the city-wide service: worth some trepidation

This occasional series, “Worth Some Trepidation,” explores some of the Big Ideas college ministers often pursue without recognizing their inherent difficulties or poor track records. While any of these could be the right method for a ministry, they’re easy to adopt too quickly.

One method that definitely fits the call to “proceed slowly” is what I call the “city-wide” service. This is a worship service that seeks to draw students from multiple ministries, multiple churches, etc.; its attempted reach is city-wide.

I’ve seen many ministries – especially churches – try to work this method out. Sometimes they do it in concert with other ministries in a unified approach. Others may even pay a band, use a major speaker, or otherwise do everything they can to get as many students there as possible.

Don’t get me wrong – several “city-wides” have had profound impact in the history of Collegiate Ministry. I myself was impacted by Breakaway Ministries in College Station, Texas – which drew thousands of students each week – and by Grace, the city-wide where Matt Chandler was raised up as a communicator.

But as I write in Reaching the Campus Tribes, the city-wide simply isn’t usually the best option for any given ministry, including the ministries that have the resources, cooperation, or personnel to get it done:

[O]ne widespread method by which some organizations do make a sizeable investment in college ministry is the creation of a large, mid‐week worship service meant to draw college‐age individuals (and sometimes young adults) from throughout the city. While some “city‐wide” Bible studies have achieved success and true effectiveness, this “big bang” approach is only rarely the best tactic for a ministry attempting to reach young people.

Based on the history of successful city‐wide services, my own observations, and other factors, I believe that two scenarios offer the most promise for effectiveness here. In the first case, a large worship service grows organically, as a smaller Bible study fits a need in its community and draws a crowd as a result. Other times, a city‐wide service might be designed to fit the specific needs of a local campus or the city, after those needs have been wisely assessed.

Sadly, many groups seem to follow neither of these paths. For instance, a city‐wide service may be used to jump‐start a new or ailing ministry. Often this approach takes a heavy investment in time and resources but produces little ultimate fruit. And even when poorly strategized worship experiences do happen to endure for years or draw large numbers, one wonders if planning better on the front end or hiring an actual college minister might have ultimately impacted students more effectively.

Reaching the Campus Tribesp. 34

I wrote that last sentence – about hiring a college minister – with churches specifically in mind. But just as churches would often be more effective by hiring a “campus missionary” to reach the campus rather than trying for the “big bang” approach, so would other campus ministries succeed better with a more targeted approach themselves.

Again, the city-wide can be the most effective choice for a ministry. But it’s a poor default method, knee-jerk reaction, or “hail Mary” for an ailing ministry.

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