purple cows

I’ve seen lots of college ministries that simply weren’t all that interesting.

This week, I’ve been looking back at a few of the books that have impacted my thinking when it comes to college ministry. In each case, the wisdom of these authors has required a bit of translation for our world of campus ministry; books written for senior pastors or (in today’s case) businesspeople won’t fit as neatly into our plans and programs as we might like, but they still offer much if we pay attention.

Yes, today’s offering comes from a secular marketing book by Seth Godin, Purple Cow. But when I first read this book a few years ago, I knew it had a lot to offer us in college ministry.

No, I don’t believe we should “run our ministries like businesses,” at least in the negative ways many Christians associate with that idea. But I think there’s wisdom to be found here. In this case, it’s wisdom about how we present ourselves to students and encourage students to participate (when they may have a zillion other choices, both secular and religious, every night of the week).

When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was.

Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring.

Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring.

A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting. (For a while.)

The essence of the Purple Cow is that it must be remarkable. …

Something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. [For college ministers: Worth inviting other students to!] Exceptional. New. Interesting. It’s a Purple Cow. Boring stuff is invisible. It’s a brown cow.

Remarkable marketing is the art of building things worth noticing right into your product or service. Not slapping on marketing [in college ministry, “recruiting” or “spreading the word”] as a last-minute add-on, but understanding that if your offering itself isn’t remarkable, it’s invisible.

That’s right toward the front of Purple Cow, and Godin spends the rest of this (very short) book fleshing out the idea and how to get there.

No, we college ministers don’t need to innovate just for the sake of competition. But at the same time, I’ve seen plenty of college ministries that apparently give students no reason to participate except for “It would be good for you” or “You know some people here.” Surely there’s a middle ground?


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