With the cost of university education rising out of reach for many young people, and workers still relatively few in the harvest-field of youth ministry, Paul Franklin casts a vision for a new kind of mutually-beneficial partnership between churches and students.

Changing landscapes

The world of university education is changing. While there is increased pressure on individuals to study for a degree, the costs of doing so are now reaching epic proportions. With the questionable wisdom of the credit-card culture, our young people are forced to ‘buy now and pay later’ on their education, running up debt to tens of thousands of pounds in tuition fees and accommodation costs. But they have little choice. Staying at home is not always possible or realistic – and for many families the burden of supporting their student children is not exactly free or easy.

Like so many youth workers and ministers I do what I can to train up, empower, release and encourage our older young people to use their gifts and ministries in the church and in the world. The youth I work with amaze me with their ideas, creativity, energy, hard work and competence. I meet with them regularly and help them think through their hopes and dreams; concerns and worries. Many of them choose to go to university, but the amount of debt they would get into troubles them. They think through the possibilities of getting a part-time job to help them through, but in student towns and cities such work is often highly competitive and difficult to obtain, and is hardly rewarding or vocational in nature.

I chat and pray with them about trusting God and entering into life in its fullness – the Kingdom life that Jesus calls us to (John 10:10) – but if I’m honest something troubles me about the choices they are being forced to make.

Meanwhile we are also aware that things in the church are rapidly changing. With many congregations growing old, there are less people to even ‘keep the show on the road’, let alone engage seriously in outreach or mission. While we may be fully aware that a healthy youth and childrens’ work is critical for both the church of the present and of the future that doesn’t help us to find suitably skilled, willing and inspiring volunteers to lead such work in our churches.

And yet we are reminded again and again in the Bible not to allow ourselves to be given over to despair. Whatever the cultural landscape, we are called to be people of hope because of God’s promises: ‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

We need to be people of vision and opportunity because we know that ‘Where there is no vision the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18). It is not enough for us to simply bemoan the current situation as unfortunate or think that prophetic vision is purely critical. We need to listen carefully to the Holy Spirit; to see the way in which things can be different, the ways in which the situation can be turned around.

Student households are an attempt to do just that. They are a new and innovative way of connecting both of the above problems together and seeking to provide something of a solution. They aren’t a solution for every church or every individual – they won’t work everywhere. But like so many other mission initiatives of any substance the building blocks that form the project are transferable by nature, easily implemented and fairly straightforward.

So here’s the vision in a nutshell: What happens if we make university life more affordable for Christian students while they volunteer a number of hours part-time to help in our churches? What if we offered free accommodation to these students in a house together and they threw some time, energy, gifts and vision into our congregations, releasing a new level of life and energy?

A new vision

That’s really how the New Ground project, with which I’m involved, came about. The vision was to develop a student household where each student worked at a different church but they all lived together in a sort of Christian community. In fresh expressions terms it’s more monastic than congregational, but it seeks to bless congregations through the time and energy being released and invested in the local church.

A student household might initially look like any other student house: for one thing it’s probably not all that clean! But if you were to watch closely you would discover that it was anything other than typical. The students who live there are different from most students; refreshingly different from even most Christian students. They are committed to serving the local churches, helping with youth and childrens’ work, creating publicity or running house groups. They don’t seem to be concerned about what they are getting, only about what they are giving.

This is not a group of students that all attend some big student church together. Many of them attend small and struggling congregations. Some are very traditional, some lively and informal. But it doesn’t seem to matter to the students involved. They just invest their time and energy into the place and the people, loving and serving as best they can. They’d probably be involved in handson ministry for two or three nights a week, helping to run youth and childrens’ work, doing pastoral work, going to PCC meetings or being part of house groups.

On a Sunday morning they happily do what they can to use their gifts and skills: maybe co-ordinating Sunday groups for children or helping with the music; possibly preaching or helping with setting up and clearing away. More often than not they throw time and care into any youth work that is happening, mentoring teens.

There is more. The house spends time in worship together, and they are purposeful in the way they carry out mission, thinking carefully about how they can impact the student community. They think small, preferring natural organic growth to large events. The house itself is a natural hub of community for their student friends, whether Christians or not. It’s a gathering place, a deep place.

But don’t for a moment think of this as a boring or overly serious space. It’s still the sort of fun household that you would expect when people live life to the full.

There are regular parties and a natural student vibe. No-one visiting the house would think it was in any way withdrawn or weird. It’s engaging, playful, hopeful, loving. It has the kind of life to it that places and people can only have where the Holy Spirit is at work. Each year the members of the household change. Some may stay on for another year, some may move on to other things and be replaced. It seems to flow easily and naturally as new students catch the vision and get involved. At the start of the year each household goes away on a residential together to receive training and envisioning along with others doing the same sort of thing. They catch the vision afresh, and come back ready to ‘do the stuff’.

That’s the New Ground vision in its fulness, how a household should look at its best, and how it can be of help to the churches around it. But however strong the vision is it needs to be realistic logistically and financially if it is ever to be more than just a wish-dream. Fortunately the project does have a grounded view of the financial situation of many churches and while it’s obviously not cost-free it does arguably provide very good value for money, as well as a wider purpose.

