|Industry Forum: Reaching the college market|
|Written by Production|
|Monday, 05 November 2012 01:20 PM America/New_York|
Ministering to students requires a little creativity, but it’s well worth the effort
You have likely seen some of the numbers when it comes to young people ages 15 to 29. Sixty percent of them have left the church and have no plans to go back. Only about 1% of college students attend church Sunday mornings. While the majority of them say they believe in God, they also say they are not religious. A number of those kids may be going to one of the growing numbers of house churches or other alternative church styles, yet the numbers are still staggering.
With each new class leaving home and getting their first taste of independence, the population of the traditional church declines. If nothing else, these figures may encourage those of us booksellers who have colleges or universities in our markets to find out how we can help.
Logos Bookstore in Dallas is one block from Southern Methodist University (SMU). We have seen the culture of the school and our ministry to the students change in the 38 years we have been here.
In the 1970s and early ’80s, the university was an open smorgasbord of ideas. Every philosophy was entertained, no matter how peculiar (remember Transcendental Meditation?). In the mid ’80s through the ’90s, all of those children of the turbulent ’60s wanted a job and a normal life. So it seemed like the undergrads at SMU were all looking for their MBAs or perhaps their “MRS degree.”
The 21st century has brought with it a new climate on the campus. The academic side is no longer interested in dialogue with opposing ideas. What’s more, the different sides have become entrenched, and debates have become shouting matches trying to drown out the other views. The students still want jobs, but even that is no longer certain as only about half of the graduates will find employment in their field of study—a daunting future.
There is encouragement, though. The groups ministering have ebbed and flowed through the years, but are still fighting the battle. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade and Reformed University Fellowship have a presence at SMU. These groups are smaller than in times past, but they are making the effort to take the students deeper. I think the days of finding large chapters of these groups across the country are over, but local congregations and denominations are active, too. The Baptists, Episcopalians, Methodists and Catholics each have on-campus unions, and at least six local churches are involved in viable ministry on campus as well, meaning more than just a Sunday morning college class.
No matter the decade, students’ questions remain fundamentally the same: “Where do I find meaning? If I am to have a faith, how do I make it my own? How will it differ from my youth? Will it be relevant? Does someone love me? Does God exist, love me, and how can I be certain? In what way can my life make a difference in this world?”
PRAYER AND THE PARACHURCH
Where do we as booksellers fit into this mix? First, we can pray for these kids, asking God to show us the best fit for meeting their needs through our stores. Then, we can contact the leadership of the college youth groups and parachurch ministries. Ask them how they would like us to engage with their efforts. This should be done frequently, as the leaders of these groups can change like a revolving door.
We offer regular discounts for these folks and occasionally more substantial deals for bulk orders. We have a deal with the InterVarsity staff member. When she brings a new convert in to get his or her first Bible, I sell it to the staff member at cost and she then gives it to the student.
You can also contact the chaplains of the fraternities and sororities and offer help. They are sometimes voted into the position with little idea of what to do. Some of the groups bring speakers to campus and we provide books for their events.
Another part of the equation would be carrying merchandise that speaks to this demographic. Our SMU kids seem drawn to many of the gifts we get from Natural Life and Glory Haus. Several publishers offer books well-suited for students; Baker Publishing Group, David C Cook, NavPress, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan all have great options. Check especially the Likewise imprint from IVP and the Re:Lit imprint from Crossway.
We supply lots of Bible studies for student groups as well. I particularly like N.T. Wright’s studies from IVP. Having the right offerings can help make us the resource center that ministry leaders rely on and a haven of encouragement for the students.
PROMOTIONS AND PACKAGES
Christian retailers must be creative in getting their name before the students. Use the campus newspaper. Create an event. Offer a coupon. We are planning a shop-for-a-cause event to raise support for one of the campus ministries.
Other stores with appealing ideas include The Carpenter’s Shop in Athens, Ga., which offers a free app for the students’ iPhones. There is store information on the app and there will be weekly promotions along with a downloadable coupon.
Signs of Life in Lawrence, Kan., is on the main drag of student life. The store has a café with lots of study space, and both the store and café are open until 11 p.m.
Another store [Store name?] has teamed up with a local cookie shop to provide student care packages. They wrote to the parents of incoming freshmen to offer to deliver baskets to their child for his or her birthday, at exam time or for any other special occasion—love sent from home. Priceless.
Yet another store [Store name?] is creating a space that they say will have a L’Abri type of atmosphere. The ministry will offer weekly group discussions on relevant topics and provides a safe haven where kids can bring their questions.
Each campus has its own personality. See what fits the students where you live. One caution I would share: Meeting the needs of college ministries and the students they serve may very well require that you get outside the four walls of your store, but you will find the risk well worth the effort.
As I think about this next generation’s struggle with finding their way in the new, independent environment of school, a C.S. Lewis quote from The Weight of Glory comes to mind.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”
By God’s grace, we can nudge these students toward His glory.