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Join me on a vision trip – a vision trip to a ridiculously under-reached people group. Let’s imagine together how God might lead you to impact them…

We land in a nation filled with numerous tribes. Reports indicate that these populations have a great need for the gospel, that many of the nation’s tribes know little of Christianity, and that darkness abounds. The people in these tribes are extremely open to influence – so while the gospel has made inroads, millions have been influenced by humanism, atheism, relativism, ambition, materialism, and even the occasional cult.

Our timing is fortunate: Members from nearly seventy of these tribes are gathering for a great annual contest (known to the natives as the “Tourney” – “Tournament” in English). Elite warriors from each tribe will compete in games of skill and endurance, as thousands more surround the contests to watch and root for their champions. I’ve observed this “Tourney” many times before, and I have noticed that it provides a unique window into the culture – and promise – of these tribes.

We immediately see that each tribe rallies around an individual identity, a nickname or costume that bonds members almost mystically. Some monikers honor ancient warriors – Spartans or Musketeers, Cavaliers or Atzecs – while others reflect tribes’ regional industries: Lumberjacks, Boilermakers, Tarheels, even two farming tribes called “Aggies.” Tribe names are just as likely to recall previously influential religious orders (like Friars or Quakers) as they are to celebrate lawbreakers (such as Pirates or Sooners). And while many tribes understandably adopt creatures known for their ferocity – from Gators to Panthers to several different tribes called “Wildcats” – other choices seem more surprising: Blackbirds and Horned Frogs, Retrievers and Longhorns.

Underneath these banners, the “spirit” bonding tribesmen is not frivolous. (In fact, each tribe’s communal bonds can help well-formed discipleship efforts spread quickly and deeply.)

As we continue to watch the Tourney, we encounter festivity far beyond the actual competitions. Dancers abound – as do musicians, foodstuffs, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are present, often celebrating alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by in case of injury, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but face taunting throughout). And often, above the din, tribal chants can be heard: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

We look closer, with missionary eyes.

We can’t deny the deep passion in these tribes, among warriors and watchers alike. When competitors win, their crowds become nearly riotous. But losing warriors – and their tribesmen – may weep with a profound bitterness. The contests produce transcendent “shining moments” – moments when Davids take down Goliaths, when boys become men for a few crucial minutes, when weakness is turned to strength to put opposing armies to flight. We see in everyone gathered passion and enthusiasm that have yet to be tamed. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom must be added to this zeal, of course – but with this energy, much could be accomplished for God’s Kingdom.

It becomes clear that creativity and intelligence abound within these tribes, as well, and it’s not surprising that national and world leaders will come from within their ranks.

As you hopefully realize by this point, anyone God calls to reach such a unique people is fortunate indeed. Of course, this will not be an easy ministry (as though any missionary activity was ever easy!). Surely patience, energy, and investment will be required if strong and lasting work is to be built. But even a quick, competition-filled vision trip shows us: These mission fields offer great opportunity and blessings untold. And if these particular tribes are reached well, their members in turn could change the whole world.

All the “madness,” the excitement, the passion, and the valor found in this Tourney reflect the beautiful tribes from which the contestants come. And there are far more than sixty-eight tribes to reach.


This is the 2018 version of my annual “sixty-eight” essay.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 49 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, along with a few hundred more campuses in the last decade. They’re powerful places.

Top photo credit: “University of Indiana campus at duskcc Larry Johnson



The many “unreached” and under-reached campus tribes are on my mind this morning.

Is there one near you?

Maybe it’s a community college that feeds into your big state school. A smaller school that’s always overshadowed by ten others in your metropolitan area. A tech school, or art institute. Whatever it is, there’s likely one near you.

It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not a glamorous place to do missions. (But that’s a big part of why it’s under-reached, sadly.) And yet you have a college ministry with students who might just love a mission like that, who might join you as your college ministry “adopts” that campus. Maybe you’re already sending mission trips out, far far away. But why not establish a mission – or help a fledgling mission – nearer to home, and nearer to the type of mission you’re already directing?

Where could you plant a campus mission? This semester?

Many college ministries have made overseas missions a priority. Whether by taking mission trips together, encouraging students to consider short-term or mid-term missions opportunities, or simply seeking to lift up students’ eyes to the (overseas) fields, international missions is a regular “push” for many college ministries.

So in light of yesterday’s themed reminder, I want to encourage some of that zeal to be channeled toward the campus tribes.

