aiming for clean or for crops

I’m taking a quick break from looking at this month’s challenge to greater excellence (as delivered by Old Spice), but I’d love your thoughts on that. Hopefully THIS will be encouraging as you prepare for the upcoming school year!

Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,
but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox. (Prov. 14:4 ESV)

It’s a simple matter to have a clean manger, a clean barn, a clean life… just don’t buy any oxen. Or, if you prefer a plowed field and the resulting abundant crops, you can choose the messy oxen route. It’s your choice, but you can’t generally have both.

Good college ministry allows things to get a little messy.

But the temptations include

  • Trying to organize the messiness out of our ministry.
  • Forgetting to treat people differently, because streamlining is so much easier.
  • Forgetting to treat each semester differently, because planning is so much easier.
  • Refusing to accept anomalies on their own terms instead of “fitting them into the system” – be they individual volunteers, surprise opportunities, teachable moments, surprise disasters, or needs-of-the-hour.
  • Freaking out about the messiness in the students we serve.
  • Looking to build “perfect” “unity” among local college ministries by removing any hint of programmatic overlap or competition. (Often we – and even moreso college students – overreach in this pursuit!)
  • Having undue confidence in our program “as is,” since smooth sailing and steady growth are the (undue) expectations for the foreseeable future.
  • Getting depressed about all the roadblocks to building a strong, long-lasting college ministry.
  • Dealing with our students as we assume they are or hope they are or believe “college students in general” to be, instead of as our particular students truly are.

The lack of tolerance and expectation of messiness in college ministry seems to lead to a surprising amount of difficulty, disillusionment, and even conflict between people or ministries.

Personally, I am an “all-my-ducks-in-a-row” kind of guy; I don’t like “messy.” Maybe more than many of you. And since I’m that way, I would love to believe that I could start a college ministry, run some classic “Good College Ministry Plays,” and then let that tidy package bring abundant crops year after year.

It doesn’t seem to happen like that.

Perhaps more than any other ministry area, Collegiate-Ministry-in-a-Box doesn’t work. Boy, I wish it did. But if I have to choose between a tidy feedbox and fruitful plowing, I’ll choose messy ox over clean box any day.

This post was expanded from something I posted in September 2008. But c’mon – were you really reading this blog way back then?


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  1. Great post Benson! Some important reminders here!

    This past semester was one of moving ‘outside of the box’ for us – in our thinking, this summer it moved into our planning, and this fall it will impact our ministry. I’m hopeful that God will produce a ‘fruitful harvest’ this year as we have followed Him into the messiness of outside the box thinking!

  2. Great Post Benson. I just found your blog this summer (via the Cru Blogference) and have benefited greatly (I’ve bookmarked probably 10 pages to use for development for my team/students). Thanks for sharing ideas. And while we’re off topic, I was looking back at your posts about Jimmy Fallon and saw the co-producer commented – Pretty cool.

    Anyway, great thoughts. College students in particular are messy (young, spiritually and emotionally). But I once heard a mega-church pastor comment: “Birth is messy. Death is organized. Many churches that are super organized in committees and such are really just dead.” That has stuck with me in the midst of the messiness of ministry. The messiness is worth it as we see students experience new life.

  3. Benson,
    As usual, your post is right on. I’ve been regularly tracking your blog and have benefited greatly–more than I could write. In regards to this post on messiness, you’ve really hit the nail on the head. With ministry in general, but especially with college/youth ministry, embracing messiness is necessary because it’s going to happen. And as Tim just posted, if your ministry is not messy, then perhaps it is dead (or dying).

    Dealing with, managing, embracing, and even loving the mess of college ministry has been hard for me because, like you, I’m an “all-my-ducks-in-a-row” guy. But once I realized it’s not going away and that it’s (most likely) a good thing, I’ve experienced much more freedom in coming alongside college students.

  4. These are really helpful thoughts, fellas. I like that observation about birth and death, Tim! And that’s a great way to put it, Jarrod – being okay with messiness does lend a sense of freedom. Very cool.

    Glad this seems to have scratched where some people are itching! That’s always encouraging for me.

  5. Pingback: another 10 reads for assessing your college ministry « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)

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