college ministry that works backwards, part one

Today’s post examines one of the most important methodologies I’ve learned along the way. It’s also one of the topics that seems most beneficial to a wide range of college ministers. Hopefully that’s true! (If not, check back in tomorrow; the nice thing about a daily blog is that I’m bound to provide something useful once in a while!)

In the past few years of conversations with 400+ college ministers, I have regularly asked one particular question that is especially dear to my heart. And very often – perhaps more than with any other question – the college minister across the table from me had no immediate answer.

That simple question went something like this:

“What specific outcomes are you aiming to produce?”

I believe a college ministry’s success – decade-by-decade, semester-by-semester, and even activity-by-activity – should be measured in large part by the achievement of specific, aimed-for outcomes. I should have specific goals for what I want students knowing, feeling, or doing – at the end of a message, at the end of a small group time, at the end of a semester, at graduation, five years after graduation… And meeting those goals (or not) should be a primary indicator of success (or failure).

Though it is quite wise to ask ourselves if we’re “hitting what we aim at,” the problem is that it’s really easy for college ministries not to “aim” at all!

Instead, I’m tempted to “run the College Ministry Playbook” – choosing methods that have worked before and being content with the fruit… without ever stopping to ask if that particular harvest is everything God wanted to provide. God gets plenty of “good licks with crooked sticks,” so the presence of fruit doesn’t mean all is best.

I am called a co-laborer with the Lord, so it stands to reason that God might include me in on the planning and not simply the program. Though He surely has “hidden purposes” in mind, I believe He also wants to give us actual, specific aims for the ministry we do. Then He gets the glory as initiator and architect, not simply as the divine Manual Labor blessing our designs.

When we develop aims based on what God indicates our students need MOST and need NEXT, we are able to work with Him toward meeting those real needs.

An example: When I served as a church college minister here in Dallas, I knew we needed to start by laying a foundational culture of character. So my short-term targets were four basic qualities – Focus, Direction, Integrity, and Commitment – and nearly all my teaching (for a whole year) centered on those areas. I varied my words and the angle at which I approached these themes, but my aim was pretty static and very intentional.

Meanwhile, I also recognized that our ministry would need leaders. So raising up student leadership was another outcome I aimed for (through a regular leadership prep study).

And even individual activities were tied to specific outcomes – like choosing a Spring Break “Mad Libs eBay Road Trip” instead of a traditional mission trip, in part because our Dallas students needed to learn that planning shouldn’t be an idol.

In other words, I was bound to the targets God provided.

I’ll post some more on this in the days to come, including more explicitly discussing why this is “backwards” college ministry (as the title of this post implies). Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your feedback, either in the comments or otherwise.

And whether this resounds with you at the moment or not, I hope you’ll at least consider the original question – What specific outcomes are you aiming to produce? – and decide how prominent a role that question should play in your decision-making.

If you do decide to prioritize that question, I believe it will revolutionize your college ministry. And while that may indeed be a bold statement, I know from experience how much it’s changed my own.

The second post in this series – and why this is “backwards” college ministry – can be found here.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s an edit of a post I guest-blogged at Heart of Campus Ministry awhile back. But hopefully it’s even better after the edits and other fixes, and I do plan to explore further in the coming days.


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  1. Good thoughts Benson!

    I especially appreciate the comments about ‘working with God’ in the planning phase our ministry. It is crucial that we’re dialed-in to what God is up to so that we’re working with Him, and not against Him when it comes to reaching college students.

  2. Brian Kiley

    Great thoughts as usual. In college ministry, as with just about any other ministry, it is so easy to fall into the trap of just trying to survive week-to-week rather than earnestly and intentionally pursuing God given goals. I believe we need to be asking ourselves that question that you posed week after week. Also, I think there is something to be said for defining primary goals, and willingly ignoring other potentially worthy goals for the sake of the primary goals it appears God is leading us to pursue. There are so many important issues to cover in college ministry, and it seems to me that we are far better off really focusing on a few issues repeatedly (like the example you gave of pursuing those four goals) rather than trying to touch on every possible issue or idea that is relevant to college students. It’s easy to take that concept too far, but nonetheless it is a good one to keep in mind.

  3. Great word, Brian. Aiming for “great in the basics” is the way I like to put it – and it’s always tempting to add too much to the plate. You’re right – doing too much can cause us to actually accomplish too little in the end.

  4. Pingback: for the new year: where to start « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

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