A couple of years ago, I posted a series called “What You Do in Week 2″ – arguing that, as the first post said, what campus ministers do in the second, third, or fourth weeks of the semester says a lot about their approach and commitment to excellence (a bold statement, I know).

There are 10 thoughts to chew on across 7 posts, and I’d highly encourage you to read the whole thing. This will be my last post this week, as many are starting things up – but as you have time, give yourself room to think about what comes next. Or – here’s something interesting – assign a couple of student leaders to read those posts and make suggestions. You’ve probably got student leaders leading in Recruitment already; here’s a chance to get some others involved in another, also-important way.

Click here to see the series; I’ve included the topics below.

And if you haven’t read it yet, check out Monday’s post for a little encouragement about the amazing work you get to do.

As many colleges – though not all – get started this week, I wanted to post a reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing. This is a late chapter in Reaching the Campus Tribes, and while Orientation at your school is likely past, it’s a reminder of where we get to impact – at many people’s most critical juncture to date. Wow.

I first wrote this during my yearlong road trip while sitting at Jacksonville University – the 137th campus explored on that trip.

Pass it on if others could use the encouragement… or need to hear about the value of what you’re doing!

In the last week, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two campuses – West Virginia University and George Mason University – which happened to be holding New Student Orientation activities during my visits.

For the uninitiated, NSO is a summer event when freshmen make their way to campus, often with parents in tow, in order to (presumably) get “oriented” for the year to come. This event often involves registering for classes, touring the campus, learning traditions and other school “rules,” and perhaps even moving in to the dorms.

Orientation also brings recruitment by countless organizations. Depending on the school, this can include extracurricular activities (frats, clubs, ministries, etc.), but it very likely also includes community establishments…

…such as banks, with their slick cups and pens and checkbook holders, recruiting students and their (parents’) money. You’ll also find newspaper subscription-hawkers, cell phone companies, and the ever-present bookstore, who will remind you from the beginning of your college experience that its convenience and support of the school make higher prices worth the cost.

Each business recognizes that this is a fresh crop, a group of pre-freshmen ready to be served! After all, a whole bunch of customers just graduated in May, and while their faces are long forgotten, their patronage is certainly missed.

(The credit card companies are probably absent at this point; they will instead show up within the semester, when parents aren’t around, with lots of free T-shirts or other flashy giveaways.)

This is Orientation.

But as missionaries, we look closer.

This is a land of fresh, wide-eyed potential. 18-year-old men and women walk these halls with maps they won’t soon need. Over the next four years, they will encounter a sort of life they haven’t known, with freedoms to do and be and become. The skin of high school, often so restrictive with its cliques and malformed “cool” and Babel-like, single-language culture, will be shed. New friends, new acceptance, new opportunities are here, whether this place is 50,000 people strong or much smaller.

A college is bigger than its numbers.

The hustle and bustle that will soon be found daily on campus will be a great visual metaphor for the life, the energy, the haphazard but steady progress that happens in this place.

Successes in the next four years will lead to the greatest joys imaginable, with experiences that last a lifetime or even lead these beautiful people to a new sort of life altogether. Reinventing oneself is not an uncommon event on a college campus.

These men and women will “find themselves” in all the best ways: within majors they didn’t know existed, within communities they didn’t know could exist, within new routines and challenging schedules and the maturity that makes life breathe easier. Leaders will rise up, either realizing the potential we always knew they had… or shocking everyone with ability we never knew existed.

Some of these men and women will find husbands and wives over the next four years, and many others will have their “antes upped,” as co-ed friendships help raise the bar on what they’re looking for in a significant other.

In even the first month of school, many of these guys and gals will join clubs that will “stick.” Many will start a friendship that will last forever. Many will be invited to a Bible study. Many will find their church – or at least start looking with intentionality. Many will reflect on this new experience after a few weeks, grin, and look forward to an amazing four years.

In those next four years, plenty of these men and women will get a leadership position. Or two. They’ll get in shape. Get a kiss (even their first, in some cases). Get engaged. Learn to schedule. Get a 4.0. Get honored. Make 2,000 Facebook friends. Find a career. Study abroad. Let go a little, loosen up a bit, mature a lot, and laugh nearly every day.
Some of these nearly-collegians will be back smiling next year at Orientation, happily representing the glories they’ve found to a new batch ready to be influenced and trained. Many of those glories would pleasantly surprise them today.

And some of those booths will be ministry booths, because the college ministry communities will have welcomed in Christians and non-Christians for discipleship and fellowship and conversion and love. Lots and lots of love. Boys and girls will come to school uncommitted and will leave vibrant, wide-eyed Jesus followers, and the whole world will be different because of it.

