Last weekend’s Chalmers Center conference shared – among other things – some principles for effective ministry design. And one of many is working with a “target” audience as we develop our ministries/missions to them.

This principle has a lot to offer college ministry, largely because it doesn’t seem to be widespread.

On the one hand, many college ministries enter a campus with a blueprint in mind already. Maybe it derives from (or is copied directly from) a national organization’s time-tested approach. Maybe it’s simply in the head of the lead staffer, based on his previous experiences in college ministry. It might be a mix of these things and others, but the point is it’s developed without much – or any – input from present members of the campus tribe.

Other times – though more rarely – campus ministries are simply student-directed from the beginning. Maybe a group of students start a Bible study, and over time it gets big (and formalized). Or perhaps a larger organization – a church, a regional version of a campus-based ministry, etc. – “commissions” students to basically start and run their “site” of that ministry on their own campus. There are other ways this may begin or evolve. The point is, this approach is at the other end of the spectrum; students are entirely (or almost entirely) overseeing the initiation and development of their college ministry.

What I think is worth considering is an approach to starting college ministries that truly incorporates present students in figuring out how best to reach their peculiar tribe. I don’t know yet what all this entails, but it certainly means lots of groundwork, months of preparation before starting.And that presents the first barrier: few campus-based ministries and even fewer churches would be patient enough to wait for launch, in this particularly missiological approach.

(And that presents the first barrier: few campus-based ministries and even fewer churches would be patient enough to wait for such a ministry to launch, despite the fact that it’s a particularly missiological approach.)

An oldie but timely goodie…

I do recognize that October 31st is “celebrated” differently campus-to-campus, and many schools may not see much when it comes to this weekend or the night of Halloween. But other schools see quite a bit – it’s the moment when everybody drinks, perhaps, or when the costumes come out (and not unto holiness), or when debauchery is otherwise at its worst.

So my Fridea and encouragement this week is to respond as God leads you and your ministry. The subject line offers some thoughts on that:

  1. View what takes place, like a missionary would / should. Let it break your heart. Let it open your eyes and your students’ eyes. Let God use what’s actually happening – not just what you assume is – to provide ministry ideas for next year. (I’ll likely prayer-drive through the “scene” myself tonight or tomorrow.)
  2. Serve students. Like Spring Break mission trips or finals week, your campus might respond well to free midnight pancakes or van rides. Yes, you’ll need to work through what’s best (and what might only encourage more problems), but it’s worth considering how you can serve – and build relational bridges to – students.
  3. Think long and hard about how you can best serve, impact, and encounter your campus at the Halloweens to come.
  4. Pray. Pray as you view, with your students, or otherwise. This might be a night for all-night prayer, or it might be something you intercede about regularly, leading up to next year’s Halloween.
  5. Teach. The issues raised by Halloween – and not just the occult issues, though those are real, too – are worth discipling about, right? Why shouldn’t a girl “dress to impress”? Why wouldn’t a college student drink to excess? What’s so wrong with a night or weekend of debauchery? How can we serve our peers when they’re wrapped up in these things? Have you taught even your Christian students this stuff?


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As I prepare to attend the Rethink Poverty conference, I wanted to present a book review of sorts that I first posted awhile back. Even though service/outreach isn’t your primary job description, it’s a subject every college minister needs to be familiar with – and have some solid principles to guide them. Between local service projects, campaigns for “causes,” and mission trips, it’s vital that our field be solid here. Students coming out of college should have a great understanding of helping in ways that truly help.

When Helping Hurts has become a true “modern classic,” known and loved by an enormous swath of “outreach guys” in various positions and places. The book details the underlying principles of serving people – particularly the poor – without harming them (or ourselves) in the process.

If your college ministry does anything with service (and oh boy I hope you do), WHH really is a must-read (and a must-grasp) for you and any student leaders directing that charge.

But the only tricky thing I’ve noticed about WHH is that it’s fairly thick… both in the number of pages and in the headiness of the topics. Neither of those things is bad or unnecessary. But it makes it a little tricky to, for example, make it required reading for mission trip participants, or to walk through it in a 6-week Bible study.

That’s why it’s been fun to see the Chalmers Institute (who puts this out) release a couple of new versions in recent years, versions even more obviously useful to college ministers: When Helping Hurts: The Small Group Experience and Helping without Hurting in Short-Term MissionsBoth of these are designed for groups (the latter has a participant’s guide and a leader’s guide), along with supporting video and other interactive elements. So that’s a win, whether for your small groups or specifically for those jumping in to short-term mission trips. (And yes, these guys actually believe short-term trips can be done well and effectively. They just recognize – rightly – that many aren’t.)

