Join me on a vision trip – a vision trip to a ridiculously under-reached people group. Let’s imagine together how God might lead you to impact them…

We land in a nation filled with numerous tribes. Reports indicate that these populations have a great need for the gospel, that many of the nation’s tribes know little of Christianity, and that darkness abounds. The people in these tribes are extremely open to influence – so while the gospel has made inroads, millions have been influenced by humanism, atheism, relativism, ambition, materialism, and even the occasional cult.

Our timing is fortunate: Members from nearly seventy of these tribes are gathering for a great annual contest (known to the natives as the “Tourney” – “Tournament” in English). Elite warriors from each tribe will compete in games of skill and endurance, as thousands more surround the contests to watch and root for their champions. I’ve observed this “Tourney” many times before, and I have noticed that it provides a unique window into the culture – and promise – of these tribes.

We immediately see that each tribe rallies around an individual identity, a nickname or costume that bonds members almost mystically. Some monikers honor ancient warriors – Spartans or Musketeers, Cavaliers or Atzecs – while others reflect tribes’ regional industries: Lumberjacks, Boilermakers, Tarheels, even two farming tribes called “Aggies.” Tribe names are just as likely to recall previously influential religious orders (like Friars or Quakers) as they are to celebrate lawbreakers (such as Pirates or Sooners). And while many tribes understandably adopt creatures known for their ferocity – from Gators to Panthers to several different tribes called “Wildcats” – other choices seem more surprising: Blackbirds and Horned Frogs, Retrievers and Longhorns.

Underneath these banners, the “spirit” bonding tribesmen is not frivolous. (In fact, each tribe’s communal bonds can help well-formed discipleship efforts spread quickly and deeply.)

As we continue to watch the Tourney, we encounter festivity far beyond the actual competitions. Dancers abound – as do musicians, foodstuffs, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are present, often celebrating alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by in case of injury, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but face taunting throughout). And often, above the din, tribal chants can be heard: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

We look closer, with missionary eyes.

We can’t deny the deep passion in these tribes, among warriors and watchers alike. When competitors win, their crowds become nearly riotous. But losing warriors – and their tribesmen – may weep with a profound bitterness. The contests produce transcendent “shining moments” – 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. We see in everyone gathered passion and enthusiasm that have yet to be tamed. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom must be added to this zeal, of course – but with this energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

It becomes clear that creativity and intelligence abound within these tribes, as well, and it’s not surprising that national and world leaders will come from within their ranks.

As you hopefully realize by this point, anyone God calls to reach such a unique people is fortunate indeed. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and investment will be required if strong and lasting work is to be built. But even a quick, competition-filled vision trip shows us: These mission fields offer great opportunity and blessings untold. And if these particular tribes are reached well, their members in turn could change the whole world.

All the “madness,” the excitement, the passion, and the valor found in this Tourney reflect the beautiful tribes from which the contestants come. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.


This is the 2018 version of my annual “sixty-eight” essay.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 49 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last decade. They’re powerful places.

Top photo credit: “University of Indiana campus at duskcc Larry Johnson



What “hard numbers” can you use to evaluate your college ministry?

Of course, some college ministers are required to submit “number of spiritual conversations” and other statistics to their bosses. But I’m talking about stats not for external use but for internal use.

But counting – in ministry – can be hard, beyond counting basic numbers like Large Group attendance, Small Group attendance, and number of leaders.

Yet numbers help you evaluate – and not just by saying “big numbers are better.” For instance, if more freshmen visit the ministry this August than they did last year, I’d love to try to discover why, not just celebrate the visits. (And even tracking number of visitors – versus overall attendance – might be a step better for some campus ministries.)

Likewise, both obvious and non-obvious stats could help you learn about your ministry – including examining changes over time. Here are a very few ideas:

  • Number of students who did a service project this school year
  • How many students spent spring break at home / in town / on mission / etc.
  • Where your students live on campus (or off)
  • Average number of times students attend their small group per month
  • Which majors you’ve been drawing students from
  • Average age of students / number per class
  • Number of students who came to school “churched” vs. “unchurched”
  • Number of students involved in a local church now
  • How many years students tend to stay committed to your college ministry
  • How many students are members of a local church one year after graduating college

I could go on forever. These are just random ideas I had over about 10 minutes. You don’t need to come up with fifty numbers, but five to ten could provide you some excellent learnings… especially, as I’ve said, if you keep tracking them over time.