My wife and I are planning a vacation (to Hawaii, in fact), and as I often do, I looked for college ministries I might visit while we’re there.

And so far I’ve found… very little.

I’ll keep looking, but it reminded me that plenty of campuses remain largely “unreached” (from a missiological standpoint) – and in this case, that status may be applicable to an entire island or two. Hopefully I just haven’t found these ministries yet.

But my encouragement stands: Would you urge students to consider if God might call them to college campuses? “Unreached” campus tribes aren’t the point – though hopefully it’s part of the consideration. The point is recognizing that missionaries are needed all over the place, and that college campus offer one of the greatest opportunities for that very pursuit.

If a college minister can’t point to ways his or her context (the particular campus) has influenced the design of their college ministry, there are likely a few possibilities.

  1. That college minister is really new to their post.
  2. They haven’t gotten to know their context.
  3. They haven’t gotten to know other college ministry contexts, so they don’t realize their ministry has become unique.

To the first group, I’d encourage: I hope you haven’t started putting too much in place. I’m not a fan of planting a model before you know the field, just as farmers would tell us that field-knowledge comes before crop-planting. It’s far harder (and ruder) to plant a “successful model” and then try, over time, to tweak it back toward context.

To the second group, I’d exhort: You probably think you know your campus. So you probably don’t even think you’re in this group. But if you can’t identify pretty significant differences between your approach/methods/whatever and other college ministries in your organization/circles, then you’ve got work to do. Doesn’t mean you’re not bearing fruit or seeing God do awesome things. He does great things. But knowing who you’re trying to impact is part of caring about who you’re trying to impact (any parent can tell you that), and every campus (like every child) is too different to be treated the same as the next.

To the third group, I’d push: You may not realize you’re in this group, but I applaud you for creating a ministry, under the Lord, to fit a specific audience. But you will learn a lot by learning other college ministry contexts, even if they often make you simply realize that what you’ve chosen is good.

It seems like the vast majority of campuses start classes today. If that’s not you, unless you are at a Quarter System school, you’ve probably started or will start within a week of today.

So in light of the rush, I don’t need to teach.

I hope that first day of school feels like a very very good day for you. It’s a magnificent day, a near-magical day, a day most missionaries don’t see –the annually-renewing energy of the mission field, a day when those you’re trying to reach are rushing around wide-eyed, their wonder and curiosity and anxiety and openness at their highest. Their lives are going to change in so many ways this year – even this semester. That’s wild to realize.

I have cared deeply about college ministry for 17 years now. But my ventures and adventures have been far from normal. I am thankful that so many get to serve normally, in a mission field that is awesome on a regular basis. It is a world-changing mission field. It is a life-changing mission field.

At the very least, some of these wide-eyed freshman scurrying to and fro in front of you today will have their lives and testimonies radically altered because you’ve chosen to give your life to this field. Isn’t that fantastic?

Thank you so much.

I first wrote this post around this time last year, but I thought it was appropriate once again.

I don’t know how you’re feeling about the new school year. I hope you’re excited.

I also don’t know how long you’ve been serving your particular campus. This might be Year One, or Two, or Ten, or Twenty.

But whatever you’re doing, I want to encourage you to take the long view. Be excited about the semesters already behind you, and look forward to many semesters ahead of you – at the same campus, if God sees fit to plant you there.

College ministry isn’t valued within Christendom like it should be. So that means that many college ministers don’t have the chance to build a “mission to a campus tribe” for the amount of time we’d hope.

But building the strongest college ministry possible often requires a long obedience in the same direction – by the college minister, as well as by his or her supporters and bosses. It’s best when a college minister achieves years of learning the culture, gaining trust, finding “people of peace” within the campus, learning the “language,” and developing the mission.

That’s why we might (and should) use the word “plant” to describe what we’re doing: We’re planting a campus ministry. Because it’s going to take root (over time), look dormant (for a time), show a little sprout (over time), and bear fruit (over time).

This doesn’t always mean one single college minister carries the mission the whole way. But for those in the trenches, be encouraged about what the future can hold with your long obedience.

Have you ever thought about the value of having Christian students scattered throughout the various campus jobs and student leadership positions at your school?

I’m guessing you might have considered the latter, maybe less so for the former. But I also bet few college ministers spend time facilitating or coaching students to consider either of those opportunities. But you can!

