If you haven’t taken advantage of the approaching Easter (or even if you have), some opportunities still exist…

  1. Round up your students to participate in something a local church (or other college ministry!) is doing (like a special worship service, a seminar, a family event, etc.).
  2. Connect with a local church who could use some extra hands this week, preparing for their big service or other event. Recruit students to help.
  3. Encourage students (even by email) with tips and exhortation about sharing Jesus with family this weekend.
  4. Encourage students (even by email) with tips and exhortation about witnessing to friends this week.
  5. Prepare to do something after the weekend to debrief about the weekend, or about opportunities students had this week.
  6. Prepare to do something after Easter to invite students on campus to hear what this whole Easter thing was about.

It’s pretty interesting that both Easter and Christmas, such important moments for churches and for Christendom, are often particularly uneventful times for collegiate ministry. Students might go home over the weekend, for one thing. And many of us don’t meet on the weekend anyway; a “Tuesday night Easter service” doesn’t seem all that urgent. And even in church-based college ministries that meet on Sunday, students might be thinking more about family lunch than about their normal routine.

But I think we have to remember that for many students, these Easter season is still a time when interest in “religion” is piqued:

  • Some students feel like they “should” be going to church or doing something “religious.”
  • Some local churches in your town are advertising or otherwise reminding everybody that it’s Easter.
  • Some students will be antagonistic toward the whole thing.
  • And some students, seeing themselves as culturally curious, are intrigued by this “vintage” holiday with its ancient story.

In any case, we have opportunities this week. And what’s more, our individual students have opportunities this week. Have you challenged your students to be on the lookout? Are they ready to share the story in a winsome and interesting way? Are they ready to point staying-in-town students to solid, local churches for this Sunday (even if you’re a campus-based ministry)?

If our students aren’t ready for the week, they should be. This week provides opportunity for natural dialogue in a way few other weeks do, and you never know when a question like “Does your family celebrate Easter?” could turn into a powerful conversation.

What will you do to help students plan for growth and impact this summer? They’re looking at three whole months that could – for many of them – provide amazing chances to walk with the Lord in spiritual progress and ministry.

But planning for it makes it quite a bit more likely.

It may start with simply having students prepare a list of goals for the summer. That sounds simple enough, but getting them to think and pray it through is key. Maybe after they do, they can share the list with others (which might give students some new ideas, too). Or even establish a little accountability with a friend, with a staff member, and/or by writing themselves a letter that you send them midway through the summer.

And the list may not just involve spiritual growth aims (reading the Bible, memorizing verses, reading Christian books, etc.). It should also include ministry aims – people they hope to have spiritual conversations with, ways to get involved at their church, people they need to serve, even people from their past they need to share with, resolve conflict with, or disciple.

But if I was doing this (and had the time), I might go a little deeper. Maybe teach a lesson on planning for spiritual growth and goal-setting, either in our normal meeting or in a special half-day pre-summer teaching time (like on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon).

There are also ways to build this into a ministry-wide thing. Maybe a book club, and you can discuss a book every few weeks through a Google Hangout or chatting or in-person (depending on your situation). Similarly, a Bible-reading plan or simply an occasional update-and-pray-for-each-other chat would allow students to encourage each other continue growing.

Even if students do go away for the summer, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have a mid-summer party, and checking up on their growth and impact could be one goal!

Our church held its twice-a-year all-staff Play Day yesterday, and it just reminded me of how important fun is to maintaining a thriving ministry. And that applies to college ministry, too – even if it’s so “natural” to have fun in a collegiate setting that we think we don’t need to plan for it.

The trouble is, we might not be right about that. It’s easy to have “purposeful fun” at the beginning of a school year, when it’s got a recruiting aim. But what have you actually done lately simply to help your students have a good time – and to have a good time with your students?

