a BCM brochure and invited to attend Collegiate Week at LifeWay Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico.
-- distributing Transitions information cards at area churches, asking students to provide biographical information, address, home and cell phone numbers, e-mail address, church involvement and college of choice. The Transitions cards also are distributed at area youth rallies and concerts, with juniors and seniors asked to fill out the cards on the spot. Last year, more than 40 names of high school seniors were secured at a Big Daddy Weave concert at a local church. Others names were obtained by leaders from World Changers, Centrifuge and campus sporting events. The cards also have been distributed at the Louisiana Baptist Convention evangelism conference, student summer conferences and associational camps.
-- asking BCM students at LSU to pass out Transitions cards at their home churches and have youth fill them out.
-- attending all LSU orientations and special days and activities for juniors and seniors in high school where team members distribute information cards from LSU's various religious groups.
-- asking local Baptist and Christian schools to have all junior and seniors fill out information cards.
-- obtaining from the LSU admissions office the names of incoming LSU freshmen who indicate they have a Baptist background.
As soon as possible after obtaining contact information, Transition team members are assigned specific prospects to telephone personally, asking them survey-type questions, contact information, college of choice and if they would like information about the BCM. In turn, team members share their own contact information with the prospects in case they would like additional information at a later time.
The team regularly e-mails students and mails them newsletters and ministry brochures. Local churches also are asked to contact the prospects at least one time. By the time a BCM prospect arrives for the fall semester, they have been contacted seven to 10 times.
Whenever possible, the team obtains a photo of each student whose name has been obtained. It is attached to the information card and helps the team get to know the students.
LSU student Michael Wrobel, who currently serves on the Transitions team, is a product of the ministry.
"I am so thankful that I was contacted by other students and got involved in the BCM," Wrobel said. "I feel it is so important to find a strong group of college friends who have the same beliefs and morals."
Wrobel said he has gained a passion "for high schoolers and helping them continue to grow in their faith. I want to help them make the transition from high school to college, remembering to keep God first and to totally rely on Him."
In Tuscaloosa, Ala., Tim Simpson, college minister at First Baptist Church, agreed that building relationships is the key in helping students make the transition successfully.
"The transition from high school to college is a tough one," said Simpson, noting that high school seniors at his church are promoted into the college ministry right after graduation. He encourages the college students to befriend high schoolers and makes it a point to have collegians attend the church's annual graduation banquet and speak on the importance of being connected to the church through the college ministry.
"We encourage our upperclassmen to reach out to the incoming freshmen and building friendships with them during the summer by going to eat with them or just playing Frisbee," Simpson said. "On Sunday nights in the summer, our students are coming to my house so they can fellowship and get to know each other."
Parents are vital in helping students stay active in church, Simpson emphasized. "Many parents choose to let their children make the decision on whether to come to church or not," he said, adding, "I don't think this is wise at this stage. They still need guidance from the people they trust the most. They do not automatically become adults when they receive their high school diploma.
"I always tell parents that if they can help me by making sure their child is at church, I can try to influence them in a positive way," Simpson said. "Many high school graduates aren't spiritually mature enough to discipline themselves to wake up on Sunday mornings and come to church. Parents play a vital role in helping us influence these incoming freshmen for the cause of Christ and His Kingdom."
Linda Osborne, National Collegiate Ministry leader for LifeWay Christian Resources, said, "Perhaps there is not a more significant time to reach out to young adults than as they make the transition from high school to college.
"Many students are leaving the church in high school. A move to college can provide a fresh start for these students. Many more either intentionally or 'accidentally' leave church as they make the move to college," Osborne said. "Lots of these students didn't plan to walk away from church, it just sort of happened in their transition."
Osborne said transition ministries like the one at LSU can lead to a better outcome.
"Southern Baptists' campus-based ministry, BCM, together with our churches have incredible opportunities this fall to connect with new college students through transitions ministry," Osborne said.
Stella Prather is associate editor of the Arkansas Baptist News of the Arkansas Baptist Convention.