poles #6: organic vs. systematic college ministry


At this past weekend’s CollegeLeader Conference, the topic of organic campus ministry seemed to come up quite a few times. So I figured I would (organically) take that opportunity to introduce the next entry in the College Ministry Poles series!

I doubt there are too many many college ministers who actually camp fully on either side of today’s spectrum. I think most of us would say, “We need to have both sides.” But college ministers do seem to vary widely on the degree to which they lean one way or the other. And further complicating matters is the fact that what we argue for and what we do may differ. So this entry really asks,

Should a college minister lean more toward organic development or systematic development?

As usual, I’m hoping for some great thoughts on this one (see the questions at the bottom if you’d like some specific prompting!). But first, it might help to define what “organic-leaning” or “systematic-leaning” might look like in our world. But these are just generalizations or even “guesses”; I’d love for you to add your own thoughts in the comments!

organic-leaning college ministry

  • More concerned with responding to the day-to-day opportunities than to somehow “organizing” for the future
  • A premium on allowing space and time, so relationships / discipleship can develop naturally
  • Programs often occur as an outgrowth of relationships
  • High premium placed on students taking ownership of the ministry
  • Recruitment may be a major concern but might not seem to “fit” the organic nature of this ministry. In some cases, it may not be a focus at all, or may happen primarily through word-of-mouth and one-by-one relational connections
  • Connections (both leaders-students and students-students) will likely be decentralized; it might be more difficult to help students progress to deeper modes of discipleship
  • May be harder to determine measurable success

systematic-leaning college ministry

  • Considers organizing for upcoming ministry very important
  • A premium on creating activities and moments, so relationships / discipleship can develop purposely
  • Relationships often occur as an outgrowth of programs
  • Still may place a high premium on student ownership, but it might be “given” to students rather than “taken” by them
  • Recruitment, like other aspects, will likely be planned and programmed
  • Connections (both leaders-students and students-students) will likely be centralized; it might be harderr for connections and ministry to develop outside the bounds of the established systems
  • May be easier to measure success, but may also be easier to assume “success” based on poor measures

Those are some defining aspects I thought of, but I would love those to be enhanced, corrected, or otherwise adjusted!

And here are some other questions for consideration:

  1. How would you define “organic” collegiate ministry – or its opposite?
  2. Where do you fall on this spectrum in your thinking? Do the actions in your ministry bear that out?
  3. Which direction do you think college ministers generally need to move on this spectrum? Are we more often “too organic” or “too systematic”?
  4. How would you argue your position – or train a new campus minister to approach this work?

see the other entries in the series, including people’s great comments, right here

written from Riverside, California


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Road Trip 13: Day 15 recap
got to feeling sick, so largely took the day off. kinda nice.
T-shirt: the Lions of Columbia University
today: Riverside, then on to more central Los Angeles
(see all explorations so far!)


  1. PC

    I think it may be possible that I am an organic leader trying to lead systematically. This causes a large level of confusion not just for me, but for the students I am leading. I find myself hoping and wishing they would take more ownership while I am internally frustrated that they are not TAKING what I’m not GIVING.

    I greatly desire, hope for, and identify with the organic pole, but I fear I am leading too systematically to see what I envision and hope for to actually happen.

    Quite the predicament…

  2. I really appreciate your honesty, PC! It’s always worth it to pull back and “regroup” – with everything on the table for consideration.

    But that includes maybe recognizing, too, that systematic-leaning isn’t necessarily that bad. I’d say the key is finding what methods best reach your purposes/outcomes. When those methods are more “organic,” then use those. When those methods are more “systematic,” then use those.

    I betcha you end up using some of both!

    (Just some thoughts – obviously, you know your tribe better than me!)

  3. Benson–I’d prefer to see these poles as “organic” and “programmatic.” Because organic entities are definitely systematic, whether it be a central nervous system or a cell group system.

    One of the things I value in my organic-leaning ministry is the ability to more easily (if not quite spontaneously) multiply and start-up new groups/ventures/initiatives/projects.

    It’s my conviction that programmatic ministry works well among Christianized, churched kids, but to reach beyond Christendom we need to become more organic in our orientation. I’m not advocating a full-on Jaeson-Ma organic style, but I am advocating a more flexible philosophy of ministry.

  4. Good words, Steve. Yeah, I wasn’t sure about “systematic,” and I did kick something along the lines of “programmatic” around. I went with systematic, not meaning “having a system” but more as a synonym of “methodical” or “planned.”

    I avoided “program” language somewhat because it has a negative connotation for many. And many might take “programmatic” to mean event-based or activity-based, and that’s not what I was aiming for.

    But what you said about organic entities often being systematic (in a sense) is true, and that’s why on this one everybody seems to fall somewhere in between. A ministry that leans organic has most likely been planned to be that way; a ministry that leans systematic probably has several elements that pop up outside of methodical implementation.

    There are, however, organic-leaning philosophies that are less systematic than it sounds like yours is – that really believe in focusing on allowing space for growth and letting God do what He does. In these philosophies, there may not be a lot of room for methodical-ness… even though, at some level, there’s probably a little bit.

    I may still need a better word to hit the target on this one. Maybe “methodical”?

  5. aaronfriesen

    For purposes of this post, I’m sure we can agree that “Systematic-leaning” ministry is defined by the bulletted list in the post, and proceed from that presupposition.

    By nature, organized church ministry will be systematic. So of course it will attract those who are attracted to organized church!

    Our systematic ministry is purposed to generate organic ministry. For example, this summer spawned “Wednesday night dinners” where the leaders got together and invited others from our “Table Groups” program to a home made dinner.

    All attenders would all set a budget, decide what to make, purchase the food, cook, eat, and clean together. Totally random and organic. They’d decide who’s house to do it at next all at previous meeting, and get the word out via our ministry’s facebook group and texting.

    Because the purpose of Table Groups is to connect with other Christians, the organic outbreak of Wednesday night dinner was exactly what we were looking for – a real-life execution of church outside of our “church” property. The practice of systematic connection sparked discussion during the dinners about church. This organic connection also poured back into our systematic connection to make it more genuine.

    They worked together well. The beginning of the school year and everyone’s changed schedules starved the dinners, and they have since died. This could have been avoided with some systematic planning. Both relational venues served to strengthen each other, and I have come to see how symbiotic organic and systematic ministry enviroments are to each other.

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