Certainly, some college ministries have focused here; they build “fun” into their calendar year-round and excel at the campus parties and other social activities they pursue. But for the rest of us, a few questions:

  • Are your students always having fun without you (and other staff or adult volunteers)? Having fun with your students should be part of the schedule.
  • Are you willing to hold an event focused solely or at least primarily on having fun? Too often, we only have fun when it’s part of something else – a recruiting event, the tail end of a mission trip, etc.. It’s okay to have a one-purpose event sometimes, and it’s okay for that purpose to be having fun together.
  • What’s your personal theology of fun? (Yes, I’m serious.) How does that translate to the way you do college ministry?

For one day every year, I’m a huge Luther Vandross fan.

They don’t make videos like this for a national audience about any other ministry area, do they? I started tearing up before they even got to the actual game clips – the creativity, the goofiness, the fun, the excitement of bands and players and cheerleaders gets me every time.

Who are we, that we get to serve in this awesome mission field?

If you can’t remember why I get so excited about this Tournament, here’s 2014′s “Vision Trip,” one last time…

4 tribes

Sixty-Eight: A Missionary’s Vision Trip

Suppose you felt the tug of a missionary calling. You might recognize a desire to help send others to reach unreached tribes; maybe you would consider engaging a mission field yourself. In either case, you might very well decide to take a Vision Trip to your potential mission field – an opportunity to “survey the land” to discover the opportunity and the need.

So imagine, if you will, taking such a trip to a nation filled with numerous individual tribes. You’ve heard reports that the need within each of these groups is critical, that these people are still largely unreached for the gospel, and that darkness abounds within these tribes. But you’ve also heard that these tribes are highly influential, and that their people are… interesting, to say the least. So you take a Vision Trip to observe, pray, and consider what God might have in mind, and which tribe He might call you to impact.

Your timing is fortunate: The month you visit, nearly seventy of these tribes are meeting in their great annual contest (known to the natives as “the Tournament”). Warriors from each tribe meet to compete in games of skill and endurance, and thousands from their villages surround the contests to watch.

So of course, you’ll watch this “Tournament,” too – perhaps it will provide a window into the tribes themselves.

A First Look

You first notice that each tribe rallies around its individual identity. For instance, many tribes have named themselves after animals known for their ferocity or agility – Gators and Wildcats, Tigers and Wolverines. Others have chosen less menacing avian monikers – Blue Hens, Bluejays, Cardinals, Ducks – but these tribes are no less proud. Some tribes honor ancient warriors – Spartans, Aztecs, Musketeers, Minutemen – or simply evoke nature’s terrors (like Cyclones or Golden Hurricanes). One tribe has taken the name of a nut believed to bring good luck (Buckeyes), another rallies behind the mythological Billiken, and some simply honor their regions’ industries, through names like Cornhuskers and Lumberjacks.

Of course, competition and tribal pride inspire plenty of festivity. Dancers are prevalent here – as are costumes, musicians, food, drink, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are present and may cheer alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but will face much taunting throughout). The entire event is quite noisy – but often, above the din, tribal chants rise: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

The Cardinal of Stanford uses whirling, dancing trees to represent their tribe on campus and in the Tournament.

The Cardinal of Stanford uses whirling, dancing trees to represent the tribe on campus and in the Tournament.

Looking Deeper

But you’ve come here to observe, not simply watch. And as the competitions begin, you look beyond tribal identities, pageantry, and revelry.

You are unable to deny the deep passion here, among warriors and watchers alike. Some competitors win, and the crowd’s elation is profound. Others, upon losing, may weep with an unbridled bitterness that would be shocking if you hadn’t seen fervent zeal displayed all along. You view transcendent, singular “shining moments” when Davids take down Goliaths, when boys become men for a few crucial minutes, when weakness is turned to strength to put opposing armies to flight. And suddenly, you want to serve among these people.

Of course, these are just games. But with missionary eyes even this fleeting contest reveals the clear potential in this passionate people…

First, the enthusiasm in these tribes has yet to be tamed. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom must be added to this messy zeal, of course – but with such energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

You also realize the bond within each tribe, the “spirit” shared by its members, is not frivolous. The natural community and surprising comradeship within these tribes could help God’s work spread among their members.

