what freakishly contextual college ministries might look like

This week, I’ve had a couple of chances to discuss college ministries that are built contextually from the beginning, letting the mission field itself suggest the methods and activities that can be best used to reach it.

To further flesh this out, I’d like to give some examples – but examples are hard to come by. Why? For one thing, I’ve rarely seen campus ministries that have obviously been built in this way. But second, the whole point is that these sorts of ministries can only come about by spending time loving and learning our individual campus tribes.

Still, I want to do my best. So here are a few ideas of what a college ministry built “with contextual bricks” might look like:

  1. As a campus missionary got to know a particularly academic campus, he might realize that discussion-based college ministry that takes place on Friday nights (when students aren’t as pressured to study) makes the most sense. Because of incredibly busy schedules of many of his students, he might organize “discipleship pairs” in place of the more common small group structures.
  2. During my first semester in Abilene, Texas, I noticed a need for greater unity among Christian students in town, as well as a large number of students seemingly “going through the motions” in this town with THREE Christian colleges. So a few of us designed a multi-campus, multiple-church-connected freshman small groups ministry, aiming to supplement the other work going on, exhort students in specific areas we’d noticed needs in, and raise up leaders.
  3. One local college minister was stepping into a church role and a college ministry that had yet to establish itself very well at SMU or other local colleges. After looking at this church’s strengths and potential (as well as the prevalence of other groups on campus), we discussed the possibility of a college ministry built as a collection of “pods” – multiple niche-based ministries that would impact areas of the SMU campus not already being reached well, while some “pods” might reach other campuses, too.
  4. At a campus with a (well-deserved) reputation as a party school, a new campus minister might decide her new ministry needs to offer people a “better fun.” She may intentionally design several front-door structures – a high-energy weekly large group meeting, a monthly public party, a huge ski retreat each semester, an annual dinner for the whole Greek system, and tailgating before every big football and basketball game – to draw non-Christians and help introduce them to “the life that is truly life.”

If you could re-tailor your college ministry for your campus, what would it look like? What stopped you from starting in that way? What’s stopping you from re-tailoring now?

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6 Comments

  1. love your thoughts ben but still seems a little vague and that could be because of the lack of ministries that you say are actually pursuing this model to sit on campus and observe specific needs that are unique to SMU or CSUF or Yale or UO or any other campuses.

    I am new to this process but it seems that there are some commonalities that bridge all college ministries. This maybe a stupid, self explanatory statement, but what would be some methods to discover those needs of the mission field.

    I am guessing that there are common parts of every college ministry that should be tweaked for your specific audience and campus. What are some of those categories that are common yet shifted depending on where you are. Thanks benny, look forward to hearing more!

  2. Actually, that may be where some of the confusion is: I generally would NOT commit to the idea that there are “some commonalities that [should] bridge all college ministries” or necessities that simply need to be tweaked for the specific mission field.

    This is different than saying there aren’t fundamentals that all students (generally) need: things like small group (or one-on-one) discipleship (including evangelism when needed), chances to serve, chances to lead, chances for community. (And maybe more?)

    But not every college ministry is called to provide all these things, and even ministries that do provide a “full slate” might be able to do those things by a variety of methods.

    That’s why I’ve argued in the past that talking about “Best Practices” in college ministry is often unproductive – because each campus tribe has to be reached on its own terms. (Of course, some ideas have been used well across a large number of campuses – it may be good, then, to think of “Best Possibilities” rather than “Best Practices.”) (Search “best practices” for more on all that – it’ll definitely flesh out some of what I’m saying here.)

    We need more collegiate missionaries that are willing to “decode the campus” (that’s Cru terminology), “spy out the land” (that’s a phrase I heard from some InterVarsity people recently), or otherwise deeply learn a mission field – before doing much work at all, if possible. If I was starting on a new campus again, I’d want to spend (at least) a semester meeting with everybody possible, observing what God’s people are already doing, and learning about the school (including formal and informal demographics, history, administration and faculty traits and views, and more). Then the first decision I’d make is whether I need to minister there at all!

    This seems pretty similar to what foreign missionaries do, and I’m hopeful we’ll have a lot more individuals starting in this way in the future!

  3. Benson- I realize you speak from a far broader exposure to many college ministries but I don’t know if I’m convinced re: having to radically contextualize/start from scratch on any given campus.

    I’m all for decoding and contextualizing but I do feel like you can use pretty much the same building blocks campus to campus.

    On our campus we’ve used ideas borrowed from 10-20 different campuses across the U.S. The best thing I’ve done to reach our campus is to survey other ministries’ best practices and adapt them to our situation. I guess I’m saying that I’ve found “best practices” to be incredibly productive and effective.

    I think I see what you’re getting at – that you shouldn’t just default to the way everyone else does ministry (and I agree).

    But I think that adapting others’ “best practices” to your particular context can GREATLY accelerate your ministry. I’ve seen far more damage done by campus ministers being unteachable/unwilling to learn from others’ “best practices” – constantly reinventing the wheel or just settling for mediocrity.

    I agree with what you’ve written before:
    “We should learn broadly
    We should learn humbly
    We should learn continually
    And of course, we should share with others what we’ve learned. Because we never know when our own practices might be best for another college ministry!”

    But it seems like all that = “best practices”.

