Yesterday I discussed your last chance to help students plug in more deeply with your ministry. And one of the big reasons is that they’re more likely to return to your ministry in the fall.

It’s easy, though, to think of “retention efforts” as simply about us, about building our ministry’s numbers and giving us more to do (if you wanted to be really cynical about it). In the backs of our minds, it’s also easy to see recruiting students (in the first place) the same way.

So I wanted to merge in an older post that talks about this very thing – that recruitment isn’t pre-discipleship, it IS discipleship. The same applies to retention: If all you do is get a student to stick around, you’ve helped them along the path to spiritual maturity.

Here are those earlier thoughts:

I don’t believe that recruiting students is simply a “necessary secular” activity that prepares for “real” spiritual ministry later on.

Too often we think of recruiting only in terms of us-versus-other-ministries, forgetting that what we offer is also competing with everything else: everything from time-wasting and wisdom-lacking to the “dark side” of campus life.

But more than that, we’re pointing students toward something – our own campus ministry – that we believe could honestly impact their lives (or at least I hope you believe that). Our love for campus ministry exists because we love its effects, right? So we really-really-really want more students to experience those effects. So we recruit them.

Recruitment ISN’T pulling students in so we can be involved with them spiritually. Recruitment is the first step in our spiritual involvement with these students!

Or think about it this way:

When I encourage a student to consider our college ministry, I’m simply

  • presenting a spiritual endeavor for them to pursue
  • relating why it’s important and beneficial
  • and urging them to try something that I know (better than they know) could greatly benefit them.

Sounds a lot like what happens when I sit across from a guy at Taco Bell and encourage him to use spiritual disciplines, or talk about better wisdom for dating.

Recruitment is discipleship (assuming we’re doing it rightly). [I did follow the earlier post with one about doing this well: click here for that!]

As we head toward April, now’s a good time to “know the condition of your flocks,” specifically in regard to those who have been coming but not investing. (And if you’re not the only shepherd, this is a task for your small group leaders and others, too.)

But with six to eight weeks left, now’s the time for those who have been slow to participate – but should be pushed to do so. Otherwise, even if they give it the “ol’ college try” for a couple of weeks, there’s no assumption they’ll be plugged in next school year.

This isn’t about keeping numbers up; it’s about discipleship. Some of those students who haven’t gotten connected shouldn’t; if they’d find a better fit in a different ministry, you can disciple them in that way, too. But for the rest, it’s worth helping them end the semester with friends, community, and something to look forward to in the fall.

This summer, I’ll have the awesome opportunity to once again participate in a college ministry conference, in one of the roles that’s my very favorite. You might call it a “30-minute consultant,” a “one-sided brainstorming,” or something else. But the gist of it is:

  • Getting to sit down with one ministry at a time (so one college minister, or a minister + staff and volunteers from their ministry)
  • Hearing about their ministry
  • Especially hearing about whatever areas of their ministry they’d like to talk about
  • Asking questions that are meant to poke and prod
  • Offering brainstorming thoughts – not because I know what they should do (It’s only a quick meeting, after all!), but because I know what they could do

I can’t wait. When I’ve done this in the past, it’s both exhausting and exhilarating! And it’s a particular joy because I’m able to help in whatever area is most on those leaders’ minds. One ministry may talk about getting more students, one may ask about unity with other groups, one may be restructuring small groups. Whatever the case, that time gets to “scratch where they itch.” It’s awesome.

The reason I mention this, however, is not personal. It’s to remind you that you can get the same thing. All it takes is finding a college minister who’s been around the block a little bit. Maybe they’ve seen a good number of different college ministries. Maybe they’ve served a few different places. Maybe they’ve been in college ministry awhile and have visited a good number of college ministry conferences, and they’ve learned what other groups do…

So what if you asked for 30 minutes of their time, for a little “listening-brainstorming” session? The topic could be your general campus ministry, or (usually better) it could be a specific aspect of your campus ministry. The ground rules are that they can suggest anything, including interfering with sacred cows (maybe especially interfering with sacred cows).

You do want to talk to a fellow learner, not a boaster! You’re not asking what they do (although of course that’s instructive). You’re mostly asking what you could do, so you can take that home and wrestle with it. (So if they haven’t been a learner, they won’t have a lot of options for you.) In the end, you might adopt their ideas, you might stay where you are (but having thought through things better), or you may end up with new ideas because of the time spent brainstorming.