Yesterday was the first-in-the-nation primary election day here in Texas. While it’s not a presidential election year, it is indeed a year when the students around you will hear about plenty of voting opportunities. (And we’re not really at a point in America where politics takes an “off year,” either.)

So as I’ve argued before… how will you help them process?:

Many (if not all) of the students in your campus ministry will be shepherded by somebody regarding political choices this year. Do you really want their choices to be driven by professors, FoxNews, Bernie Sanders devotees, relatives, the student newspaper, NPR, roommates, fliers on campus, or the student president of a College political club?

Or will you help them walk first and foremost as a Christian through political choices, with all the research, decision-making, stance-discernment, winsome disagreement, and dialogue that can and often should take place?

And are you teaching them to approach politics this way for the rest of their lives?

It makes sense that most “new school year” planning takes place in the summer, when college ministers have the chance to breathe a little.

But one big aspect of your strategy shouldn’t wait: ideation. Why generate ideas at a time when most of your best idea engines (your students) are no longer immersed in the ministry… and may not even be local?

I’d encourage you to put some brainstorming sessions on the calendar now. It could pay off in spades when you do strategize later on.

Holding your own “Bracket Challenge” is really a no-brainer for most college ministries. Not only does it help with community and culture like any competition, but it could also set you up for ministry gatherings over the three tournament weeks.

(In case you’re wondering, brackets will come out Sunday, March 11th, with most bracket systems requiring entry by early AM Thursday the 15th.)

But besides the usual, college ministry-wide challenge, perhaps with some simple prize, here are some ideas for expanding – in your goals and your effort. Enjoy!

  • Offer a prize for the winner that creates buzz
  • Better yet, offer a “prize”/dare/penalty for the loser that creates buzz (that’s what we do here at our church)
  • Open it up to the whole campus
  • Have winners/losers along the way (at the end of each round, or weekly)
  • Put a spiritual twist on it: pray for the schools and college ministry there (at least the Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight schools)
  • Connect with college ministers in your organization/denomination (or not in your organization/denomination) at some of the schools in the tournament
  • Wear T-shirts from as many of the sixty-eight campuses as you can (oh wait, that’s what I do)
  • Plan a road trip… to whatever school wins. Or plan a road trip to the closest school of the Elite Eight teams, and leave the morning after that’s settled (the Elite Eight will be “set” the night of Friday, March 23rd). If you won’t do it, I bet a bunch of your students would…

A big opportunity to deploy students into service is on my mind this morning. But I’ve written about it plenty. So here’s some stitching of past posts that may be inspiring to you, too.

We still need to be learning our campuses – and it should move us to action.

Do you have built-in methods to keep “your ear to the ground”? There’s no way we as non-students can know our “campus tribe” in the ways an insider can. So are we asking them? Do we have a sort of “council” of students, whether formal or informal, who keep us up to date on campus fads, focuses, and opportunities? Do we read the campus newspaper regularly? Do we spend LOTS of time on campus? When you’re there, do (re)learn your campus like a student – sitting in the student center, sure, but also attending classes and big events, sitting in on sports and seminars, chatting with students who pass by your seat rather than only students who come by your building?

When you started, you knew there was a bunch you didn’t know. Don’t lose that assumption.

Then, you’ve got to leave room (mentally, verbally, even structurally) for addressing new opportunities that arise, even after the year starts.

Opportunity may come very subtly: An article in the school newspaper. A campus rule change that seems small but creates an opportunity. An incoming freshman class that is particularly… smart or rowdy or secular or interested in spiritual things. A “theme” God seems to be stirring on campus that would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. And hard to respond to, if you didn’t have any wiggle room.

Or the opportunity may come very un-subtly: A tragedy. Surprising changes within another college ministry. New campus leaders that dramatically affect things. A scandal.

Necessity is the mother of invention; a more “ministerial” way to put that is that NEED leads to new ministry. So that’s where a lot of this can start: Getting our students, our leaders, or ourselves out into the campus, discovering where the biggest needs are.

When’s the last time you – or better yet, a team of students – examined the biggest needs on campus? Is someone meeting with administration, faculty, and staff to discover how you can be awesome members of the campus community? Surveying students (or at least student organizations), reading the newspaper? Does the campus know you’re here to serve it?

While this may be Missions 101, it’s not always something we’re trained to do in college ministry. But it’s vital.

Watch then go. No comma in that exhortation, because it can move just that quickly.


