Top 5 Ways to Engage College Students, part 5 of 5

As I have mentioned in previous posts in this series, there are many more ways to engage college students than just the five I am bringing. However, these five ways of engagement have proved themselves over and over again in my ministry on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.  This is the last post in the series. If you missed some of the other posts in this series, you can find them here: (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

5. Catch-Free Free Stuff

This final way of engagement is, I admit, a bit less weighty or “serious” as the last four ways have been. However, that doesn’t make it less important. This is the foot-in-the-door way of engaging non-Christian students, as well as those students who are not currently in your sphere. One thing that everyone knows is that college students love food. Free food is even better.  Free food without a catch is the best. The hardest part about giving away free stuff is making it catch free. Many groups on a college campus will give away stuff…as long as you give them your email, or register to vote, or vote for their queen for homecoming or…you get the picture.  When we can give free stuff simply to engage with students and to give them something, they notice.  No ministry stamped cups, no email sign ups, no trick, no bait-and-switch, but simply giving.

This is hard because we have goals for how many students come to our stuff. Although we may not say this, if we don’t increase our attendance or our offering while giving away free stuff, we feel as if we are wasting resources. Yet, we may, in fact, be investing deeper into the life of a student who would never come to our stuff anyway.

I’ve done both--catch free and bait-and-switch models of giving and have found that the one that has the most profound effect is, in fact, the catch-free model. Every Thursday, our church community gives away fifteen gallons of coffee and five gallons of tea and hot chocolate to college students on Pitt’s campus. We have our regulars who show up weekly. We have the occasional students and we have the random students. So far, from the 3+ years we’ve done this, we’ve only had one (maybe two) students come to church and join us because of coffee. Yet, some of my deepest conversations have happened during this time. A student talked to me every week about her abusive boyfriend and how to get out of it. A regular came and talked about his painful past. An atheist came and begged for prayer because her grandma just died and she wanted to believe that heaven could be real. If there was some sort of catch to the free things we provided, these students wouldn’t come. Even the freshman, by week three, have been so inundated with bait and switch giveaways they politely walk past these types of tables. Yet because our community stumbled upon this catch-free thing, we have students who stop by and feel comfortable developing relationships with us.

Don’t let the idea of “roping people in” effect how you love the students around you. Students are not projects, but people. Giving simply to give helps speak this message loudly!

I’m well aware that these five methods I have discussed are not fool-proof ways of engaging college students, nor are they the only ways. Yet these have been some of the most important in my journey of ministering to college students. Thank you for journeying with me!

Feel free to check out my book (What Good is Jesus) or connect with me via Twitter @marv_nelson