And if you have input in planning college ministry conferences, this would be a great addition to your lineup. While plenty are going to breakouts (or free time), individual ministries can be helped in the exact ways they were hoping to be. There may be no better way to make a gathering valuable.

I feel like I mention something along these lines just about every year. But one of the most unique things about the field of college ministry, when you really think about it, is that there’s a 3-month “off-season” period each year.

I do realize that many college ministers are ministering during that time, too – or they might be doing the important work of support-raising, which is ministry, too. But for most college students, at least, summer is a period away from their usual shepherding. And it’s a season when even their normal task of being a student is on hiatus.

So right now, a quarter of their lives is being affected by how well they spend those summers.

Or look at it this way: students in your college ministry have three attempts to practice lordship in a particularly intense, habit-building way. Want to produce Christians who follow Christ hard? It seems like a three-month internship, three times during their college career, could be an unbelievable opportunity to prepare for that.

Each summer, many of your students have “room”: room to be discipled (or to intentionally “disciple themselves”), a chance to bring their (much more flexible) schedule under the direction of God, an opportunity to seek God in special ways, and more. And if they are working jobs or spending extra time with family, it’s a good chance to learn about lordship in those environments, too. They’ll need it for the rest of their lives.

So we’ve got two questions staring us in the face:

  • How well are our students prepared for that chance this summer?
  • What am I doing about it?

Before this week of discussing our mission fields’ big Tournament closes, I wanted to throw out some ways to get involved… even if you haven’t already started a “bracket challenge.”

  • Start a “mini” bracket challenge. After this weekend, you’ll only have 16 teams left – so why not start there, with a competition for your ministry, your local church, etc.?
  • Make a bracket about something else!: For example, the youth ministry team at our church has been talking all week about a bracket for “best Disney character,” and much of the fun is in coming up with the characters for the bracket. (And then, of course, the arguments about whether Jafar or Gaston is a better character are pretty fantastic.) What category would you choose?
  • Have watch parties. (Of course.)
  • Take a trip. If there’s a school anywhere close to your school that’s (still) in the Tournament, what if you went there to watch their games? I don’t mean watching the actual Tournament games in-person (though you could figure that out, I guess). Those are in far-flung locations, mostly far away from the schools’ homes. But there are bound to be great watching parties (maybe even with fellow college ministries) back on those schools’ campuses. What a fun trip!
  • Pick a horse. You could also just ordain (or vote on) a remaining school to root for the rest of the way. Can a college ministry in California become fans of NC State? Why not?
  • Bring in the campus. Any of these ideas could go campus-wide: a bracket challenge, an “alternative” bracket, watch parties, trips, or even designating a temporary fandom! How fun might it be to engage the whole campus?

As a college minister, I really do hope you use the national attention brought by the NCAA Tournament to our field. With supporters, overseers, your church body, your city… It takes creative thinking, but it’s worth the time.

At the church I work at, we do a staff-wide bracket, complete with (major) rewards and (major) consequences. It’s a blast each year. And as my contribution to the fun, I’m wearing the “garb of the campus tribes” each day – the 46 T-shirts I have from this year’s Tournament colleges – across these few weeks. And I’m posting quick facts about each college I represent – a la Operation World.

Yesterday’s?

  • NC State: Home to one of Cru’s historically largest ministries in the U.S.
  • Kansas: About 16% of students are in Health-related majors
  • Louisville: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is an alumnus

However you use this season to remind people of the glories of college ministry, I hope you’re doing it. We don’t get “all eyes on us” all that often.

The other day, after overhearing a little ESPN in our living room, my wife noted how funny it seemed to hear Harvard mentioned in the same conversation as Stephen F. Austin. (Sorry, Lumberjacks!)

But that’s this thing called the NCAA Tournament, right? It’s a reminder of just how diverse our mission fields are. Just last night, BYU played Ole Miss! Can you imagine two more diverse settings in which to do college ministry?

One, a Mormon school in the heart of “Latter Day Saints country.” 34,000 students – but 78% of the guys will leave for a missionary tour at some point during college. It’s private but not as expensive as some private schools. Provo, its city, is the third-largest in Utah, and the metro area runs about half a million people.

The other is a major public school in the Deep South – though it’s the “liberal one” (when compared to Mississippi State). About 17,000 students, and known more for football than basketball. Situated in a college town with a “college town name,” Oxford. Major Greek system involvement, and they dress up to tailgate.

