backwards college ministry, part two

On Monday, I started looking at a principle I’ve found fundamental to my own college ministry practice. Today, I want to share how I first learned this stuff; since I can’t say this any better than the guy who taught me, I won’t really try.

A couple of years after college, I got a hold of a sermon discussing how an entire church best produces disciples. The pastor was Denton Bible Church’s Tommy Nelson, who’s pretty well-known here in Texas. (You might have encountered his widely dispersed Song of Solomon series.)

In the first 12 minutes of that message, Nelson shared a principle that has affected most of my college ministry work since then. Yes, he was applying it to the local church – but it’s a very basic methodology applicable to any ministry form.

In the message, Nelson describes learning this himself as a 26-year-old, from renowned Bible teacher (and teacher-of-teachers) Howard Hendricks.

And after 30 years of pastoring, Nelson said this is still the one thing he offers young pastors looking for guidance. “If you get this,” he tells them, “you’re going to be successful. If you don’t, I don’t care how many people [are in your church], you’re going to get frustrated.” He even describes this principle as the “Power Sweep of the church,” comparing it to the unstoppable offensive play run by Vince Lombardi’s teams of old.

Remember, this is coming from a guy with one of the most long-term impactful pastorates in Texas.

So here’s the principle. Any quotes are Nelson’s, as he described what he learned from Hendricks. While I’ll leave things basically in the form he presented it (discussing local churches), I personally apply it very directly to campus ministry.

the principle of backwards ministry

“Normally, when you talk about how to do a church, we do it backwards.”

He described watching Hendricks draw, from left to right, something like this:

A ministry usually begins with its pastor and leadership in place. Then, those people decide structure and activities – when the ministry meets, regular activities, organization, message topics, guest speakers, etc.

Of course, the structures and activities determine what kind of people, at the end of the day, are produced within this ministry. (Nelson calls them the ministry’s “gun barrel,” because that’s the part of the gun that most determines how the bullets fly and what targets are hit.)

In this form of ministry, deciding the structures comes first; the “product” comes about simply as a natural result of all that.

“That’s generally how churches are done, and that is exactly backward.”

Instead – and this time, Nelson said, Hendricks started drawing on the right side of the board – the setup should look like this:

We begin our work by establishing, “Just what do we call ‘success’?”

“When that guy has been through your church five or six years, what do you want him [the stick figure] to look like? … Because whatever you determine is successful, that’s how you’re going to organize…” Further, if that definition of success isn’t correct from the start, “then you’re going to succeed at the wrong areas.”

Only after the “Product” is established do the leaders decide the “How” of the ministry (the structures, processes, and activities), and they base those decisions entirely on the “What” they’re trying to produce! Following that, the leadership is chosen or placed based on the needs of those structures and activities.

[As I’ve learned since, others have called this “starting with the end in mind.” I often call it “purpose-based” or even “outcome-based” ministry.]

Nelson continued, “What’s the most important part of an oxcart? The ox. The cart. The wheel. No – the most important part of an oxcart is the blueprint. Because that’s the mind of the guy who makes the oxcart. And as long as you have a blueprint, you know what an oxcart is supposed to be and how it’s supposed to function.”

You can always acquire oxen and materials to put together a solid oxcart. But “you lose that blueprint, and now you’re going to make – successfully – something that doesn’t correspond to ‘oxcart-ness.’”

“If you’re right here” – Nelson continued, pointing at the right side of the diagram – “this follows and this follows. If you’re wrong here, this’ll be wrong, and this’ll be wrong.”


All the posts discussing “Backwards College Ministry” can now be found here. And in case you didn’t read it, I fleshed this out from a different angle on Monday.


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  1. Really good stuff here Benson!

    This is very similar to the model through which we assessed our ministry (and what has felt like a lack of ‘fruit’) this past semester. Knowing what we would like students to ‘look like’ by the time they are graduating is critical.

    I’d love to know how you think my post from today on the Well Curve impacts this model of ministry… because I think that it does. I think the Emerging Adulthood phase of life also impacts this conversation as well. Unfortunately, we don’t get 5-6 (or more) years with our students like pastors might in the local church – as you know and as you mentioned above.

    I look forward to seeing you flesh this out some more this week… very important stuff here!

  2. Great stuff Benson. In addition to hearing this called “Begin with the end in mind” (one of the 7 Habits), I’ve also heard it called “reverse engineering.”

