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From the classroom to the campus

Helping students in Canada transition from school to university

Callum was a regular at church, even through his teenage years. He played the drums in the church youth band once a month, and in his final year of high school he was one of the leaders at the Friday night youth club. The younger boys looked up to him. Christian family, summer camps, youth group — he would be fine at university, no question.

But Callum wasn’t fine at university. He never really settled into a church — it was a bit of a walk from where he was living, and the morning service started at 9.30am (much too early after a night-out). He went along once or twice to the student fellowship group in the first semester, but they kept going on about evangelism and it made him feel uncomfortable. He never went totally off the rails, he just slowly drifted away. The change was so gradual, he hardly noticed it. Finals, football and a new girlfriend took up all his time. Four years later when he graduated and landed a good job in the city, it didn’t even cross his mind to find a church. He no longer called himself a Christian anyway.

The alarming reality

Callum’s story is based on the story of thousands of young people in Canada.

A survey carried out in 2011 showed that two out of three young adults (aged 18–34) who had been raised in the church in Canada, were no longer attending. The survey results shook the Christian community across the country. The drop-out rate was alarmingly high. Since then, InterVarsity Canada have been taking action to try to reverse the trend: three years ago they recruited staff to re-pioneer high schools work in a couple of its big cities. Their focus would be on getting the students into the Bible, encouraging them to think missionally and helping them to transition well into university.

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Laying the foundations

It was not going to be a quick or easy task. Once healthy and thriving, high schools ministry in Canada had declined in the 1990s and early 2000s, as schools became less open and various staff members left. They needed to start again from scratch.

In Toronto, Inter-Varsity staff spent a few years concentrating on building relationships and trust with local pastors and headteachers. When doors started to open up, they found that the familiar campus ministry model would need to be adapted for the high school context. For one thing, the students’ lunch breaks were short. They’d only have about 15 minutes for a Bible study, so the passages would have to be chosen carefully — a short parable or just a few verses. The staff were keen to equip the students with skills to handle the Bible faithfully on their own. So they taught the students how to ask simple questions of the passage: What could they observe? What did it mean? How could they apply it to their own lives? These were tools they could use in their personal Bible study times or in leading groups in the future.

42-week mission trip

Helping high school students develop a missional mindset was key. But how? Toronto staff had an idea. They knew that most students would be familiar with the concept of a short-term mission trip — one or two weeks in the summer serving overseas or downtown in the city. Staff decided to capitalise on that and launched the idea of a 42-week mission trip. The school campus was their mission field for every week they were at school. They encouraged the young people to team up, to pray, to survey and plan, to try something, and then to debrief together — just as they would do on a short-term mission trip. They asked the students to consider where they were already involved in school life — a sports team, a jazz band, a social action club — and then encouraged them to live and think missionally in those communities.

Slowly, the students started to get on board. The weekly lunchtime slots became evangelistic opportunities, while planning and prayer moved to the mornings or after school. 60–80 students came along to Christmas and Easter events, organised and led by the students themselves. One group of guys ran a ‘pop and prayer’ event, where they handed out free pop to teachers and students, and then offered to pray for them. One girl finished school and then decided to take a year out serving Inter-Varsity school Christian fellowships — she started leading a Bible study for Muslim students.

Developing Bible-based, mission-minded high school students was one thing; but would they stick at it when they transitioned to university?

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Transition 101

To help give the high school students a fighting chance of transitioning well into university life, a new initiative was launched in Toronto this year: Transition 101. Different youth ministries teamed up to host an event at which Christian university students would come and meet high school students. There were seminars on a range of topics, including how to survive at university, apologetics, spiritual disciplines and mental health.

It was also an opportunity for the high schoolers to make connections with older students already there, students who could encourage them to keep the missional mindset as they started at university in a few months’ time. Research carried out in 2018 found that young adults going on to further education are four times more likely to connect with a Christian campus group or chaplaincy if someone from their home church tries to make a connection for them. Initiatives like Transition 101 will, God-willing, help reduce the drop-out rate.

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Hitting the ground running

There are already stories of students transitioning well. Noah is one of those. He’s just started university in Canada, having been involved in InterVarsity ministry in high school. He writes about his experience as a freshman so far:

“Having been part of a Christian group in high school, I was able to learn about on-campus ministry opportunities before getting to university. That made it easier to get involved once university started. I knew that I wanted my faith to continue to grow and my relationship with Jesus to deepen. Looking back on my first month of university, my main encouragement for future freshmen would be to get involved with on-campus ministry and find a church to call home as soon as possible, before the semester gets into full swing.”

InterVarsity Canada staff are praying that there will be more stories like Noah’s, of students arriving at university ready to hit the ground running. In such a vast country, staff-workers are spread thinly. If student ministry is going to flourish it’s essential to get Christian students on board as early as possible with the vision of reaching out on campus. Similarly, it’s important to invest in graduates as they transition into the working world, so that they, too, can hit the ground running in their workplaces, envisioned to live and speak for Jesus.

InterVarsity Canada President Nigel Pollock reflected:

“We are increasingly seeing that discipleship is a process from early teens to late 20s. Student ministry — and in particular being involved in leadership in a campus group — is a really significant opportunity for students to grow in a different environment which complements and adds to their local church experience. Mentoring students through the key transitions from high school to university and from university into work makes an enormous difference to the effectiveness of student ministry and the impact of the gospel in people’s lives.”

Only with continued investment in these critical transition stages might the trends be reversed. Pray with us that this might be so, in this generation.

The full survey reports can be found here:

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