Further, creativity and intelligence abound here. Clearly these are future leaders. If God touches even a handful of these enthusiastic, connected, brilliant people, the impact within their own tribes – and beyond – could be quick and profound.

The “Research Triangle” is home to several tribes – including the Blue Devils of Duke (above), Tarheels of UNC, and Wolfpack of NC State. Every tribe is different, and each one requires a different missionary approach.

As you continue observing the Tournament, you begin to be awed that God might ask you to be involved in reaching such unique people. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and resources are vital for building strong and lasting work. But your Vision Trip has reminded you: This mission field offers a powerful adventure and blessings untold. And if these particular people are reached well, they in turn could change the whole world.

All the “madness,” the excitement, the passion, and the valor found in March’s Tournament reflect the beautiful mission field we reach through college ministry. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 48 of the schools in this year’s Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last seven years. (As is my custom, I’ll be wearing the “garb of the campus tribes” – T-shirts from those 48 schools – over the next 22 days of the Tournament.)

God is doing some amazing things throughout the campus tribes, but there is much more to be done. For more on what’s taking place and how we can impact better, download my free book, Reaching the Campus Tribes. And in case you’re wondering, the tribes pictured at the top are the Stanford Cardinal, Oregon Ducks, Kentucky Wildcats, and St. Louis Billikens.

This is something I’ve posted before (with some edits), but it’s a crazy thought for this moment in the school year – “so crazy it just might work”!

How hard are you recruiting students these days? Below, some of the reasons you should consider recruiting, right here at the end of the semester:

  1. It focuses on students becoming part of our group, rather than simply taking part in our events. Without an upcoming event or the start-of-semester hubbub to focus on, we get to highlight the community we simply offer, week after week.
  2. Some students feel the need for new spiritual involvement now, at the end of a long semester. If you offer that sort of involvement now (rater than simply in August), you’re meeting the need some students are feeling now.
  3. It doubles their exposure to your college ministry (if you plan to recruit when they return).
  4. It increases word-of-mouth. Before airing their first season, Glee famously used this strategy by airing their first episode right before a long pause for Summer Break – and it worked! Offer students good reasons to be excited for involvement next semester, and even if they don’t jump in now, they’ll be primed for joining in the fall.
  5. There’s more “room” for your group to make an impression. When students come back to school, your college ministry will be competing with dozens of other organizations, Christian and otherwise. Right now, your voice will be heard!
  6. It improves your summertime group. New students now may just be sticking around this summer; if they do, you’re building up that group with some “new blood.”
  7. It might serve as a spiritual anchor during the Break. Even if students don’t stick around, God just might use the expectation of spiritual involvement to encourage students spiritually across the long Summer Break. And if they’ve developed some connections (including with a college minister), they’ve got opportunities for long-distance discipleship during the summer, too.
  8. You have the time (perhaps). I know the closing days of a semester – especially Finals Week – can often provide a little more time-elasticity for campus ministers. Recruiting might be a great way to use your time before you cross the finish line!

All week, I’ve been discussing the mistaken assumption that student leaders will eventually “appear” organically, without a lot of effort on our part. (If you need to catch up, start here.)

For the Fridea this week, then, I wanted to throw out some methods that will help us find those non-apparent-but-still-important potential leaders.

1. Offer ministry-wide chances to apply for leadership positions. Even if you do “strongly urge” the students you already know to apply, there should be a period to see what “urging” God might want to do without your help! The application process isn’t just busy work, either; it lets you know who’s interested, lets you get to know some new students, and is a great chance for discipleship – even when you need to say No.

2. Build “get to know them” opportunities around the topic of Leadership. In sort of an extended version of #1, consider holding a leadership training – for anyone interested in the topic of Leadership or in potentially leading within your ministry. That lets you get to know potential leaders even before they apply! This is a fantastic way to disciple those who think they should lead (even when they’re wrong), build an understanding of expectations (even before students commit), and get to know future leaders who might not have made themselves obvious yet. And it keeps leadership-minded students from getting frustrated, because they have the chance to do something.