So that’s it. If you’re involved in service and not presently familiar, you should be. (And I bet a local Church Outreach Guy is already.)

Yesterday’s post got me thinking…

If you sense a need to grow unity – or simply grow relationship – among college ministers in your area, starting around a common goal is the easier approach. While inviting an individual college minister to lunch is a great way to build that relationship, if you’re thinking about gathering multiple ministers, I’d give the meeting a theme.

If an event’s on the horizon that everyone can rally around, that’s certainly a viable option. (You’re just not allowed to get your feelings hurt simply because some ministers don’t feel they or their campus ministry has the bandwidth to participate.)

But another really great option (this is where yesterday’s post comes in) is to gather around a specific discussion topic. Obviously, you’d pick one that adds value to everyone, a broad or complex topic in which just about any college minister could share wisdom at one point and furiously take notes at another. At this time of year, “What have you noticed with your newcomers?” is a fantastic theme. But other great ideas include:

  • Small group structure/materials/process
  • Fundraising (for those involved in that)
  • Segments of the student body you’re reaching, or how to reach different segments
  • Structure/materials/process of other particular activities – like evangelism, discipleship, Big Events, etc.

When people gather, they generally want to receive some sort of value from the interaction. Yes, building relationship is valuable – but it doesn’t always feel that way at the beginning. But you’re far more likely to get people to build relationships in a context where they’re already sure they’re “getting something out of it.”

This week and next, I have the privilege to attend two conferences that have the potential to be outstanding. The first, put on by the Chalmers Center, will explore serving and “doing missions” in ways that help best – with particular contextualization for us in Dallas-Fort Worth. The second is a “summit” on all things connecting faith with the workplace, presented by the Center for Faith & Work.

(Both topics are enormously important for college ministers, but that’s actually not today’s point.)

I’m sure I’ll find some great blog fodder at the two conferences. But it also connects with an old, brief post that I wanted to re-suggest…

I have the chance today to hang out at something called Greater Dallas Movement Day, a gathering of ministry, church, and lay leaders who are focused on impacting various causes. More than anything else, it seems designed simply to get people devoted to the same cause in the room together.

That gets me thinking: How are Christian students on your campus doing the same thing? Surely your ministry alone (even if it’s large) can’t tackle every topic that might be on your students’ hearts. Is someone dedicated to fighting sex trafficking? To promoting purity? To apologetics? Are there any venues where they can connect with students in other campus ministries that are interested in the same causes?

What are some of your students’ favorite TV shows?

It’s not as innocuous a question as it sounds. Because ultimately, it shows whether you’ve got a finger on the pulse of the “everyday” lives of your students. I could have just as easily asked, “What’s trending on social media with your students?” or “Who do they plan to vote for in November?” Questions like these reveal just how much a college minister is familiar with his or her audience – not just with what they put on an info card in August, but with their ongoing lives.

I don’t know what keeping “your ear to the ground” means in your context. I don’t know what’s wisest, and I know the balance looks different as a ministry grows in size or complexity. In some cases, this responsibility might shift because the college ministry’s director is not the primary teacher, or the primary discipler, or whatever.

But it matters that someone – probably many people, including other staff and adult volunteers and student leaders – have their ear to the ground. You’d want to understand the “everyday life” of an individual you were discipling; in some way or another, you need a major dose of that understanding with the crowd, too.

An oldie but goodie…

When I visited Cornell a while back, Chi Alpha Campus Pastor Matt Herman shared an excellent idea:

Allow your ministry to bless other groups with en masse attendance!

Matt’s idea involved occasionally finishing their large group meeting early, in order to join another campus organization’s activity. For instance, they had noticed an organization devoted to playing the card game “Mafia,” and they imagined it might be really fun for the Mafia Club if an extra 20 people showed one night!

I bet that sorority down the street could use some extra hands for a service project, and that swing-dancing club might love to show a dozen new faces how it’s done one night. A senior art exhibition, a regular game of ultimate frisbee on the lawn, a campus lecture, a psychology student’s experiment… Recitals – of any kind – are another time when simply having numbers is a blessing – even if the performer isn’t in your group (and especially if they are!). Another great chance for your “attendance bomb” to impact is the administration’s efforts to rev up school spirit (especially at campuses where school spirit is pretty minimal).

The moments when your “union” of Jesus-loving students could bless simply by their presence are numerous.

And who knows? For a few students, these field trips might lead to sticking around, developing relationships, and building their witness over time.