As a college minister, you’re probably creating something all the time. You plan a weekly message, you write a blog post, you craft emails to everyone. You write outlines for your leadership meeting, write curriculum, design discussion questions for small groups, or craft fundraising letters. Maybe you edit videos, post on social media, make newsletters for parents or supporters… or you’re even writing a book!

It’s possible you do none of this, but most college ministers create on a pretty regular basis.

And you’ve got an army of potential editors (your college students).

Not all students would be great at editing, of course – but “editing” doesn’t only mean carefully looking for grammar and spelling issues, either. The varying personalities and abilities in your campus ministry would actually work for you here, because you need different points of view for a phenomenal editing process.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you pull students into your process simply to help you make things better. (But they will help you make things way better!) I’m also saying it for their benefit: for their growth as leaders or potential leaders, to expose them to whatever you’re working on, even to honor them as your co-laborers.

You’re all in this little campus mission together. Why not let them partake in what you create?

It’s a sign of health if your campus ministry is saying No to a large number of applicants for student leader positions.

It means:

  • You have a student leader structure
  • You don’t take just anyone into leadership roles
  • Lots of students want to be student leaders
  • You’re willing to tell people No

But what happens next? Here are a few actions that should kick in at that point:

1. Tell them why. Saying No without providing a reason – or “letting them down easy” without authenticity – means you’ve missed one of the best possible discipleship opportunities you’ll have with this student. Students are, after all, just a few years (or less) out of high school. This may indeed be their first significant No, or at least an unexpected one. So while those same characteristics mean you should take care in how you respond, it also means you have the chance to help them grow through this very “adulting” form of adversity.

2. Give them options to serve. While plenty of college ministers might be faithful to accomplish #1, this one’s easier to miss. What could the student do to be involved? Volunteer in the area they were hoping to lead? Volunteer in a different area? Take on an assignment based on the talents and strengths you discovered in their application process? (I love that one!) Apprentice under the leader that was chosen instead of them? (Just don’t do that as a way to “let them down easy” – only if they’re truly qualified and ready.) In the same meeting where you tell them why, offer them some great options (if there are some).

3. Give them opportunities to grow. This is all discipleship. You’ve taken a great discipleship step by saying No. Now continue the job! What are some ways the student could grow in the areas they lack? Do they need leadership training? One-on-one discipleship? A personal growth strategy for the area(s) they could improve? Regardless of whether they have glaring issues or there just aren’t enough spots for the number of applicants, every student can become a better leader – help them realize how!

Every college ministry should be churning out leaders. If campus ministers take these steps, their “future leaders” number goes from a few to many.

Your student leaders would gain a lot by watching what you do all week. Even if you don’t have a special viewing room with a two-way mirror.

How often do you bring them along for what you’re doing? I’m talking about just about everything, like:

  • Planning a message
  • Spending time on campus / “ministry of presence”
  • Planning out the semester or summer
  • Budgeting
  • Chatting with other student leaders or ministry teams
  • Sharing your fundraising appeal
  • Discussing the ministry with your boss
  • Editing a video
  • Preparing announcements
  • Meeting with your staff or adult volunteers
  • Visiting another college minister (on your campus or otherwise)

Any more options? I’m sure there are. The point is, you’ve got the chance to bring students along for all of it. Sometimes – sure – you shouldn’t. But more often, you should be asking yourself, Why not?

I’m no expert on delegation, neither an expert in understanding nor experience. But I want to be better.

One thing I’ve learned is that quality delegation will nearly always hurt, at least for a while. If you’re only delegating to student leaders the very parts of your campus ministry that

  1. you hate doing
  2. the students will do the same as you would

…then you’re at the bottom rungs of the delegation ladder. That’s fine and all, and it’s good you’re saving yourself some time and energy and giving them “at bats” in execution.

But you’re training ministers (whether they’ll ever be paid for it or not). They need at-bats on strategy, on actual leadership, on decision-making, and even on delegation themselves. For your benefit and (perhaps even especially) their benefit, consider loosening the reins on areas students might do differently than you would. Assign them the chance to come up with strategy, then actually let them run that out. If it’s obviously terrible for reasons they don’t understand, fine, maybe redirect before it even gets off the ground.

But otherwise, you’ll have to face some anxiety while you wait for their strategy to play out.

The same is true for delegating leadership, delegating speaking, delegating ministry functions (like setting up for Large Group Meeting or making a video), and so on. If it doesn’t hurt you to delegate, you’re probably not delegating enough.

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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 others who want to reach college students better. To learn more, explore the header links or the tools below.



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