Four Questions to Ask Returning College Students Over Christmas Break

As a youth minister, your schedule for the weeks leading up to Christmas is probably filling up with coffees and lunches as past students make plans to travel home for the holidays. Your students will have lots of people to catch up with as well. Everyone will want to know about their roommates and classes, what they’re studying or how they’re getting involved on campus.  But you may be one of the only people a student visits over Christmas break who asks her about her spiritual life.

We have a unique opportunity to continue discipling our former students. So let’s not miss it! Let’s not allow these brief conversations blow past us without asking some deeper questions.

What’s been the best part of this semester and what’s been the hardest part?

I was surprised to see one of our youth group graduates home for the weekend recently. He’s one of those kids who has taken to college life like a duck to water, so without even thinking, I quipped, “How’s it going? Still loving it?!” He replied honestly that it had been a hard few weeks with friendships and classes. I thanked him for being so real and apologized for my insensitive assumption.

When we see our returning students, it’s too easy to defer to how they were doing the last time we saw them, or even to project happy memories of our own college experiences. Asking about the good and the hard right up front lets our students know that we want to see the real them, not some polished up version who is doing “so great, thanks!”  By opening with a question that anticipates both good and hard things, we set the stage for a deeper conversation; we invite students to see their lives through the lens of the gospel.

What’s something God has been teaching you?

I don’t know about you, but I can often struggle to shift a catching-up kind of conversation to a deeper spiritual one. I often find myself needing a question that probes a little deeper than simply asking about their involvement in a Christian campus group and a local church (which of course we do want to ask!). More than what they’re doing, I want to know how they are relating to God—how he is meeting them by his grace in the ordinary moments of life away at school. I’ve found that asking about what God has been teaching a student is good place to start.

Some students will balk at this question, and that can be telling. If a student can’t think of one thing God has been showing him or her this semester, a good follow-up question might be, “what are some of the challenges you’re facing in hearing from God right now?” Perhaps a student will disclose a sense of overwhelm at reading the Bible on her own, or share with sadness that God has felt distant as she’s gotten wrapped up in the party scene. These are moments to express the gospel of grace again, to remind our students that nothing they can do will secure their place with God—Christ has already done it. He stands ready to welcome them back in their failure and shame if they will only look to him.

Asking about what God has been teaching your student might prompt him to share that he is experiencing serious doubts about Christianity. In other cases, a student might reveal that he is no longer following Jesus. I’m learning that I want to get to this second question as quickly as I can in the conversation in order to maximize any opening a student gives into these deeper heart issues. There’s nothing worse than hearing a disclosure like this at the very end of the conversation with no time left to meet up before a student heads back to school. Instead, as far as it depends on us, we want to affirm our love and the Lord’s, and to invite him to tell us more.

On the other hand, when a student shares from the heart about how God is meeting him or her, the conversation moves in a beautiful direction. Just this week I asked a student how she has seen God at work in her life recently. She shared excitedly how God has been answering her prayers that she would want to spend time reading his Word. Her answer led to a wonderful conversation about our dependence on God even to shape our desires. We both walked away encouraged, and the door was opened for future spiritual dialogue.

Where are you in the process of finding a local church?

Although church attendance doesn’t tell us everything about how a student is doing spiritually, it is certainly part of the equation. Of course we want our students to worship regularly with other believers and to serve as part of the body (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

In catching up with our returning students, then, we’ll want to ask whether they’ve found a local church. If the answer is YES, ask your student to tell you about his criteria for choosing. What does he love about the community? Does he have any remaining questions or concerns? How does he sense God calling him to use his gifts ?

If the answer is NO, ask what you can do to help. Let your student know you are willing to help her research by looking together at different churches’ statements of faith and even watching a service together on YouTube (since that’s a thing now in some cases).

How can I be praying for you, and especially for your spiritual life?

We’ve probably all experienced a small group where prayer request time amounts to everyone asking for prayer for their grandparents and pets (hello, middle school youth group!). While it’s good and right to bring these needs before the Lord together, we also long for students to share more vulnerably about their inner lives. So let’s be bold to ask this directly in one-on-one conversations with our returning students.

Not every student will take the bait to offer a deeper prayer need, but we can model it by sharing a spiritual need of our own. Of course we want to exercise discernment in what we reveal personally to students. It’s not generally helpful to get into nitty-gritty details, especially if they are of a nature that would merit counseling (a pornography addiction, for example). But we could share about our own struggle with feeling we need to be impressive in our spiritual life, for example. Then we can express a specific way we need God to meet us in the gospel—by reminding us that Jesus has done all that is needed for us to be approved through his perfect life and his death for our sin. By inviting our students to join us in our prayer needs, we open the door for them to share their own. We can also let students know that we’d love for them to text us with specific prayer requests anytime. And we can follow up every so often asking how they’re doing and how we can pray.

As we welcome our youth group alumni home this Christmas season, I pray our conversations will be “always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that [we] may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). I pray we won’t miss these holy opportunities to continue discipling the young people in our care.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years. She and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells, who delights them with his little boy energy. Chelsea holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. She is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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