From dorm move-in to welcome week events to the awkward silence that can happen when talking with a new student…what an exciting time of year! A new college semester is beginning.
One of the best parts of this time of year is having the opportunity to get to know students from all over the world. Some of these students are Christ-followers, some may be nominally engaged with the church, and others have yet to trust Jesus. What a great opportunity that, in his kindness, the Father presents us each year!
Having been involved in collegiate ministry for more than fifteen years, there are a few things we like to provide for new and returning students in the fall semester. One of the events that we value is a fall retreat. I want to encourage local church and campus ministry leaders to see the positive results that can come when we invest in fall retreats for college students.
Why do we need a retreat? Didn’t we just start the semester? In our case, we look at the first six to eight weeks of the fall semester as our opportunity to have as many evangelistic conversations as we can. This can mean gospel conversations or conversations that help students connect to a local church. In either case, we want to build bridges in conversation that help nurture relationships. We choose to be involved on campus and in the lives of many students for the first part of the fall semester because this is when students begin forming some of their deepest relationships that will follow them throughout their college years and even into their careers. During this six to eight week marathon of conversations, we are inviting students to our church and our upcoming fall retreat.
If we look at the life and ministry of Jesus, we see him draw his disciples away from the crowds so that he could have their undivided attention to teach them and pray with them. I think he was doing this to cultivate a new heart within them and nurture the fellowship that he was creating within them. I think it is important to see the fall retreat in some similar ways. Students who go on a fall retreat will be totally separated from the hustle and bustle of campus and have a chance to hear the gospel and deepen relationships with believers. God, in his grace, offers us special opportunities like this to intersect the lives of the ones that he is drawing to himself in a way that may not be available to us otherwise. It is these moments and conversations that God grants us that we don’t want to miss.
Where should we retreat? Does proximity to the campus matter? Jesus leading his disciples away for a short period has always made sense to me. When I am researching a potential retreat location I look for a few things including proximity to the campus, wifi, and then the actual retreat amenities. For me, I want a location that is at least one and a half hours away from our campus and limited wifi for a weekend retreat. This is important because I don’t want students to be close enough to campus that they can simply drive back home at the end of the day. I also prefer limited cell service so that students can unplug and focus for the weekend. As much as is humanly possible these days, I want their undivided attention as long as I can have it to make sure they hear the gospel clearly and strengthen relationships.
Lastly, a fall retreat is a perfect opportunity to have other church members join in the effort. This shows students a bigger picture of the faith family and helps the church as a whole to remember their role in taking the gospel to the college campus. So when you begin planning your retreat, consider the ones that will be helping you. Invite specific individuals to come and help. The way we frame our ask sounds like this, “If we gave you the chance to hang out with and invest your time in college students, is that something you would be up for?” Then we outline for them what that looks like, from cooking meals to planning games or facilitating small group discussion following a time of worship to helping a student repent and confess Christ. Depending on their ability and availability we would help them in whatever ways we can so that we can have them at the retreat with us. If you are a small or new church, consider partnering with another local church with similar beliefs and vision for ministry. Or if you are in a town with a campus ministry, consider asking them to partner with you. Chances are that they have planned and facilitated fall retreats for many years.
In the end, fall retreats are not the only way, but they are a great way to have intentional time set aside to invest in college students. Starting the conversation with them in the fall of their freshman year may not seem like it makes much of a difference right then, but just wait. Like a farmer must do the hard labor in the beginning, tend to the young crop by watering and pulling weeds, they know that the fruit is in the harvest. In Luke 10:02, Jesus reminds his disciples of what God is calling us to by telling them to pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send out laborers into a white harvest. By his grace, God has prepared the souls of those that would repent and confess sin and, because he is kind to us, he uses us to be there to care for those that he saves. Fall retreats are a great way to begin this conversation. Fall retreats are a great place to cultivate these ongoing relationships. Fall retreats are just one way that we can be obedient to what God is calling us to in making disciples of all nations.
Aaron Barnes is the Executive Pastor & Pastor to College Students at Anchor Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. You can follow the church on Instagram @AnchorChurchAL.