What if someone was charged with keeping an eye on the various posts that come available – from snack shop employee to Student Body President – and then sharing that information with your students? Not only would this serve students who want employment or leadership opportunities, but it would also provide some awesome chances to impact your campus through Christ-following students.

This is yet another one of the methods that jumps out at us… once we remember that college ministry is functionally missions. What missionaries wouldn’t be excited to see God call believers into various leadership or service areas of their tribe, town, or territory?

This post, first written quite a while back (and edited here), seems timely for the summer. Hope it encourages.

In Chapter 3 of Reaching the Campus Tribes, I discuss the major difficulties facing American campus ministry. After pointing out the lack of attention college ministry receives from broader Christendom (pages 18 – 27), I turn my attention to another major issue:

The Collegiate Attention Gap is certainly not the only difficulty facing American college ministry. Another concern is the lack of long-term, established college ministries that are making a permanent impact on their mission fields. …

Many college ministries lack longevity. Even though longevity seems to be a major factor in strengthening college ministry impact, many ministries aren’t established long enough for students to see those benefits. Many of the college ministries I encountered during my trip had only been recently planted, had recent leader turnover, or had otherwise been “restarted” in the past few years. A one- to three-year lifespan seems to be the reality for most new college ministry endeavors.

There will certainly be times when leaders are replaced or a college ministry’s vision needs to be recast. But changes – even major changes – don’t have to break a college ministry’s momentum, if the ministry has been “built to last” in the first place. Yet this sort of strategic development appears to be pretty rare.

There’s more to this story, too.

Two items I encountered within the same week or so highlighted something for me.

First, I heard the story of a business that, like dozens of others, is thriving now but had nearly disbanded at one point in its history. Meanwhile, I was talking to a former college minister who made an interesting comment: Christians in his circle, he said, found it strange if someone was still serving college students after a decade.

These two observations highlighted a bigger issue about longevity. In the latter case, I was sad that anyone would see college ministry as a usually-temporary endeavor, a calling that only belongs to the young. Instead, as I told my friend, our field needs far MORE “lifers,” men and women who spend decades in the trenches of campus missions. The former example – of businesses working through difficult years to, over time, emerge as powerfully impactful leaders in their field – is part of the reason we need more lifers.

Yes, I realize that ministry isn’t a “business.” And more importantly, I don’t think that college minister longevity is the same thing as college ministry longevity. Ministries may change leaders occasionally – but successfully keep their vision and progress over time.

But there’s something amazing that can happen when one person pursues the mission at his or her campus over years and years. Like that business I heard about, they have the chance others don’t have to build inroads, develop subtle understandings of their context, and pursue long-range plans (something sadly in short supply within campus ministry).

All that to say… We need you to keep going. Our field will be better for it. Your campus will be better for it. Lots and lots of students will be helped by your years of service. I know it might be tough this year, or next year. It might seem like a good time to stop this ministry, or stop this version of this ministry, or move on to something else. (And yes, there are lots of times God calls us to change a ministry or move on to another; I’m not discounting that. But if you’re not called to leave…)

The point: We need you to keep going. Your longevity matters.

Last week I started blogging about a unique road trip I had after the yearlong exploration. On that trip (also nationwide), I got the “inside scoop” on 10 Chi Alpha chapters, since I’d been commissioned by the national office to do just that. But when you explore one college ministry, you might just learn things that apply to all. I did, at least. (See the first posts here and here.)

College Ministry Can Take a Variety of Forms (Believe It or Not!)

In the course of those ten visits, I certainly saw several ministries that took a pretty “classic” form. But even in that relatively small number of chapters (one-thirtieth of Chi Alpha’s 300+ sites), I found some less common forms that seemed to be working well.

The first was the large North Dakota State XA… which just happened to be multi-site, with the other site situated across state lines! Minnesota State Moorhead held the other “half” of this chapter. But not only was this chapter multi-site, it was anchored deeply in a local church, Fargo First Assembly. While this sort of “church anchoring” is the norm for some groups (I’m thinking of the Churches of Christ campus ministries and some expressions of the CCO), it’s certainly not standard across most campus-based ministry organizations.

Second, I ran into the Chi Alpha at Winona State in Winona, Minnesota. (Because that visit took place over a weekend, that’s one of those handful of schools I couldn’t get a T-shirt for.) In Winona State’s case, XA had grown in connection with a collegiate church plant called The Edge – the church is pastored by Chuck, and his wife Stephanie is the Chi Alpha campus pastor. This Chi Alpha chapter also has a student center building, something pretty widespread in some denominations (Baptist Collegiate Ministries, Wesley Foundation, etc.), but not really in Chi Alpha.