And who knows? For a few students in the other organization, this wacky group that just-showed-up-that-one-night might be worth getting to know.

Is this a form of service? Evangelism? Recruitment? Kindness? Campus integration? Building relationships? Whether it accomplishes one or all of those things, you might see if there’s a way your group could crash a few parties this fall.

This is nothing new to many, but it’s so vital that it’s worth saying anyway.

When you’re planning an event – whether it’s weekly or annual or happening just this one time – it’s crucial that you name the audience you’re going for. Very few college ministry activities should actually be targeting “any student who wants to come.” They may be open to attendance by that broad, generic crew, but that’s not the same as noting who your target is. Or if we want to think of things in primary, secondary, and even tertiary audiences, we can do that. Very rarely would (should) your target or primary audience be “everybody” or “every student.”

For instance, your Large Group Meeting may have as its primary audience the regulars in your college ministry, while still loving the chance to impact new people who show up. Or its primary audience may be less mature Christian students – whether they’re regular or not – who need a “taste” of community with God’s people. Or it may be new students to the ministry, even if there are fewer of them than the regulars.

This audience-identification (before you start planning) matters deeply for “programming” (what you choose to actually do at the event in question). Just as you would tailor one-on-one discipling to the individual, so college ministers should tailor their large-group discipleship (in whatever forms it takes place – including the most basic awareness-raising or recruiting efforts).

Who are you trying to reach here? Does your design match that? Are you trying too hard to cram too many audiences into the “primary” category? Once your plan is in place, can we honestly say that the primary audience is likely to respond well to that plan?

One technique that other branches of college ministry can learn from church-based ministry is the use of adult volunteers.

It’s extremely rare (at least in my experience) to hear of campus-based or institutional college ministries “importing” local Christian adults. Of course, institutional ministries (those within Christian colleges) may very well use faculty from the rest of the college, which covers a lot of the bases here.

In the final branch, collegiate churches, the presence of non-staff adults largely depends on how heterogeneous the congregation is. Some of these ministries are made up of many adults; others are nearly entirely student-drawing (except for staff members).

(I know of at least one collegiate church, on the other hand, that imported adults from other campuses of this multi-site church. They asked for a yearlong commitment. Cool idea.)

And while I’m at it, it’s worth noting that plenty of church-based college ministries likely don’t use adult volunteers (or don’t use many). But in general, they’re far more likely to than the other branches.

So caveats aside, this is an area worth exploring for any and all college ministries. One of the easiest objections to the work of college ministry is its lack of intergenerational connections. What’s more, it’s clear this generation of students is interested in learning from those of older generations. And whether they’re interested or not… they need to hear from them. And they need to hear from more than just their college ministry’s staff (and probably from people older than their college ministry’s staff, too.)

Sure, pulling adults into your ministry to

  • lead small groups
  • teach
  • mentor ministry teams or simply participate in them
  • invite students into their own lives and homes
  • disciple students
  • or simply connect with students over time, organically, in the context of your Large Group Meetings or other events

can be messy. It can be awkward. And certainly not all adults are cut out for this.

But some are. It’s worth pulling them in.

Who’s the “engine” of your college ministry for thinking about ways to advance your mission into new territory? I don’t mean continuing the present mission in all its effectiveness, or even tweaking things so that even more fruit is gained (although both of those are important pursuits). Today I’m asking if someone in your campus ministry gets to spend significant time thinking about new areas of fruit-bearing altogether.

In many college ministries, this task would fall to the college minister. And that’s great… if he or she has been able to delegate a lot of other oversight to students, volunteers, or staff.

In some college ministries, there might be a staff member or two who are wired entrepreneurially. They might provide this engine… if, again, they have space in their schedules for entrepreneurship. If they’re mostly running the Large Group Meeting or have six discipleship appointments each week, then R&D will (and should) take a back seat. Or it might just stay in the trunk.

I hope that some ministries let students be an engine for R&D, even if staff members are also thinking about advancement too. For the right kind of student, a yearlong focus on “what could be” will be an incredible growing experience – both for them and for the ministry.

Whatever the case, the title of this post presents the crux: If student leaders, staff members, or the director don’t make room for R&D, then it will not happen. And room has to be made, not simply watched for and then grabbed when it comes along. There’s always more urgent tasks on the calendar, there are always ways to fulfill the ministry you’ve already undertaken, something can always be better. So if the collegiate ministry is going to move forward into new places and new ways, you probably shouldn’t just wait for the prime month of July (or a few weeks of Christmas break) to provide all your R&D-ing space each year.

Someone’s got to be making some room for it, starting today.

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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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