sixty-four: a vision trip

For the last three years, I’ve posted an essay connecting what we see in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament with the glories of college ministry. Below, you’ll find the update for 2010. Hopefully it will encourage you – and perhaps you can use it to help potential college ministers, your supporters, local Christian leaders, or others understand the value and wonders of serving college students! (An easy link for sharing is http://bit.ly/64tribes).

Each year in March, a famous basketball tournament serves as a highly publicized window into a magnificent mission field – the college campuses scattered throughout our nation. The college ministers who labor among these “campus tribes” are often surprised that American Christians don’t get more excited about impacting college students. Fortunately, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is our chance to take a unique “vision trip,” observing this particular people-group and picturing what mission work among them can accomplish.

Imagine you’re a missionary having just arrived in your country of service. Near your village, eight different tribes from across the nation meet in their great annual contest – while seven other locations around the nation are hosting similar gatherings. Each region has selected champions to compete, and other tribes are invited to join the contests because of their warriors’ widely recognized abilities. Thousands of other tribe members will watch these contests.

So of course, you choose to observe the contests; it’s a phenomenal chance to start exploring the culture and qualities of this highly unreached people-group you have been called to serve.

As the weekend begins, you first notice that each tribe promotes its own identity with great fervor – and even the unique tribal names make it clear this is no normal mission field. At your site, for instance, two tribes are named after animals known for their ferocity, but another has adopted a much less menacing animal. Yet another tribe centers its loyalty around a tenacious insect. Three others have chosen names that honor heroes from various global cultures, while another has simply appropriated a locally grown nut believed to bring good luck.

The urban setting of the Golden Gophers tribe illustrates many of the contextual differences that can affect mission work among the campus tribes.

At these contests, dancers are prevalent, as are costumes, musical instruments, food, drink, wagers, merchants, and religious invocations. The chiefs of the tribes are here, often found cheering next to some of the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by, though actual bloodshed in these contests is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the contests, but they will face much taunting through the length of the weekend.

As you continue to watch the contests, you begin to notice traits beyond the extensive festivity, pageantry, and revelry here. Certainly the character qualities required for these contests – prudence, discipline, justice, courage, unity, chivalry – are admirable. But you are also unable to deny the deep passion here, among warriors and watchers alike. Some fighters win, and the crowd’s elation is profound. Some lose, and the contestants and tribes weep together – with an unbridled bitterness that would be shocking if not for the fervent zeal you have seen displayed all throughout these contests. 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 so opposing armies might be put to flight.

And through it all, you begin to notice the clear opportunity in reaching these passionate people for Christ right now:

  • The enthusiasm in these tribes has yet to be tamed. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a messiness, a wild youthfulness in everyone: the warriors, the dancers, the battle-leaders, the musicians, and the crowds.
  • The bonds brought about by community spirit are not frivolous. The natural connections and unity within these tribes will help God’s work to spread between their members.
  • Creativity abounds within these tribes. Channeled for the Kingdom of God, this same ingenuity could serve to impact not only the natives’ nation but the entire world.
  • This people-group is not short on energy, either – another opportunity to maximize fruit for Christ. If God allows you to touch even a segment of these vibrant people, their impact on others could be quick and profound.
The bicycles that swarm the many campus bike paths are one unique aspect of the Gaucho tribe of UC Santa Barbara.

So as the contests come to a close, you find yourself a little humbled. This is an amazing people you do not deserve to spend even the next year with, let alone a longer stint. No, this will not be an easy mission (as though any missionary activity is ever easy!); these are distracted people at times, and the blessings they possess may stand in their way of recognizing a need for Christ. Surely you will find other roadblocks to your mission, as well. But though there will certainly be the sorrows and hardships that come with any missionary activity, the field to which you have been called is a unique adventure and a blessing indeed.

All the “madness,” the virtue, the passion, and the valor found here simply reflect the tribes from which these crowds have come. This time, the tribes are Panthers, Golden Grizzlies, and Golden Gophers; Yellow Jackets, Gauchos, Cowboys, and Musketeers; and, of course, Buckeyes. And that’s just in Milwaukee; there are seven other cities hosting many other amazing campus tribes.

This is the beautiful mission field available through college ministry, and there are far more than sixty-four tribes to reach.

So far, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 45 of the schools in this year’s Tournament (including 7 of the 8 tribes mentioned here), along with at least a couple of hundred more campuses in the last few years.

God is doing amazing things throughout the campus tribes! For more on what’s taking place (and some great pictures from dozens of campuses), see my free ebook, Reaching the Campus Tribes.

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