Each of these has its areas of emphasis, most popular majors, demographic makeups, and various aspects of student life that set it apart – not only from the school it happened to compete against last night, but versus schools in its own sports conference, its own region, and even its own state.

If you want to be a real college ministry nerd during this Tournament (like yours truly), pick any random match-up and think about the differences in reaching their respective students. Harvard and UNC? Notre Dame and Boston’s Northeastern? Arizona and (the Historically Black University) Texas Southern? SMU and UCLA? University of Virginia and Belmont?

Below you’ll find the 2015 version of my annual essay, “sixty-eight.” I hope you’ll take the “vision trip.”

tribesrow2015

Suppose you felt the tug of a missionary calling.

Maybe that call would simply involve sending others to make an impact, or you might feel led to impact a distant people group yourself. In either case – sending or going – a “Vision Trip” to a potential mission field offers an opportunity to “survey the land,” exploring the need and the opportunity.

So imagine, if you will, taking your Vision Trip to a nation filled with numerous individual tribes. You’ve heard reports that these groups have a great need for the gospel, that these people are still largely unreached, and that darkness abounds within these tribes. But you’ve also heard that these tribes are highly influential, and that their citizens are… unique, to say the least.

So you arrive in that country to observe, pray, and consider what God might have in mind.

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” or “the Tourney”). Warriors from each tribe compete in games of skill and endurance, and thousands from each represented village surround the contests to watch and root for their tribe.

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

You first notice that each tribe rallies around its individual identity. For instance, many tribes have named themselves after animals known for their ferocity – Razorbacks and Wildcats, Tigers and Wolfpack. Some groups honor ancient warriors – Spartans, Aztecs, Musketeers. Other tribes have chosen somewhat less menacing monikers – Ducks, Friars, Terriers, Anteaters  – but these tribes are no less proud. One tribe has taken the name of a nut believed to bring good luck (Buckeyes), while other tribal names – like “Hoosiers” and “Hoyas” – are of unknown origin.

You notice, too, that the tribes are as different as their names: The warriors known as “Crimson” come from a tribe known for its brilliance, the “Boilermakers” from a tribe with many engineers, and many contestants come from tribes with a particular religious bent.

Of course, competition and tribal pride inspire plenty of festivity at the Tourney. 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 “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.

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 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.

Of course, these are just games. But with missionary eyes even this fleeting contest reveals the clear potential in this passionate people, people you suddenly want to see reached for Christ…

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 this youthful energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

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

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 46 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last eight years. (As is my custom, I’ll be wearing the “tribal garb of the campuses” – T-shirts from those 46 schools – over the next 22 days of the Tournament.)

Helping students move into the dorms is a classic way college ministries serve others (and make a good first impression). But have you ever thought about offering Bag-Carrying Help at the end of spring break? While the bags may be fewer, in some places it might make a lot of sense.

Lots of ministries throw parties toward the end of the year. Have you ever considered a Don’t Let Spring Break End party on the Sunday before everyone’s back in class?

(BTW, many schools might actually help you do those things.)

Sometimes the trick to coming up with a good idea is to take something that works really well another time and put it where it “doesn’t belong.” What else works well in the fall / summer / winter that you could use this spring?

I mentioned visiting churches while on vacation in Hawaii last week. I also got to check out Kauai Community College a little bit. And I had actually Googled to see if I could find a college minister or college ministry on Kauai to connect with, too. (I didn’t.)

I haven’t made that last one – connecting with college ministers – a true habit when on vacation, but it is something that’s always in the back of my mind. Last year in England, my wife and I both got to meet up with some great people who oversee UK ministry and the worldwide International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. It was phenomenal, fun, and a great way to get an “insider’s tour” of Oxford, to boot.

Another thing about going to Hawaii is that it reminds me of the last time I was there, for a friend’s wedding in 2006. At the time, I called that trip “the biggest road trip ever” because I drove from Texas to L.A. and then flew from there. It was actually a wild trip – including getting my car smashed when I wasn’t in it – but I also had the chance to visit a handful of campuses (and this was before I started exploring college ministry “full-time”).

I don’t know how often your work or your “normal life” take you to other places. But in both cases, I can’t encourage you enough to fit in the occasional campus exploration or (better yet) connection with a fellow campus missionary. Our abilities are enhanced by learning about different contexts. But not only that – there’s something these sorts of far-flung connections with our compatriots does to our hearts, helping us love our work all the more.

(If you’re interested, the wild story of the original “biggest road trip ever” is here.)

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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