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  4. I think a chunk of confusion might be caused by the way I use the term “Best Practices” – I mean it as a technical term, in the way it’s used largely in the business world (which is why I usually capitalize it). What I’ve argued before about Best Practices in college ministry (in the same post you quoted from) is that, “There are indeed some Best Practices in college ministry. But they’re surprisingly rare. There are far more methods that are ‘great ideas’ but which don’t meet the threshold of being ‘Best Practices.'” And I describe there what I mean by Best Practices. (Here’s that post.)

    But I’ve definitely been a champion of collaboration throughout the years – even in that post you quoted from. In fact, I’d suggest that while looking at only 10-20 other ministries could definitely be great for the early stages (especially if most of them are from outside our own organization or denomination), but hopefully any ministry would continue to look at more ministries each year.

    It would also be vital within early collaboration that each of those consulted ministries fill us in on their own mission fields (and not just their methods), because a practice isn’t “a good method” because God uses it somewhere, a practice is good because it’s a best fit for that particular context. Collaboration without context seems more than a little careless.

    But I’d just argue that better college ministries will arise when we place a major primacy on learning the mission field. How else does a missionary know what to aim for, what God’s version of “success” is for that campus, and even what questions to focus on when he collaborates? If I want to disciple someone personally, I’d always want to choose the methods, the timing, the structure, and any materials based on what the student needs – so while (of course) I’ll be asking people for ideas of “great discipleship materials,” woe to me if I choose materials before getting to know the student!

    I’d say the more we treat college ministry like that, the better. I was heavily impacted in my thinking here by Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant, and I can’t encourage college ministers enough to read it and share it.

    Of course, collaboration can help with even the original process of decoding a campus – it helps us consider broader and broader ideas for what we might want to do. And then once you know what you’re aiming for and have discerned the general (and some specific) structures that will reach a campus best, you can go about the task of collaborating with gusto – like you said, it will certainly accelerate the process by helping do those methods you’ve decided to do really, really well.

    One last thought: For some of us with established ministries, it’s hard to swallow the idea that we could have started better or could, even now, become more contextual – especially if we’ve seen God bring AMAZING fruit. But I believe many of us would argue that any NEW ministry to campus would work this exact way! We’d encourage them to work slowly, to get to know the mission field well, and to discern very wisely how that ministry can best impact (or even if they’re needed here at all!). Some present college ministries will see their impact shrink over the next five years because some well-meaning but hard-charging national organization (or big local church) will plant first and ask questions later. And because they haven’t learned the context well before planting, it’s impossible for them even to realize the damage they’ll cause (even while they’re also seeing cool fruit).

    But my argument isn’t fundamentally about avoiding a “basic building block” mentality so we avoid damaging the mission field (though that does happen plenty). It’s about building college ministries that radically impact in bigger and stronger ways than we’ve ever seen before. Campuses are different enough from each other that template-based ministry just doesn’t make sense.

  5. Jonathan Hicks

    bartosik and Tim,

    I wanted to add to Benson’s responses a little and share from my experience. Hope this helps you. My ministry is #3 on the list above. I serve mostly at SMU in a church-based college ministry role and have been here a year and a half.

    As Benson described, when we talked last Spring I had come to the realization that SMU has many good ministries and I wasn’t sure my place. Our ministry was small and graduating 3/4 of our students. All reasons for discouragement or questioning my place in ministry at SMU. But at the same time, I saw a campus that while heavily saturated with ministries, still was over 90% unreached (not hard numbers but adding up attendance of weekly large group meetings). If a student was looking for a mid-week large group with teaching and singing and announcements, they had many varieties to choose from. So as much as the “Sing and Speak” large group gathering is a college ministry staple and an unquestioned first step in establishing a ministry, we don’t do one and have no plans for one.

    We are still figuring out what it looks like and how it works to have a de-centralized ministry but that is what we are aiming for. In other words, I don’t expect that we will ever gather all our students together at one time. Because I hope many of these students may not realize they are “in” a campus ministry. They may know myself or a student we’re mentoring. They may come with others from other “pods” to serve the campus or community, but it will not feel like a traditional campus ministry where everyone meets in the Union on Tuesdays at 8 pm.

    I’ll be a little more specific with our strategy (hope this helps). Some of our potential “pods” or “niches” are Greek houses, dorms, student groups, or a specific nationality of international students. We actually have a “base” pod too. In essence it’s a more traditional looking college ministry in a lot of ways, but our goal is to keep this always smaller and leaner (less programs) so that our leaders are really being trained not to run the ministry so much as be sent out to start pods in the places on campus they have relationships.

    So the pods could be nothing more than a student in a club who decides to intentionally invest time in relationships there and prayer specifically for them. Maybe from this a Bible study starts with a few students over time.

    Right now, any activity here is staff-led. We are truly only getting this ball rolling. I think it will take 2 years on this vision before it will really take shape and by year 3 hopefully students are starting pods. I actually want to start a program basically to train and support students for this goal (including a small stipend and ministry expenses). We think we can have a greater impact on our campuses this way rather than by following a more traditional model.

    I know many ministries are already doing things like this (I went to school at UT-Austin and saw many ministries approach the campus as a large collection of “people-groups”–a missiological approach to college ministry). I think Steve Lutz’s new book “College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture” talks about this as well.

    I also want to say that I think other ministries keep a more traditional structure and do what I described as an extension of it.

    Ok, I’ve already written too much. Really grateful for Benson’s blog and his efforts to create conversations like this one (and for our strategy session last Spring).

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