By Nick Goodwin
Before Christmas I talked to a couple in my church whose daughter had recently graduated from tertiary study and entered the workforce. They described how the move away from home to study in a distant location had led to wonderful changes in her life. Previously spiritually cold and uninterested in church, something in the fresh environment awakened her from a spiritual slumber and transformed her over time into an enthusiastic and committed contributor to her new local church.
Her experience shows that the transition from school to tertiary study and work can be positive and stimulating, full of opportunities for growth, spiritual and otherwise. In Scripture, the experiences of Moses and Daniel both demonstrate that a top education surrounded by unbelievers can sometimes be excellent preparation for a life of service to God!
At the same time, we are all aware that when our young people move into work and study they encounter new challenges to faith. One significant American study found that among those engaged in church as teenagers, 43% were no longer connected in the 18-29 year age group. I suspect our New Zealand experience is not very different.
Towards the end of 2018 I teamed up with the Youth Pastor at Raleigh Street, Aaron Hodgson, and together we test-ran an initiative we hoped would help Christian young people transition well from high school to work and study. This was a two-day retreat called “What’s Next?”, and it was open to all Year 13 (i.e. Seventh Form) high school students attending the various Cambridge churches.
The programme included teaching on a range of subjects, such as: how to connect your faith to work and study; how to stay accountable and find a new church when you leave home; maintaining your spiritual vitality as an adult; dealing with finances; and answering hard apologetic questions.
We also took a field trip to the local university, met a Christian academic there for questions and answers, and considered how to do a Bible study in a university cafeteria. Some university students were invited along to offer points of connection for school leavers.
My favourite element in the programme was a panel discussion on the second day, reflecting on subjects that had been covered during the previous sessions. For this discussion we invited an experienced builder, a veterinarian, and a landscape designer. Their contrasting study and work experiences—connected to a deep Christian faith—made for an absorbing session as they responded with insight to student’s questions.
We have a lot to learn about how to run such a retreat well; our marketing wasn’t great, attendance was variable, and we noticed many possible improvements. (For instance, a lot of questions asked of our panel were about choosing a career, a topic we hadn’t specifically covered in the programme!). Still, we believe running this retreat was a fundamentally sensible thing to do, and we’re committed to building on the start we’ve made in future years. Maybe there are other churches in the CCCNZ network who would like to work collaboratively on developing something together?
Of course, a one-off retreat like this is no silver bullet— ideally, it should supplement wider efforts to make disciples of young people and integrate them into their church family well before they reach this important transition. Other steps church leaders could take in addition to a central focus on disciple-making include:
- Assign one or two older members of the congregation to take a special interest in young people departing for work and study, by contacting them regularly and showing hospitality when they return to visit.
- Acknowledge young people’s new beginnings publicly in church and pray for them.
- Where a young person has a special vocational interest (such as teaching, medicine or science), ask a mature Christian in the same vocational area to meet with them in a mentoring capacity some time before they embark on their training— then they will have someone they can turn to with the particular challenges they meet in their chosen career.
- With permission, pass on their contact details to a local church in their new town, or if they are students, to a national Christian student ministry. Tertiary Students Christian Fellowship (TSCF), for instance, has Christian workers and student clubs at every university and several polytechnics around New Zealand.
- Make sure students travelling for tertiary study are aware of Christian accommodation options. There are three student hostels with connections to CCCNZ: Eden Christian Hostel (Auckland) or Longview Taurima Hostel (Hamilton). In addition, there are other possibilities, such as TSCF residential accommodation in Dunedin and Wellington, or Riccarton Community Church’s Peverel Flats in Christchurch.
One book which has particularly helped me think constructively about this area is Sticky Faith. This book, drawing on research into school leavers by Fuller Theological Seminary, suggests a number of practical ways in which churches can make the faith of their school leavers ‘sticky.’ If you’re interested to learn more, I’d suggest this book as a good place to start.