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12 Ways to Support Young People in Living their Faith in College

 A guest blog post by James R. Walter Ed.D., the Director of the Catholic Scholars program at St. John's University.

As campus ministers, we are very familiar with tried and true experiences that are central to our campus faith life, such as the celebration of sacraments, devotional prayer, and daily and Sunday Mass.

As our student population continues to change, finding new and familiar ways to engage young people in their faith and spirituality is a consistent challenge for those of us in ministry. Check out these 12 ways to support college students on their varying faith journey.

  1. Model Christ: Our words will echo hollow if our actions do not reflect our love for Jesus Christ. Students will see our witness, our prayer, our service, our advocacy - and this will speak louder than any program or flyer.
  2. Empathize: While you will never understand what your young people truly are experiencing, you can challenge yourself to empathize with the weight of their crosses and the vulnerability of their wounds. What a blessing it is to accompany them on their own "Road to Emmaus." How often do we provide space to truly accompany our students?
  3. Connect: With rising mental health needs, growing isolation, food and housing insecurity, and the challenges of past and present trauma, sometimes the best we can do in the moment is to connect our students to professional staff and support communities to meet their most immediate of needs.
  4. Be Patient: The faith journey is exactly that, a journey. There will be twists and turns, times when they will feel their wind is at their back, while at others it will feel as if all is against them. Be patient with your students, and perhaps they will be patient with us in return.
  5. Creative Catechesis: Provide a variety of resources and opportunities. Invite students into different prayer experiences, including the utilization of social media and phone apps that are readily available. As more and more are "unchurched," keep it simple!
  6. Service and Justice: Connect service and justice to the Christian lifestyle. Recall the words spoken of the early Christians - "see how they love one another." They are often serving already, how can we better connect their action to the Christian message of love.
  7. Recognize and Develop Gifts and Talents: How does every student you engage walk away feeling appreciated for who they are, and inspired to incorporate their God-given gifts and talents in their on-campus activities and vocational discernment? How can they shine their light on your campus- in small and large ways? This is our responsibility in developing leaders. Others certainly did this for us!
  8. Listen: Create focus groups to assess your ministry. Do not take their feedback personal- allow it all to be constructive and inspirational. One sample question is, "how can we better engage you and your peers in our ministries?"
  9. Spiritual and not (yet) Religious: Introduce spiritual opportunities. While many may not identify with religious affiliation, they all are spiritual beings. In your passive and active programming, how does your language, images, and experience recognize the universality of spirituality and their diversity of culture, faith, and experiences.
  10. Be Inclusive: The familiar saying, "we have more in common than that which divides us," should guide our approach to interfaith work and opportunities on campus. We need to celebrate our common beliefs while also appreciating our differences - in places of education, college campuses provide a space for religious literacy and formation.
  11. Leave Your Office: It is easy to get stuck to your office chair reading emails, planning events, and designing flyers. Meet students where they are - attend programs, collaborate with faculty and student leaders, and build relationships by simply being present on your campus.
  12. Be Uncomfortable: Go find those that are different, those who do not look like you, pray like you, speak like you. Celebrate the diversity on your campus by engaging with your community - even if it makes you just a bit uncomfortable.

As we continue to be challenged by new generations of students, a unique opportunity awaits us to reflect the love of Christ to all who walk in our midst. May we pray for one another to be courageous, faithful, and authentic as we minister with open minds and hearts.

About the Author

James R. Walters, Ed.D., is a lay leader, scholar, researcher, author, presenter, and teacher in spirituality and ministry. He is the Director of the Catholic Scholars program (https://www.stjohns.edu/about/faith-and-mission/leadership-and-development/catholic-scholars), as well as the Director of Residence Ministry at St. John's University. Walters is also faculty in the Graduate School of Education and the Institute for Core Studies. He also works with the Diocese of Brooklyn in youth ministry and faith formation. His new book, Dreams Come True: Discovering God's Vision for Your Life, published by New City Press, is available on May 6th, 2020. 

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