The point of this lil’ recollection isn’t to encourage church-anchoring or buildings or multi-site college ministries; it’s to celebrate variety. I’ve long argued for more variety, and I’ll keep right on doing that. Because sadly, we often thing college ministry should – or at least will – look a certain way.

Planting Where We Get Less Press

Another really fun aspect of that long-ago trip was seeing just how “out of the way” those campuses ended up being. Name the campuses you’re truly familiar with in this list:

  • Texas A&M University Corpus Christi
  • University of California Davis
  • Winona State University
  • Minnesota State University Moorhead
  • Rowan University

Nearly half of the campuses I visited on that trip – designed to exemplify the Chi Alpha story to a national audience, remember – weren’t flagship state schools or prestigious scholarly institutions.

And yet Chi Alpha chose to celebrate the work in those places. Of course, we know that isn’t always the case; college ministry at places like Rowan University doesn’t get as much attention or funding or hoorahs from back home. But at some point we need to work to convince Christians – especially the supporters, overseers, and other “sponsors” of collegiate ministry – that going to the “unknown” (and often “unreached”) campus tribes is an awesome call.

And… we’re back! (A sinus infection took me out a day longer than planned…)

I started writing this blog right before my yearlong road trip to explore college ministry around the United States. But in the official reckoning, that trek was actually Road Trip #7. Six college ministry-exploring trips preceded it, taken while I was still serving within college ministry in a (sometimes) more traditional way. (You can read about those early trips here.) And since the yearlong trip, I’ve actually had the chance to take eight more substantial, college ministry-exploring road trips since (the last, not exactly coincidentally, came right before I started dating my wife).

This week I want to reflect on one trip, Trip #13. That trip actually serves as runner-up to the yearlong exploration, in both length and distance. Chi Alpha on CampusThis was my only “commissioned” trip of the bunch, as I was hired by Chi Alpha Campus Ministries to visit ten of their ministries scattered throughout the country and write articles to help tell Chi Alpha’s national “story.” (Those became a book, Chi Alpha on Campus.)

Instead of flying to the chapters, I requested to make a road trip out of it – enabling me to do a lot more exploring than just XA chapters. But I did get the in-depth low-down on those ten XA locales, all in a pretty brief time period, and with the added benefit of looking for “the story” in a way that was perhaps different than many of my other explorations.

So I thought it might be worth reflecting on what I learned in that unique “bundle” of visits – things that are useful to all of us in the field.

You Can’t Beat Breadth

Because this post is already getting long (by way of breathless intro), I wanted to point out something that’s hard to realize… but bad when we don’t.

When seeking to learn the field of college ministry, I can name few ingredients that matter more than breadth of exposure. It was fascinating to see the many manifestations of Chi Alpha ministry in the sites I visited, and to learn from giant ministries as well as small ones.

It was great to learn from different kinds of leaders, too – and that’s a facet I probably haven’t touched on enough here through the years. But the “wisdom of many counselors” is a beautiful thing in the world of college ministry; learning just from one or two ministries you’ve heard lots about just doesn’t beat learning from a spectrum of fellow college ministers.

It’s likely that my visits to even ten chapters of a single brand of ministry is more exposure than most college ministers have had with ministries inside their own organizations or denominations – let alone looking outside those circles, where we can get stretched all the more. But nobody really seems to push this, so I don’t blame a college ministry for not visiting other sites. Instead, this is my version of “pushing this,” of encouraging collegiate ministers to be avid explorers of others’ college ministries… several of them, as you can.

No ministry is “same enough” in the world of college ministry. Our contexts are too different. There are few – or no – “Best Practices.” Instead, you’re a missionary in an underdeveloped field. So learn from those who have seen a lot, and become someone who explores what you can.

Hopefully I can add a little more “seasoning” in this direction this week, from my visits to ten ministries of a particular brand.

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Welcome to Exploring College Ministry

After ministering to college students for 8 years, I've spent the last 6 years trying to help push our whole field forward. This meant, among other things, a yearlong road trip, an e-book (Reaching the Campus Tribes), exploring 250+ campuses, consulting, writing, speaking, and more. I love any opportunity to serve college ministers or others who want to reach college students better. To learn more, explore the header links or the tools below.



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