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I was called by University Baptist Church in August of 2020 with the purpose of diving headfirst into student ministry, both continuing to build upon our existing youth ministry, and beginning to build a kind of college student outreach that UBC is perfectly situated to host. Located directly across the street from University of Virginia, we knew there were many needs, especially in the middle of a pandemic with all the libraries of the university and local coffee shops closed down. We were forced to get creative with how we addressed those needs, and this creativity resulted in two outreach efforts that are launching us into the future with hope for a thriving college ministry.

First, we opened our doors to students as often as possible. UBC has been offering “A Quiet Place to Study” during finals for years, but we extended study hours throughout the whole semester, advertising with other student groups, campus ministers, and churches that our office hours were available for students to drop in and study in any open room in the church building. Throughout the fall semester, we had a variety of students drop in and utilize the space to get out of their apartments or dorm rooms, participating in Zoom classes, writing papers, and even studying for the bar exam. Music majors came to use our choir suite to record videos of themselves playing violin and piano for their assignments.

Between September 28 and December 1, 2020, approximately 20 students logged over 250 hours of study time in our building. In the spring semester, we extended our hours even further. I contacted each student who had been coming in the previous semester and gave them a security code to access our building at any time. We chose to trust these students to be respectful of the opportunity and access, and they certainly rose to the occasion! In the spring semester, we saw even more students pass through our building, with a handful choosing to come almost every day of the semester.

This successful outreach effort led us to think about addressing the same type of need in a long-term way: if we want to be a church that welcomes and offers support to college students, how do we send the message to college students that they belong in this space and this congregation? Our answer: we give them their own space in this building permanently! We already had a dedicated youth room, but we were University Baptist Church with no university student room! We designated one of the larger Sunday school rooms that had been mostly unused for several years as our student space. The space got a makeover that included fresh paint, the addition of many electrical outlets around the room, including USB and USB-C wall plugs, and a chalkboard painted alcove for a prayer wall. We furnished the room with donations from the congregation via an Amazon wish list sent out in our newsletter. This Amazon list included items as inexpensive as $5 phone charging cords (just in case someone forgot their own!), midrange items like a new Keurig and microwave, as well as larger furniture pieces like desks, desk chairs, bookshelves, coffee table, and a new smart TV.

We completed our renovation on the new college room just before spring finals week. During finals, we were able to have vaccinated volunteers in the building to host late-night study hours until 10 PM. We advertised our available hours with targeted ads on Facebook and Instagram, as well as signs outside on the front of the building. In the newly renovated room, we set up a variety of snacks and beverages, and I camped out in that room until 10 PM every night for a week straight, having conversations with every student that passed through. We laughed; we streamed Disney movies during study breaks; and we talked about all kinds of topics that allow a student to ignore their finals. (Why do Methodists get new ministers every few years but Baptists have the same ones for twenty years at a time? Cheetos or Cheez-Its? Why didn’t anyone actually talk to me about sex when I was younger? How is it possible for Cruella DeVil to have the best villain theme song but never actually sing?)

Overall, our congregation made it possible for us to build a foundation in the midst of a pandemic that we are hoping will spring up into a fruitful college ministry in the fall semester. We started advertising fall Bible study and a fall break retreat with posters around the church during spring finals. Moving forward, we intend to keep access to the building available for students at all times, resetting the student code for building access each fall. By creating a space where we tell students that they are welcome and wanted; by honoring students with trust; and by sharing access to the church building with students, we have created a culture that draws students into the church without requirement or question. We’ve started with a relationship that might draw a student into worship services, rather than waiting for a student to show up in worship and then moving into relationship with them.