    What strikes me as I read this is that while I DO think about the end, and go “backwards,” I do NOT sufficiently communicate that to those I’m working with. In other words, I’m not doing what Hendricks did with Tenney, who did that for you and others, and that you’re now doing for us.

    So I often have a pretty clear idea in mind of where I’d like to see my students end up, but frustrated if they’re not getting there (as quickly as I’d like), yet I haven’t helped THEM start with the end in mind.

    Great time of year to bring this up, BTW, as we begin to assess things and even lay groundwork/blueprints for next year.

  3. Benson Hines

    Thanks for the comments, fellas!

    Guy, I’m not exactly sure I see the the connections between this principle and the Well curve you’re seeing in student involvement, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on how it connects!

    A little clarification may help, though: this really isn’t a model of college ministry, just a principle for determining methods. As I’ll discuss in later posts (though it probably won’t be this week!), we can (and I’d argue, should) define success for each semester and each activity, not only the end of their time with us.

    So, to apply it to your present issue, one “product” at the end of Year One would be (in Belmont’s case) a recognition if the importance of CM involvement. Then methods would be designed around that need.

  4. While this certainly is a true organizational principle, one of the challenges I see in implementing it well in college ministry is balancing the senior and the freshman. I want different experiences for the four-year senior because I different goals for her than I do for the sporadically attending first year guy who plays CoD most of the day. But I only have one weekly meeting, one girls small group, one guys small group (I’d love to have more, but we don’t have enough participants), one social event, etc.

    So, I guess my question becomes, “How do I challenge the senior, the freshman, and everyone in between in this same event/talk/trip/etc?”

  5. David Morrison


    Really like this post, especially in light of our lunch on Friday. Nelson is greatness and I feel like we would benefit from some more perciseness (is that a word) in this area.

  6. Great question, Bob – and that’s definitely the difficulty for any college ministry, even when it’s huge. As at least a first stab at this, I’d say the key is to be crystal clear on the exact Outcomes (no more, no less) you’re called to aim for. If that eventual list (after much prayer and thought) includes different things for different people, then the methods would have to be adjusted to accomplish that. In an extreme case, for instance, it might mean you have separate weekly meetings for upperclassmen and freshmen.

    However, more standard ways of dealing with that kind of issue include having a rotating “curriculum” across three or four years, introducing your students to one-on-one disciplers (the ultimate way to aim specifically for personal outcomes), making sure to include varying applications in the large group (and small group) teaching, or having breakout groups after the main message to hash things out for particular groups.

    But there are probably some inventions we have yet to… invent. Backwards College Ministry does a great job of producing creativity, because it gives us necessities – which are, as they say, the mother of invention.

    A great hope is that God won’t call us to more “aims” than we’re equipped to handle. Sometimes, though, our present good-methods are getting in the way of best-methods that would better produce our outcomes. And oftentimes, we’ve laid a bigger burden on our own shoulders than he intends – especially since we only have students for 4ish years.

    Those are just some first thoughts on this. But that definitely is getting me thinking – how do we reach the niches (of all kinds) that are already present in our ministries? Thanks for making me ponder. :)

  7. Benson,

    I may be trying to make a connection that doesn’t belong… but I’ve been living in these ‘well curve’ and ’emerging adulthood’ realms for a while now and may be looking at everything through these lenses… right or wrong.

    But I do wonder if, based on the well curve, if it is possible to define success (with much accuracy) knowing that students may go underground for a couple of years (well curve) or wait and wait to take on the responsibility of making their faith their own (emerging adulthood). I realize this doesn’t define all of our students (emerging adulthood) or all of our campuses (well curve) but I think there are likely some implications.

    These are good things to be thinking about! Thanks again.

  8. Yeah – definitely, if you’re trying to determine success for the 4-year-span, that would be very much thwarted by the Well. I see what you mean there.

    That’s one great thing about this principle – it’s meant to apply to the short-term, too, and even the individual activities.

    So when a need is identified (and it sounds like retention is a pretty big need in this case), that becomes another Key Outcome. And then methods are designed specifically to help meet that Outcome. It would be interesting to see what you’ll come up with if helping students return to community participation in their Sophomore year is a major target.

    Thanks for everybody’s comments so far! This has been a fun day – feel free to add more!

  9. Pingback: scratch where you niche (a fridea) « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

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