Dear church: Please ask me about my college students

Guest commentary by Teri McDowell Ott 

As a college chaplain, local churches and pastors have asked me how they can reach out to my students. I welcome the question because I want my students to find faith communities to love and support them. I also see churches making mistakes that I would like to help them avoid. So, if asked, here’s the advice I offer:

1. Check your motivation. Begin by asking why you want to reach out to college students. Because if the honest answer is that you need someone to run your youth group or maintain your church’s website, please go no further. In other words, if your desire to reach out to college students is more about you and your needs than it is about them and their needs, then it’s not going to work. Sure, everyone likes to feel useful, but if the church isn’t genuinely interested in young adults — which means listening to them, supporting them, maybe even changing the way you’ve always done things to meet their unique spiritual needs — then young people will not be interested.

2. Be yourself. Authenticity is crucial. Don’t try to be someone you are not. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be young, cool, handsome, play electric guitar or dress like an 18-year-old in order to relate to young adults. Honestly, you just have to care about them. One of the most popular “ministers” on our college campus is Penny the Omelet Lady. Penny works in our dining hall. Her station is popular not just because she whips up a tasty omelet, but because she talks to each student in line, remembers names, asks how their day is going and then genuinely listens to their answer. Penny is a grandmother whose bad knees make it hard for her to get around. She doesn’t have purple hair. No tattoos. Contemporary music isn’t her thing. She’s just Penny. And our college students adore her

3.  Don’t assume. It’s important to know the trends of each generation. It’s important to understand that young people today are the most religiously unaffiliated generation, which means that when they are asked to check the box of their religious preference a growing number of them check “NONE.” But don’t let these trends convince you that all young people are in the same “box.” Each is unique. Each has their own beliefs, passions, interests. Just like we shouldn’t assume a young person today was brought up in the church and understands our language, rituals, symbols and traditions, we also shouldn’t assume they are anti-religion or anti-church. Just get to know them for who they are.

4. Don’t patronize. College students know when they aren’t taken seriously — and they want to be taken seriously. (Everybody does!) Treat them like the adults they are. Talk about real issues and real theology. (Yep — they can do real theology. Many of them, I’ve discovered, are hungry for it.) Be open to their ideas. Be open to learning from them. I am constantly learning from my students whose experiences of God and the world are different than mine. The more I am willing to listen and learn from these young adults, the more relevant my ministry will be.

5. Consider a ministry of presence. Never discount the power of presence. American Christians often prioritize a ministry of “doing” for others. But showing up for someone can be just as powerful a ministry, especially for college students. A group of retired Methodist women in my community model this well. They got to know some of our college students by attending their basketball games, theater performances and music recitals, staying after each event to congratulate them. Our college students invest so much time, energy and passion into these performances that they are thrilled when people show up and then engage them in conversation afterwards. Many students live far from home, so their families can’t come cheer for them. This opens up a wonderful, natural opportunity for church members. The Methodist women in my town have developed so many relationships this way that they now have a regular meeting with college students every Thursday morning at our local coffee shop.

6. Connect with your local college chaplain or campus minister. Although college chaplains serve as the church’s missionaries in the land of the “nones,” we often feel isolated and disconnected from the church. I encourage you to contact us. Make an appointment to brainstorm ways to partner in ministry. Ask what your congregation can do to support our ministry. This effort, I promise, will be very much appreciated. And together, we can do more for the Body of Christ.

Teri McDowell Ott has been an ordained Presbyterian minister for over 20 years. She has served Presbyterian-related Monmouth College as chaplain since 2011 and blogs at