After 27 years in business development, John Decker understands that important opportunities present themselves in the sweet spots of special times and circumstances.
Since planting an InterVarsity Chapter at Syracuse University as a volunteer staff member three years ago, John has observed that one of the most important sweet spots of campus ministry is the first weeks on campus.
New freshmen make decisions during their first weeks on campus that can have a major impact for years, including which groups to join, which new friends to spend time with, and how they will use free time. “I was not a Christian when I first entered college,” John said. “The first week did not propel me in the right direction. This happens way too often.”
John is convinced that a key to reducing the large attrition rate of students who come to college with a strong Christian faith, and leave without one, is to help students connect with churches and campus ministries like InterVarsity during that first week. But many times students won’t connect if they don’t know that InterVarsity and similar ministries are operating on their campus.
Because new freshmen have an intense desire to meet as many new friends as possible, this period becomes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to naturally share faith and invite others to Christian activities. Finding a way to connect incoming Christians to campus ministries like InterVarsity, prior to freshman orientation, is key.
John’s response has been to develop a working relationship with local Young Life chapters that serve Syracuse area high school students. “I’ve run into lots of kids who said they’d come to Christ through Young Life,” he said. He’s working not only to familiarize the students with ministries that work on campus, but also to invite some local high school students to visit the Syracuse campus at the beginning of the school year so that they can experience large group meetings and activities with InterVarsity and other ministries.
During the last few months John has been encouraging the high school students he talks with to make a connection before they arrive on campus and showing them how to arrange for a Christian roommate. “This puts more earnestness in their own preparation and their own spiritual life while they’re still in high school,” he said, adding, “We also encourage the incoming students to prepare their Facebook page in advance, so that they will establish a Christ-honoring identity from the outset and include some creative expression of their faith.”
Rick Mattson, InterVarsity’s North Central regional director, agrees that it’s important for high school students to plan ahead. When he speaks in churches to parents and students he suggests Christian high school students decide before arriving on campus what they’ll do and say.
He tells the future college students, “When someone knocks on your dorm room door that first Thursday night and yells, ‘Party,’ make sure you’ve already connected with a ministry that has activities scheduled that night—and all weekend. Your choice of friends that first night might seem insignificant at the time, but it’s a first small step down one pathway or another. Later on, when your Christian friendships have been established, you can figure out healthy ways to connect to the party crowd and share God’s love.”
As soon as students know what school they’ll be attending, they can start contacting ministries on that campus by email or the internet. That has become a lot easier through the website www.LiveAbove.com, operated by the Youth Transition Network (YTN), which has information about on-campus ministries across the country. John encourages parents, pastors, and anyone else who is acquainted with incoming college students to spread the word this summer about the YTN website and ministries like InterVarsity, to help this year’s freshman class get connected. Most ministries, such as InterVarsity, also have online resources to help make the campus connection.
John recommends that new students not only connect with a campus Christian group early-on but also volunteer to work with that group during their New Student Outreach activities at the beginning of the semester. It’s a win-win situation for the students, they learn more about the ministry but they also have an easy way to meet a huge number of potential new friends. “The best people to reach freshmen are the freshmen Christians themselves,” he added.
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