As missionaries, we look.

This Orientation also presents a land of unspeakable danger. 18-year-olds walking these halls at Orientation don’t realize the changes about to take place, and there are few good maps. Over the next four years, they will encounter a sort of life they haven’t known, with freedoms to fail and waste and destroy. The buffers of high school and family, often places of unappreciated coziness and naiveté and ever-present help, will be long gone. New kinds of pain, new temptation, new harshness are here, whether this place is 50,000 people strong or much smaller.

A college is bigger than its numbers.

The hustle and bustle that will soon be found daily on campus will conceal much of the death, the hurt, the haphazard and steady decay haunting this place.

Simple “mess-ups” in the next four years will lead to the deepest pain imaginable, in some cases pains that last a lifetime or even lead these beautiful people to take their lives altogether. Collegiate suicide is not an uncommon event.

These boys and girls will “find themselves” in all the worst ways: within temptations they didn’t know existed, within relationships they didn’t think could exist, within new routines and schedules and the stresses that can color days gray. Cults will rise up: cults of personality, cults of pleasure, and even real religious cults.

Many will “play house” over the next four years, and even today at Orientation the girls flaunt bodies, and even today the boys muster courage and methods to take them up on it. Many boys and girls will lower their expectations, willing to do much and accept many that they wouldn’t have only a year or two before, in hopes of touch and friendship and love and promise.

In even the first month of school, many will be invited to parties that get them in over their heads. Many will get drunk for the first time. Many won’t be invited to a Bible study. Many will attend church for the last time for many years. Many will reflect on this new experience after a few weeks, shudder, and walk forward into four long years.

In those next four years, plenty of these men and women will make a life-changing bad decision. Or three. They’ll get in heavy debt. Have a homosexual encounter (even their first, in some cases). Get an eating disorder. Get depressed. Reject their faith. Abort their education. Abort a child. Bring shame to themselves, their family, or their student organization. Masterfully learn “the world,” in all its selfishness and evil and temporary gratification. Lose friends. Let go of too much, loosen up too much, mature too little, and cry on many, many days.

Some of these nearly-collegians will be back smiling next year at Orientation, happily representing the “glories” they’ve found to a new batch ready to be influenced and trained. Many of those glories would repel them today.

This is the brink called Orientation, as men and women walk the halls of campus with their soon-tossed maps and their soon-absent parents and their fearful hope in tow.

(You can download Reaching the Campus Tribes for free.)

For many, next week bring the start of another school year. Isn’t that awesome? Who knows what lies before you this time around?

So I asked myself, “What’s the one thing I’d want to tell a college minister before he or she started another year?” And I landed on one thing:

Disciple as you recruit.

This theme pops up occasionally here, but I do think it’s something every college minister (and any volunteers or student leaders) has to keep in mind. You’ll likely interact with more students in the next month than you will the rest of the year. That includes both the individuals you interact with personally, and the number of students who might flow through your first few Large Group Meetings. So if you’re college minister, now’s the chance to begin that ministry – not just once they’re “in.”

Some ways to do that in either one-on-one interactions, your teaching from the stage, or both – pulled (and added to) from a long-ago post:

Help students make a great decision.

It’s a sad thing indeed that college ministers rarely (if ever) teach on “How to choose a college ministry.” In fact, our recruitment efforts may not even do a good job of teaching “Why you should choose our college ministry”! But both of these topics are important to share with students. So unless they’ve learned how-to-choose in their Youth Groups (they haven’t), we have to be the ones.

Help students choose to commit.

Do we really believe that it’s far better for students to go deep in one college ministry than to stay in the shallows with several? Or are we satisfied if 50% of your Large Group Meeting’s students could be found in other Large Group Meetings throughout the week? We need to disciple students – from the beginning – to commit well to a few things – which will really serve them well throughout all of college – and probably to commit to only one college ministry.

Don’t overlook transfer students and others who aren’t freshmen.

Transfer student ministry is an undervalued and under-discussed area. So is recruitment among those who aren’t freshmen. But these guys and gals are worth recruiting during this time… and not in the exact same ways we treat the freshmen. Who knows? Perhaps some of your best student leaders this fall will be Juniors and Seniors who weren’t around your ministry (or possibly even your campus) last year.

Disciple freshmen in the other elements of college-ness – especially the more urgent points of maturity.

If we’re only focused on recruitment, then we’re only focused on ONE area of discipleship. But what about students’ time-sensitive needs to

  • Decide to study well?
  • Understand how Jesus fits with “getting an education”?
  • Find a church?
  • Form spiritual discipline habits ASAP?
  • Think wisely about other things they join / commit to?
  • Think wisely – from the start – about friendships and dating?
  • Assimilate well into their new “campus tribe” – not just spiritually, but emotionally, relationally, academically, financially, and otherwise?

