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Fly on a Wall Sunday School Class

January 6, 2017

James Madison University, just blocks from our church.

Another Way for week of January 6, 2017

What can you learn listening to secular university students talk about their faith or inner life like it was a reality TV show of some kind? Peers talking candidly to peers, with a bunch of over-50’s listening in?

That was the premise of one Sunday school class for adults at our church recently.

If you were in the student shoes, what do you say? What do you NOT want to say?

I loved the concept of listening in, and soon got out my pen and paper to take notes. Our congregation sits almost next door to a major university of 25,000 students, the “gown” growing larger every year whether the “town” likes it or not. We are realizing—and have for years—that the university should be very much on our radar for outreach. Mission. Engagement. Whatever you want to call it.

Some years we have done better than others and our new young pastor (still in her mid thirties and her husband, also a pastor), are especially interested in connecting with this demographic just because they have enjoyed working with students so very much.


Fellowship meal at our church, Trinity Presbyterian.

How do you talk about your faith or inner life when this Sunday is the first time you’ve even stepped inside of a church, as one student said, “in many many years”.

One pondered, “I wonder if our generation goes to church less than previous generations?” Well, maybe, but suddenly I am back in college myself. For the first time in my life when I wake up on Sunday mornings, I have the option to NOT go to church. I drag myself out of bed the first few Sundays as a college Freshman and attend “campus church” at my Christian college, which feels like just another version of the weekday chapel services I’m required to sit through. So of course it feels scandalous the first time I just sleep in and don’t go to church. Deliciously naughty. That’s part of going to college, or really just being a young adult and able to make your own decisions (whether or not you go to college).

Another student admits he doesn’t know Christian theology or Bible stories. He’s not alone in that, either.

So it is refreshing when the lone practicing Christian (Catholic) among them pipes up and offers that she actually loves the liturgy, the ritual, and the idea of sacrificing (even Sunday morning sleep), to put your life out there for a larger purpose and reason.

Another fellow talks about how kids on campus complain “There’s nothing to do here” in our comparatively small town and inwardly I roll my eyes. One talks about the “campus bubble” and I recall how I could go weeks without ever stepping foot off my campus, which happens to be on the other end of this same city. When you don’t have a car, and in a time when this city had NO bus system at all, you are definitely in a campus bubble. They hint they would like to be about more than parties and hook ups, though that word is not used.

The Catholic student talks about how in one of her music classes, her professor had the various parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) work together to figure out what was off in their singing and how to fix it. Perhaps that’s also a model for areas where colleges or universities seem to represent many lost opportunities—especially where there are major retirement communities like we have here with hundreds of lonely people often living far from their families; refugee and immigrant families struggling with jobs, housing and language; and single working parents still needing help to keep food on the table.

These students could have been from almost any university in the U.S. or Canada—even Christian colleges. How does what they had to say—and the potential to engage with them hit you? Are there possibilities to help them become more connected with your congregation and with faith—or the needs you are helping with in your area?

Thoughts, examples, or stories you’d like to share? I would love to do a follow up with your examples. Email me at or write to Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850.

More on Trinity Presbyterian Church.


Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication.  

  1. Beverly Silver permalink

    Thanks, Melodie, for that summary of our meeting with the students. I hope we (TPC) will continue to pay attention to this “Neighborhood” area.It aso reminded me that at Sunnyside there are contacts with students in several ways, even some of the volunteers for “stirring apple butter for the fall festival” with students who are members of several service societies on campus. They get a chance to meet “seniors” in a context different from their usual modes of contact. Also there are interns in several academic majors who come here to SS for varying lengths of time. These are more “secular” types of contacts and don’t usually touch on faith contexts, Both residents and students seem to benefit from this.

    • Beverly, thanks for noting the ways students are involved at Sunnyside. There are many organizations around town who benefit greatly (both ways) students/town interaction and effort. Thanks for describing some of them!

  2. When I was at EMC students were invited/encouraged to serve in churches in the hinterland instead of staying on campus. I remember attending in a country church called Deerfield. I wonder whether it still exists. One snowy Sunday as we returned our car flipped over and I landed in the hospital, not badly hurt. Of course we didn’t wear seat-belts back then.

    My church here in Jacksonville has an outreach on the campus of the University of North Florida, my alma mater for graduate studies. I have no idea what happens there. Your post encouraged me to check it out.

    Thank you, Melodie!

  3. Thanks for your comment Marian. I was part of that program too my sophomore year, a “Y-church” that served at Greenwood, I think the name was. I still have pictures, but have never been back, wouldn’t know how to find it!

    How awful to have such a bad accident, glad you weren’t badly hurt. I also traveled with a Y-team to Florida over Christmas. 🙂 Glad if this inspires more interaction for all of us. Incidentally, I didn’t mention this in the post, but it was a professor who invited some of his “best” students for that class, and we were extremely grateful for their willingness to sit in the hot seat in this manner. 🙂

  4. Athanasia permalink

    I have to say, I am reading this for the 4th time and still a bit confused, not anything to do with your writing, but as to why if you adjoin a huge sounding University you have no real student presence. We are also a University town and we have always had a fair number of students that come and go and some have stayed due to eventual marriage to one of our young people. That is how my parents met…he came here to go to school and she was a student in the same field, teaching.

    Don’t you already have outreach to the University? We supply snacks, along with other churches in town, to the Campus Fellowships…there are two which are non-denominational. The Lutherans and Catholics minister to their own with their specific denominational groups. We have our own College and Career group that includes a general invite out for every activity they plan…Bible Study, outing, social. We have a Church and Community committee who’s main purpose is to get out the word of our church and what we have to offer and get folks in for, not just a church service, but maybe starting with a game night or social night, or a hymn sing or VBS or youth rally etc etc.

    I took a close up look at your fellowship picture. I didn’t see many young folks and children. Like attracts like. The room looks small and crowded. There has to be room for a stranger to walk in and feel like there is space for them. Our church is more conservative than yours as I have noticed on other posts of yours, but even so we get a fair number of visitors, student and non student. I know you meet in houses at times…as a student thinking back I would find that very uncomfortable due to the clicque-ish feeling of an already tightly established group.

    I also realize that there can be much to be gained by both sides in a “millenial” and senior partnership, but it can also take on a “this is the way we did it and it should work for you” kind of
    feeling for the younger person if you are not careful.

    Best of wishes with your student outreach.

    • Athanasia, thanks for all this feedback. We do have, and have had, some student presence over the years, in different ways. Currently some from our church work with an interdenominational group on campus, “UKirk” for fellowship, worship and study with students (similar to what you mention, I think). There have been “adopt a college student” programs some years and provided lasting relationships for many.

      But you give good–great advice. Like attracts like. Amen. And yes, there has to be room for a stranger to walk in. I suppose home meetings could feel intimidating and like “too much commitment” is required. I have walked into home meetings and felt excluded too–a long time ago. All great reminders. Thanks for all your comments, questions, and observations. I have a feeling God is calling us to change and new opportunities. At least I hope so.

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