3. Build a strong, active leadership “farm team.” Besides your official leaders (those who actively lead other students), how many students simply volunteer within your ministry? Building service teams is one way for students to “get known” and even get trained in the context of areas they might end up leading.

4. Require student leaders to locate and raise up leaders behind them. This may be the next training session your present leaders need…

5. Teach your staff and leaders to identify faithful potential student leaders… even if they don’t fit the “profile.” We should be training staff and volunteers to notice faithfulness, not simply skill. And we should develop a culture of identifying-and-reporting potential leaders… year-round, not just when the next leaders are being chosen.

All week, I’ve been writing about a favorite counter-intuitive principle: Fantastic potential leaders aren’t necessarily easy to spot. While “the cream rises to the top” may be an alright principle, if treated as a rule it keeps students and our ministries from achieving what we could. [Start here if you're catching up on these posts.]

In other words, I don’t think the “organic” approach alone will locate everyone who should be leading within our college ministries. And what does this “organic-only” approach look like? I wrote this awhile back (edited a bit):

I have long been a believer in “testing and approving” students before they step into leadership within a college ministry. I know I’m not alone in that.

But in keeping with that principle, college ministers will sometimes only appoint leaders directly from among the “tested and approved,” instead of opening up the process ministry-wide. For example, future small group leaders might have to be secretly “nominated” by present small group leaders, a “leadership council” might be hand-picked from among those who have served regularly for a year or more, or only students “in the know” could explain how the leadership application process takes place. And so on.

But here’s an important note: I’m not opposed to the idea of pursuing students who have proven faithful. In fact, I think it’s pretty smart to explicitly encourage obviously strong students to lead within the campus ministry.

On the other hand, there’s good reason to make the PATH to leadership at least available for everybody (while still using great discernment about whom we actually allow to lead). I’ve come to recognize that some great leaders may simply not be noticed through the “normal” means. If your ministry is larger than 30 people (and perhaps even if it isn’t), it’s very likely there are strong potential leaders you don’t know about.

Sometimes without even realizing it (and other times on purpose), we make leadership opportunities rather secret… (see the entire post here)

It’s so natural to made leadership selection easy for ourselves. Sticking with students we know makes the whole process less “messy,” and it requires a lot less effort. But as shepherds, the sheep we’re missing are still sheep we’ve got to care about.

So what does this look like? Just in time for the Fridea, we’ll look at specific systems that can help tomorrow. But first, some questions that can help:

  1. Are leadership opportunities explicit? Even if we especially encourage notoriously strong students to step up, we can also let others know about the chance.
  2. Is “Leadership” something you teach? Shouldn’t all students be striving to lead, whether in your ministry, with their friends, or in other ways?
  3. Do you “showcase” the present leaders in your ministry? Since we cultivate what we honor, this is one key to raising up other great leaders.
  4. Are leadership opportunities regularly available? In college ministry, opportunities that are only “annual” may be easily overlooked.

The last couple of days, I’ve been arguing that we shouldn’t assume leaders will always “naturally” appear in the course of our ministry work – especially certain types of students.

Today, I planned to talk about systems for finding those leaders… but I realized some other types we might miss. Not only could we miss potential leaders who are new, introverted, on a different path, or wary of appearing arrogant (yesterday’s topics), there are other reasons we might miss our next, best leaders:

They don’t know their own strengths. Some of your students may not realize that “Leadership” is something to strive for within your ministry, or they don’t see themselves as potential leaders. So while their faithfulness and maturity could still get noticed, that all depends on how well people are noticing. In your ministry, there are likely some really strong potential leaders who will never apply for a position, let someone know they’d like to lead, or otherwise “raise their hand.” As their shepherd, it’s still our responsibility to help them become leaders. How will that happen?