The key to understanding student households is that they are built on a foundation of mutual benefit to both the students and the churches involved. The students do not receive any money but they do receive their accommodation in the house for free. This is a huge help to them: it is difficult for students to find suitable work around their study hours, and the costs of student accommodation are huge. Investing their time in the local church helps the church, and receiving free accommodation makes financial sense and blesses a Christian student. That’s how the project holds together. It’s also an almost exact application of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10:7 where the disciples are encouraged to accept food and accommodation in return for their ministry in a place.

That means that financially the main costs of the project are related to the costs of providing suitable accommodation for the household. This can be done in one of two ways: using a property if you already have one or renting a student property if not. Either way the costs for each church involved in the project are likely to be around £2,000 - £3,500 each year. Other than the accommodation costs there may be some incidental expenses and some advertising or furniture costs. We’ve not found these to be too significant, except in the first year where a greater outlay is needed to get the project off the ground.

The Benefits

There are a number of potential advantages to New Ground-style student households:

• They help smaller churches in a student town or city to support and grow youth and childrens’ ministry and hopefully break the cycle of an aging congregation and decline.

• They help to ensure that not all students in a town or city go to the same church. They give a real reason for some students to invest their gifts, time and energy in less attractive or lively churches, choosing to serve instead of to consume.

• They support able and talented Christian students, helping them to grow in their gifts and their leadership skills. They provide an ‘official’ position in a local church community whereas often students find it hard to be recognised or to feel a full part of a church when they move to university.

• Rather than perpetuating a division between those who do ‘full-time ministry’ and those who don’t, this model blurs the boundaries, encouraging students of all disciplines to excel in secular subject areas and train for jobs outside the church while also growing in gifts and skills that they will always be able to use in local church communities. Effectively it is an investment in lay training which the church desperately needs.

• They help Christian students to financially afford their studies, ensuring that we are supporting them as they grow in the fulness of life and in their studies. We will be blessing them in a very practical and helpful way to move from school to adult life without inheriting a huge debt.

• They give the students involved the necessary motivation to commit to a church at university, which many Christians find difficult when they leave their home churches. This could help to stop those aged eighteen to thirty from just falling out of the habit of going to church. It also encourages a positive and activist approach to church life, giving a real reason and vision that goes deeper than just ‘attending’.

• They help local churches to work together in a very practical way on their youth and childrens’ work in particular. Communication becomes easy and natural when key workers live together in the same house. The house can also become a centre for community and a meeting place, a real sign of church unity.

• The students in the household can be a support and help to their Chaplaincy or Christian Union at university, providing the resource of a household committed to worship and mission and rooted in the local church.

• Compared to a simple gap year programme, students are more likely to remain in post for two or even three years, which helps so much with long term planning and development. It also helps with building quality lasting relationships, which is an essential part of youth ministry.

• Many students will live in the same town or city that they studied in when they graduate, so it is very possible that if they have integrated well into local churches then they will stay there even after they move out of the household.

Clearly then if student households are developed nationally they could have a significant impact on many areas of church life. The vision goes beyond the immediate needs of any church or area: it’s about equipping the people of God for the works of service and ministry, and it’s about blessing and supporting Christian students as they carry out their studies and use their gifts in the local church.

Humble beginnings

However I feel the need to be totally honest. This project is still very small. There’s nothing impressive about it. As I write this article there is no flashy website, no set of glossy resources and no existing network of student households. I wrote a primer to help people understand the concepts involved but really the only evidence we have that the project works is a rather messy example of it in our own town of Whitstable.

Four years ago we really began to look into recruiting students to help us in a serious way with our youth ministry. A year and a bit later we started the project, but even then we had to take on gap year volunteers rather than students as we lacked the contacts we needed locally, and because, being based eight miles away, we seemed to be a little too far from the universities to make a student household work.

Eventually in the second year of the project we took on our first student who has stayed with us for two years. He has worked alongside some other gap year volunteers in a good but imperfect version of a New Ground household. Recently we have had more interest from other students and the project seems to be gaining momentum. Regardless, it seems obvious that being the distance we are from a university town the ‘pure’ version of a student household is not going to be quite within our grasp.

It seems a little hyprocritical then to be presenting this as a working model. It’s in the very early stages of development, being more a good idea than an established form of missional community. The truth is that while I feel somewhat embarrassed placing such a poor example on the table I also feel compelled to make this model available to the wider Church because its been on my heart to do so and I feel the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I offer it as gently and honestly as I can in the hope that it does something to help both Christian students and local congregations.

Ultimately I believe that God wants to change the face of the national church through a network of student households, and that the current financial difficulties facing congregations and students may open up new and exciting ways for us to see the Kingdom break through.

Paul Franklin is Youth Minister for the Whitstable Team Ministry in Kent, where he pastors a youth congregation called ‘Y’ and heads up the ‘New Ground’ project. His short primer booklet, New Ground, is available on Amazon.