It seems that not a single aspect of life was untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, college ministry included.
With the sudden changes brought to campuses in spring 2020 and later social distancing guidelines and restrictions during the 2020–21 academic year, Alabama’s Baptist Campus Ministries also had to adapt.
“We were scrambling to figure out a way to stay in touch for the last month-and-a-half of the [spring 2020] semester,” said Sean Thornton, Auburn University BCM campus minister. “We learned on the fly how to have Zoom meetings, along with everyone else. There was a newness and excitement to that aspect at first; but, of course, we all got tired of Zoom after a while.”
One of the biggest challenges BCM faced was reaching freshmen.
Due to a lack of orientation and in-person gatherings and events, it was difficult for campus ministers to meet new students. Online and socially distanced events not only affected new students, but also upperclassmen.
Adjusting to the new normal of having both classes and ministry events online was a shock and became difficult for many students.
“One challenge for our upperclassmen was culture shock,” said Kimberly Andrews, University of Alabama BCM campus minister. “A lot of what they knew of college was suddenly very different at the home they had established away from their hometown.”
Issue of loneliness
While the pandemic created numerous challenges, it also brought to light students’ needs and desires.
The pandemic illuminated the major issue of loneliness among college students, making it important for ministries to provide multiple social settings for students to connect with fellow believers — even after COVID-19.
“I recognized this year just how much students need the social aspect of our ministry,” Thornton noted. “They need to be around other believers both in formal and informal settings.
“Loneliness was a real issue that students faced last year. It is probably always a problem, but we were more aware of it due to the pandemic.”
Smaller event settings due to social distancing allowed campus ministers and students to be more intentional and aware of discipleship.
“While large group attractional events may be fun, it is the initiation of a gospel friendship that makes the real difference in someone’s life,” Auburn BCM campus minister Stephen Thompson said. “Students stayed involved in reaching out to peers through appropriate-sized gatherings for life groups, fellowship events, prayer tables and spiritual surveys on the concourse.”
Thompson noted that student efforts to stay involved despite COVID-19 restrictions led to new students attending weekly worship gatherings.
Additionally, he saw an increase in gospel conversations, accountability and discipleship relationships.
“Students this year expressed strong desire to deepen their experiences in the areas of Christian community-building, discipling peers, evangelism and prayer life,” Thompson said. “Toward the end of this year, student leaders recognized they could have used the fellowship events we were able to provide as more purposeful platforms for outreach, rather than seeing the same core participants at each [one].”
Thompson also realized the importance of engaging with students in a more personal, smaller setting.
“While it seems to get harder each year to put myself out there among thousands of very young faces, this year in particular taught me to embrace my real strength with students through one-to-one mentoring,” Thompson said.
While leaders and students of BCM are excited to return to large-group settings and more in-person events this school year, campus ministers hope to continue embracing the lessons they learned during the pandemic to help equip students to live by the gospel and to strengthen relationships.