Students used to flock to the Living Room at Southampton but time, and the initiative's leader, has moved on since then. Nick Hutchinson, youth and student pastor at Highfield Church in the city, explains more.
When I arrived The Living Room had been going for a couple of years and, for a while, it was still very powerful with lots of interesting things going on. Its leader Zoe Hart had the original vision for it but – as so often happens – when the leader goes, that vision and enthusiasm can begin to decline.
Also we have to remember that student stuff moves on so quickly; if you keep on doing the same thing for two or three years, you start to lose it connection with the people you're trying to reach.
We employed another student worker and he soon realised that a lot of those coming to the Living Room by that stage were people he recognised from Christian Union and other churches in the area. To find out more, he put together a survey for everyone who came along over a three to four week period. He was proved right when about 80% of those attending completed it and we found that the vast majority, up to 70/80% of them were Christians.
We were meeting at 8pm on Sundays, immediately after the evening service times of many churches. So The Living Room had simply become another place for Christians to hang out on a Sunday. Those not really connected to church at all were very few in number.
A further student worker, after a year or so with us, suggested changing the meeting time specifically to attract non church people. We moved it to 7pm and tried it for two university terms. The impact on numbers was immediate. The Living Room attracted 140 at its peak; we had been running at about 80 to 100 on average but after the time change it dropped to 20 or 30 maximum.
In all honesty we didn't really have a problem with that. Having a smaller number of definitely 'non churchy' people getting together during the 6.30 service time meant you could build some genuine friendship and relationship but – in the end – it lagged. It needed a critical mass of people to be there to give it some energy.
From April 2010 we started to hold our Midweek Student Gathering on Wednesday evenings in the lounge at the church centre but I wouldn't say there was anything of fresh expressions about it now. As we had lost momentum with it so much it felt like we were starting from scratch but what has been good is that we are building friendships with students who are Christians. We usually get between 10 and 15 people from 5pm to 7pm for a meal and to pray, worship and have a Bible study together.
This gathering is much more of a pastorate thing and the smaller the group, the better the interaction. Of course our vision is for growth but if we get to about 30 we want to multiply and create two midweek student gatherings to run in parallel.
There are lots of challenges along the way. For instance, it is very difficult to get commitment and steadfastness from many of the students; we call it the 'flaky syndrome'. We have actually lost a lot of our team and have been trying to recruit new members but it's really a struggle. Maybe one of the side-effects of providing something that's really good, like Living Room was, is that people expect everything to be done for them without realising that it is because of student volunteers that it happens and will continue to happen. How do we encourage people between the ages of 18 and 35 to commit themselves to something and help to make it happen? All too often they may say they're going to come and be part of an event but then ring up at the last minute – they can't make it because they’re at a concert/going out/whatever it may be.
I'm sad about the fact that what The Living Room did in its original form was to draw in people who were not engaging with church in any other way, whereas now we are only connecting with people already connected with church. However we are doing a year of mission at Highfield Church and all the new projects that have sprung up are happening outside of the church building.
I think that God is saying to us:
- do fewer things on Sunday;
- do fewer things in the church itself.
One of the things that these new groups have shown us again is that we have to get away from the model of 'come to us'; we have to go to them.