It all started quite unintentionally.
We needed childcare for our small group one night. I called a bestie who helps run our local Young Life ministry. She knows tons of college students. She gave us Melissa's name. We called and she came. Elizabeth Jane was a baby so that night must have been about 8 years ago. Never EVER could we have known what would be birthed through that simple invitation of a babysitter.
From day one she loved our kids and they loved her. She became our regular babysitter and what seemed like such a blessing to us (little did we know) was also a blessing to her. What Melissa told us later is that it never failed when she needed money, as a college student without steady income, we would call for her to babysit.
(I want to throw a note in here...I always pay baby-sitters well. They take care of our most precious gifts from God. I want the best sitters and I want them to come back. Babysitters need to know we love and appreciate them.)
Through this first relationship with Melissa we began to gather college students. This list was made over years of learning in the midst of doing.
1. Make time to talk.
When she came to babysit she would inevitably hang around and visit with us after we were home. Questions would surface and we would talk and talk and talk. There were many late nights.
As we began to know her better we began to meet her friends. They began to show up as well. Her roommates and her dear sister Melanie all became precious friends. They all started coming over. Tears build up in my eyes as I picture of each of their faces.
2. Invite them into your life.
If they came by during the day we would keep going about our day to day life but invite them to join in. We did not feel inconvenienced because we could still get our things accomplished and we could love on them as we went along. What I did not realize then was that the things that Melissa enjoyed watched us do...like read encouraging books to the kids at the table or watch Andy Griffith together, meant so much to her. Allowing her to be apart of our normal was so precious to her.
There were many nights that blankets and pillows were brought out and they would stay the nights. Lots of weekends ended up as sleepovers. For a while we were the tornado safe house and the entire group of women would come and camp out in our hall during the storms.
Truth be told, one of these treasures ended up living with us for a year. David's story will be shared in another post...I can tell you are so excited!!
3. Feed them and they will come.
College students are so grateful to have a home cooked meal and be able to sit around the table. They would say, "Can I bring ______ with me tonight?" We would always welcome more.
Personal testimony...all the nights and all the college students we NEVER RAN OUT of food. Some nights I knew it was supernatural provision. It had to have been. There was one night in particular the crowd was WAY bigger than I anticipated and there was enough.
This is a fact. The best relationships were built sitting around our table to eat. These friends just wanted a safe and welcoming place to feel loved and accepted.
4. Open Your Laundry Room Door
College students always have laundry. Washing clothes at school is tricky. They have to go somewhere to do it while many others are also having to do their laundry as well. It costs them money. If they brought their laundry to our house they would be around for extended periods of time. It is a huge blessing to them and it is a huge ministry opportunity for us.
As I look back I realize that the extra loads of laundry really made no significant impact in our budget but allowing them to do this was such a vital part of relationship building. Yes, there were a few times dirty or wet clothes were left in haste and I finished up a few loads of clothes...I just prayed for them as I folded the laundry. They would be so touched by the help.
5. Share Your Heart
Investing in people can be scary. You do not know if they will be trustworthy. It takes time to share yourself with another. But remember this is a two-way street. It is not just them sharing with you. To develop friendships you need to share you with them as well. Take little steps and share bits of your story as you grow your confidence.
6. Take Them With You
If you are going on outings invite them along. It does not matter if you are just headed to the grocery store. Shared experiences can be a game changer as you develop a relationship with them. They need to see what your life is like outside the protective confines of your home. If you have kiddos let them see how you handle breakdowns in the grocery store...it will be a blessing to these college students.
7. Encourage Them by Trusting Them
We trusted them with our hearts AND our kids. Yes, babysitting is trusting them but we invited these folks to be involved in our kids lives. And yhese relationships have meant so much in the lives of our children. Elizabeth and Shepherd do not remember life before the college students.
Our kids got to see these college students start dating (several of whom were dating for very first time) and then court and marry. They saw healthy relationships walked out right before their very eyes. They got first-hand, up-close looks at that process modeled. They heard the conversations about how to date well. They asked us questions and we answered...IN FROUNT OF OUR CHILDREN. We wanted them to be a part of this super important process. Our kids were even ended up in several of their weddings.
These are the relationships that my kids keep going back to. Mary Taylor took a weekend trip with Melissa and Melanie last weekend. They all ended up going to spend one night with David in New Orleans. Leslie and Stephen were two that met and courted in front of our kids. While were in Memphis last week all our kids begged me to go by and see their precious baby, Caleb. (You will hear about this family in posts to come.)
8. Don't be scared to look different as you reach out to college students.
There were some naysayers in our process. Some people thought we let these young men and women have too much of our time. We live for a audience of One and He is the only one we have to answer to in this life journey. Don't let others be party poopers for you and what God is calling you to...whatever that may look like.
Some friends of our also felt called to minister to college students. They are now in New Zealand as missionaries...almost all of the students at their campus are not Christian. I asked Janie to share from her perceptive and she writes this...
John and I are in our 50s, empty nesters and campus pastors at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Most people think that to reach university students you need to be peers or closer to their age group but that is not always true. We have found that students, especially those who are away from home for the first time, are open to talking to us and spending time with us.
But the first rule of reaching university students is FEED THEM! If you feed them, they will come. Then to get them to keep coming, you need to understand their culture. Students know if you really care and being intentional is so important. They know if you are listening.
9. Don't let your age disqualify you.
Can you hear my heart beating so hard! This is so valuable! It does not matter where you are in this journey you can make a difference! You have been created to make a difference. If you are mom with young children you can invite them in and even let them (or teach them) how to change diapers. Melissa's first diaper was Elizabeth Jane's. And I am pretty sure Mary Taylor (who was 10 at the time) taught her.
Or you could have already raised your kids and have a completely empty nest like John and Janie. It just does not matter. You may feel past your prime...but everybody can love.
10. Realize that this ministry is going to bless you as you bless others.
I could write a book about each one of these precious people . Melissa and her husband Jason are not the exceptions. Melanie and her husband Adam just adopted the most precious baby girl and their story is breath-taking. Leslie and Stephen are reaching college students and high school student in Memphis. Our dear friend David is finishing his 3rd year in medical school. Stacey (oh dear Stacey) is a children's counselor/missionary in Northern Ireland and baptized a sweet little girl on Easter Sunday. And Natalie has finished 3 years in ministry school and is working on a nursing degree now.
There are so many of them and so many stories still to be told...posts to come. But none of these would have grown into relationships except that we took the time to step out and reach out. We offered what we had...shared our family...and did not make it complicated.
Janie and John shared these testimonies:
When we moved to Auckland and started reaching the University of Auckland campus, John met a young Samoan guy who had grown up very religious. He got saved and met up with John for discipleship on a regular basis. He grew over the four years we were there and, after we left, continued to be discipled by other men. Today he is the senior pastor of our recent church plant in Fiji!
One thing that gives us hope as we reach out to these college students, during Clubs Days a few weeks ago, was the openness and hunger for relationship. International students are so open to learning about other cultures and practice their English by meeting up for conversations!
Maybe you have read this today but you don't feel like college students are you calling...consider helping John and Janie Birdwell as they do their ministry in New Zealand. Help bless those who are reaching out to an entire campus ripe for the harvest. Help them provide food to feed students and open their laundry room. To donate to the Birdwells you can click here https://give.everynation.org/p-1223-john-and-janie-birdwell.aspx
Or if you do feel a desire to step toward college students but feel like you need more resources please know. I would love to help you.
If can pray for you or encourage you feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to help you and give you further tools to make your gatherings even easier.