If all our teachings, events, activities, discussions, and other measures are focused on Getting-and-Keeping, where’s the room for the other vital things? Even if our student audiences are a bit “fluid” in the first weeks, we have the real chance to impact those who flow through, whether they stick around or not.

Consider other opportunities to disciple.

Finally, don’t forget that these efforts aren’t limited to the Large Group Meeting or to your one-on-one conversations. We might dedicate early small groups to these formative efforts. We could distribute a pamphlet, as described above.

We can – and should – disciple students from the first moments they check out our Orientation booth. We can meet with freshmen one-on-one (or have our student leaders do this), or send a good welcome email with some discipleshippy links!

Be ready to go off-script.

There may be a moment when you’re in the throes of small talk with student-after-student, and a much deeper conversation starts taking place. Even though in any other month that would be a welcome and exciting “God opportunity,” it can be hard to switch gears. But those moments may arise in the next few weeks. Decide now that you’ll be available, even if it means trusting God with passing students because of the need of the one right in front of you.

I’ve run into college ministers who challenge the common notion that “big fun loud events” are a purposeful, wise way to draw students to a ministry. Their concerns include

  • If you draw them that way, they’ll leave when the fun stops
  • It’s just copying our secular campus counterparts
  • Even if it’s not “bad,” it doesn’t accomplish much (if anything)
  • It’s a lot of work without a lot of fruit

Honestly, I think any of those things can be true. (But I also think it’s worth examining personality here – it’s amazing what I might call “unfruitful” just because it wouldn’t appeal to me.)

Personally, I believe – like most college ministers, probably – that the big-fun-loud can fit really well within college ministry. For instance, jumping on to the bandwagon of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which has obviously taken America by (hail)storm, is just the latest opportunity to appeal to students (and could turn into a really good start-of-the-year event). My church’s college ministry is once again holding a snowball fight on campus – with 7,000 snowballs purchased from the local snowcone guys – to kick off the school year. And numerous ministries out there will hold other events, concerts, parties, tailgates – even activities they’ve done so well in the past, that the campus has made it an official part of the Back-to-School festivities.

But here’s the kicker. Those nay-saying college ministers are more right than wrong IF we don’t strategically use our big events to move students forward within our ministry. Just having something awesome, while it may “endear” your ministry to some people (and that’s no small thing), won’t necessarily get them to come to your Large Group Meeting or your Fall Retreat. Will some just come for the fun? Sure. But not all… unless you don’t give them some reason to come back.

Every event – but especially the one you work so hard on – has to be engineered to get them to the next thing. The more that notion seeps into your planning from the start, the better that will happen.

This year, who from your ministry needs to see a little bit better “behind the scenes” of college ministry? Which student(s) will you ask about “shadowing” you, because you know they might enter into college ministry someday?

Remember, all your student leaders are technically college ministers already. But who might take over your ministry someday – or go elsewhere as a missionary to the campus tribes?

What specific steps will you take to raise them up?

As the school year fast approaches, I wanted to remind us of something I’ve mentioned a handful of times before: The value of training greatness in the basics of the Christian walk. This isn’t all we should teach, but I’d argue that it should comprise a large portion of how we disciple our students.

At church this weekend, our pastor hit the end of James 3 – with its list of “basic” characteristics that prove someone has true, godly wisdom. This morning, I’m doing a quick devotional out of II Peter 1, with its list of “basic” characteristics that prove someone understands the gospel and ensures they’ll be effective and fruitful.

In other words, being “great in the basics” is an enormous part of what it means to be spiritual. If spirituality is a goal for our students, then we have to teach greatness in the basics.

For college ministers, a few things work against raising up students who are truly great in the basics of the spiritual life.

  1. We’re in an environment that values “newness.” Whether working in the secular world of the campus or even among Christian students and our fellow ministers, the campus inspires us to be “fashion-forward” in our theology and our teaching.
  2. Our audience turns over, but we don’t (and our students need reminders, too). Even if we only shared the pillars of a Christian walk once to every student, we’d still repeat ourselves every two to three years! But add to that the need for our students to be reminded – and the fact that we’re constantly getting new students who probably need that teaching sooner rather than later… and we’re going to need to say the “same things” a lot. Our students don’t mind – but we might get to itching from our own redundancy, when everything in us wants to be “new.” We have to fight that urge, while of course also learning to say “old things” in new ways.

Generally, a “standing army” shouldn’t need to be recruited all over again. But in the case of college ministry, with its (awkward, let’s face it) 3-month interlude called “Summer,” we may need to remind students of their duties.