They don’t know the right people. In some ministries, a potential leader (introverted or not) won’t get noticed until he finds a “champion” or a “sponsor” who happens to be well-known and well-liked. Unintentionally, a casual caste system develops, with the “inner circle” and their acquaintances filling all leadership roles. That’s a shame. Are all the leaders in your campus ministry already good friends with each other before they start leading? If so, that could actually signal a problem.

They’re serving faithfully in another venue. What if a student faithfully attends your ministry, considers it his spiritual “home” during college, but also serves as a chaplain in her sorority because it’s an amazing mission opportunity. Likewise, some of “your” students may serve outside of college ministry altogether – leading the youth at church, heading up a service organization, etc.. But four years is a long time (collegiately!), and some of those people would be great fits within the leadership of your ministry someday. But will they ever have the chance?

They’re scared off. This goes a little bit more toward pointing out the vicious-cycle nature of leadership selection. If your ministry really does trend toward selecting extroverts,  well-connected students, or students who have been around for multiple years, then your potential leaders will get that sense. In other cases, potential leaders may not see any clear path to serve within your ministry. Whether they realize these things explicitly or not, they still may wander elsewhere in an effort to lead – which is, after all, natural for the growing Christian student.

One final, vital note about these often-overlooked individuals: We need those types of leaders in our ministries. If our leadership teams are only made up of the type of students who organically “get noticed,” then we’re likely to have an unbalanced leadership team. In a large college ministry, you probably have several students who are faithful, mature, skilled potential leaders that haven’t been noticed yet.

How can you notice them? That’s tomorrow’s subject.

Yesterday I wrote about a common misconception: that student leaders will automatically “become known” soon enough, that even in large college ministries, the “cream always rises to the top” without a lot of effort on our part.

My concern is that we rely on this as though it’s a fact (rather than a principle). Of course we often come to know about leaders in this way. But without some other systems in place, we may miss out on some leaders who would have been fantastic – and whom we could have impacted in the process, too. And we run a giant risk of frustrating students who – for whatever reason – didn’t get the chance to “be known” and then use their gifts.

Some brainstorming on this...

Potential student leaders we might miss

The new student: Some college ministries do have systems in place to get to know freshmen and begin noticing their gifts, spiritual maturity, etc.. But we’re less likely to make room for the transfer student OR the student who joins our ministry outside the normal recruitment periods. Not only will the new student not have the same number of relational connections as others, we might not be aware of their years of faithful service and Christ-following elsewhere.

The introvert: Note – I didn’t say “the extreme introvert.” Lots of us who lean toward introversion are less likely to put our gifts on display. And in some cases, this may even be an error. But even if it is, if introverts err on the side of false modesty, will this one weakness in a potential student leader doom them to remain unused? And not only does introversion keep people from being known to the group as a whole, it also limits the number of relational connections a person will likely form – making their potential leadership all the less likely to be spotted.

Those with a different path: For some students, your ministry’s normal “involvement path” doesn’t fit. What if they had class during small groups time last semester? What if they were studying abroad when you were training leaders last fall? Or maybe they’ve been serving faithfully in their church the same night you have Large Group Meeting. Or maybe they jumped in to your ministry right after small groups were formed (see “The New Student,” above)? If we expect every potential leader to “follow the yellow brick road” to leadership opportunities, we’ll miss some key people.

Those who have “learned” the same principle: Finally, there are students who have already learned NOT to be the squeaky wheel, not to make an exerted effort to express a desire to serve or lead or use their gifts. They believe that doing so is arrogant, and they might have even been shot down in the past. They, too, believe the “cream will rise to the top,” so they keep on being faithful… but the noticing never happens.

Next up – more students we could easily miss

Welcome to Exploring College Ministry

After ministering to college students for 8 years, I've spent the last 6 years trying to help push our whole field forward. This meant, among other things, a yearlong road trip, an e-book (Reaching the Campus Tribes), exploring 250+ campuses, consulting, writing, speaking, and more. I love any opportunity to serve college ministers or to consult with churches and others about reaching students better. To learn more, explore the header links or the tools below.

...and if I can help your ministry directly (or you want to support my mission), contact me!

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