In these last couple of weeks, I’ve blogged several times about bridging from the summer into the new school year, and today’s Fridea fits that theme. The idea?

Get in touch with students who have been part of your ministry, and remind them of ways they can help recruit, welcome, and assimilate new students.

If you wait for the first Large Group Meeting, it will be too late – especially for the “recruiting” part. And it might be a little weird to get on stage and – in front of all the freshmen – tell your regulars to “do a good job of welcoming the freshmen.”

But if you can contact students beforehand – or have a pre-start reunion – you can cast the vision once again for being great “hosts.” You can also help them see recruiting for your ministry as part of their “job” – and help them do that in a Kingdom-minded, healthy, non-awkward way. And finally, you can remind them to point new students toward next steps – like any first-of-the-year events, participation in a small group, or signing up for the Fall Retreat… whatever your “next steps” happen to be.

I’m pondering a theory today. It’s a theory that the easiest moment for college ministers to show unity might just come during recruitment.

That’s a little mind-blowing – and like I said, I’m still pondering this – but here’s why it might just be true:

  1. Evangelical college ministers should, fundamentally, all be discipling the students they encounter during recruitment. If every college minister is helping students find a great college ministry (even if it’s not theirs) and helping students “acclimate spiritually” in their new campus, then they’re sharing a mission. And mission-sharing is a great version of unity.
  2. They should all be saying something similar: “We’ll give you great reasons to jump in with our college ministry. We don’t feel bad about putting our best foot forward, and we believe God’s doing a great thing in our community. But what’s even more important is that you land in a great college ministry, a place that believes the Bible and is healthy, a place where you’re going to grow and be stretched and hopefully someday lead. We want you to go deep in one place – not shallow in five ministries – even if it means you don’t join our ministry. And I know and am friends with many of these other college ministers. God’s doing great things in other ministries, too.”

I am a firm believer that each college ministry should recruit hard for their ministry. Bring your A-game. It’s okay to “compete,” especially in a positive way (showing great reasons to pick your ministry, as opposed to why students shouldn’t pick other ministries). But even doing some comparing and contrasting is okay, if we’re truly Kingdom-minded more than we’re pushing our own brand of ministry. Students should hear about our organization’s distinctives and why they might want to pick our ministry.

I’m also excited when college ministries help students figure out what a “great college ministry” looks like. We should help students realize that not every organization that calls itself “spiritual” or even “Christian” is one they’d want to join. (That’s part of #1 above.)

But can you imagine how unifying it would be if, each and every recruitment season, students heard the sentiments expressed above from many of the college ministers they encountered? 

Last week and this week, I’ve often written on “bridging” from the summer to the new school year. Today, though, I’m looking at bridging across the summer – all the way from last school year.

It is so easy for us (and our students) to see each school year as a self-contained package of impact, growth, ministry, service, trials, education, experiences, friendship, fun, and life. Even now, I look back at my time in college in year-by-year fashion (with a sub-category of semesters).

But we need to remember that God has long-running, ongoing plans for our students and our ministries. His plans don’t always follow our rhythms, so we need to be careful, as shepherds, not to let our natural rhythmic tendencies become “leaning on our own understanding.” Just because we see the world (and our students see their world) in semesters and school years doesn’t mean that’s where God clearly draws His lines of work.

Instead, I would encourage you to spend time – if you haven’t – rehearsing all the clear moves of God from the past year (and even before that). What unexpected trials, tragedies, or triumphs did He use? What efforts did students clearly respond to? How did the students (as a group) grow? If there weren’t these lines of semester and school year, or this “gap” called summer, what could you say God has been doing over time in your ministry?

I’m definitely from the old Experiencing God school; the principle of the hour (any hour) is to “See where God is working and join Him.” He showed you things He was “up to” with students last year; our chance to join in that work, to be His fellow-laborers now, is to allow for some continuity. To build on that foundation.

Shouldn’t at least some major part of our planning be in response to what He’s been doing all along?

Last week and this week, several of the posts will offer ideas for “bridging” from the summer into the school year.

A very simple idea, and it may not be one you need. But I know the world – and rhythms – of the college minister. So some of you might need this push!

Very simply: Make sure to review whatever notes, debrief ideas, and brainstorms about this year that you had last year.

This is worth a half-day, even in early-to-mid-August. Find those notes, scattered though they may be, or just spend some time praying and thinking about what exactly you had realized.

It’s easy for college ministries to change very little over time, especially if they’re seeing success. But if we want change to happen, it will require setting aside some time to work through those notes.

Sure, not everything will be “actionable” right at this moment. Put it on your calendar for late September or November or February. But work through those notes now if you can.

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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