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As I continue placing “pebbles in your shoe,” I’m hoping to bug you – just a little bit – with some brief questions to get you thinking about the new semester. And this one is particularly simple… but potentially profound.

How do your locations – or maybe you only have one – affect your ability to reach the whole of campus? Of course, I’m not talking only about your Large Group Meeting, but any “access points” or front doors you might make available to students, either regularly or occasionally.

Even on a small campus, geography matters, because students’ traffic patterns matter. But certainly on a big campus, a group that meets on the south side may not even be known by north-siders, let alone attended regularly. And the effect is even greater for those ministries that meet entirely off-campus… or conversely, for off-campus students who are asked to come on-campus.

So that’s today’s pebble to get you thinking: How could you expand your access points, help students come from awkward geographies, or otherwise work with the geographical reality?

If your student leaders have only gotten deeply involved in your college ministry, then how well do they actually understand your college ministry’s distinctives?

It’s like those adults who say, “When I was little, I thought every family drove to Nebraska every summer!” Your student leaders rarely have any context for describing your collegiate ministry in terms of its differences. They may not know how your programs are different, how you focus especially hard on one-on-one disciplemaking or small groups or interactive worship or whatever. They may not even realize where the theology runs in different streams from other ministries.

And one time knowing these distinctives really matters is when they’re connecting with new students who are checking out your ministry.

I’m not suggesting student leaders should constantly be pointing out comparisons with other ministries. They can highlight distinctives simply by saying, “These are the things our ministry especially focuses on” and leave it at that (most of the time). But it’s not wrong to point out differences, too, especially if they can do it in a way that celebrates other campus groups.

Knowing a campus ministry’s distinctives doesn’t just matter for basic “recruitment” purposes – although that’s useful. It also allows student leaders to help freshmen and other new students process this decision. They can actually disciple that person standing in front of them really well – if they have something to say about the factors that go into their decision.

This can all be done in a Kingdom-minded way, and far from being wrongly competitive can actually help students as they make this life-changing – yes, it’s potentially quite life-changing! – decision about the college ministry they’ll participate in.

(And by the way, if you lead a church-based college ministry, your leaders not only need to know the distinctives of your college ministry, but also the distinctives of your church!)

I thought I’d write this week about ways to prepare a college ministry’s student leaders for those about to walk on your campus or (especially) walk through the doors of your ministry. With some basic readings, discussions, or other resources, those student leaders can be much more prepared to welcome, connect with, and hopefully shepherd the diverse crowd that’s coming… as well as to avoid any unnecessary early debates before people get to know each other.

First thought: Help students understand the varying theological backgrounds of Christians who will try out your ministry.

It certainly seems more common for college ministries to position themselves as non-denominationally as they can… even when they do, in fact, come from a denominational heritage (or even a specific church). And I don’t mean they’re deceiving or baiting-and-switching; they simply don’t choose to wear those particular theological commitments on their sleeves, and they are happy to welcome students from other traditions. (Some do. But most don’t.)

And even truly non-denominational college ministries generally have theological commitments of some sort, in some stream of Christianity that differs from other streams. If your ministry is “a little more Charismatic” (or less), has a Calvinist bent (or bends the other way), focuses on building a diverse membership (or generally attracts certain types of students), focuses heavily on international missions (or doesn’t), etc. … then you too have some specific commitments.

But welcoming all-comers – and even deeply believing they can be shepherded well in your ministry – doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare well for the welcome. Good disciplers get to know their audience.

So how well will your student leaders interact with someone, say, who grew up in a Pentecostal church? A Fundamentalist Baptist one? A heavily Reformed upbringing? A Church of Christ, a very mainline upbringing, or a King James-Only spot? And how well will they interact with any of these people who bring up their own unique theological commitments, or hope to “vet” your ministry through this lens?

You may not need to set student leaders up for success on all of these types of people… or there may be several others you need to consider. You know who comes to your ministry (I hope). But it’s also not hard to prepare a number of FAQs or – even better for this purpose – Talking Points to help student leaders navigate those conversations – and any differences – well. (In fact, a few theologically-minded students could probably knock out this task for you!)

tribesrow2015

Join me on a vision trip.

Potential missionaries – or supporters – take a “vision trip” to imagine together how God might lead them to impact a particular people group.

Our vision trip takes us to a nation filled with numerous tribes. We’ve heard reports that these populations have a great need for the gospel, that these tribes are still largely unreached, and that darkness abounds within many of them. But these tribes are also highly influential within their nation as a whole, as well as being extremely open to influence – whether ours, others’, or their own educators’ and chiefs’.

The vision trip’s timing is fortunate: Representatives from nearly seventy of these tribes have recently gathered for a great annual contest (known to the natives as the “Tourney”). Elite warriors from each tribe compete in contests of endurance and skill, while thousands more surround the games to root for their delegates. By the time of our visit, only four tribes remain – four potential champions, finally whittled down from the original dozens.

This event could provide an excellent window into these tribes, so we watch.

We notice immediately that each tribe rallies around an individual identity, a nickname or costume that seems to bond its members rather mystically. Three of the remaining tribes have been named after animals – a common waterfowl, a fighting rooster, and a tenacious canine. The last tribe’s name derives from its region’s historic industry. But these four tribes defeated others, just as unique, to reach this point – many of these also named for animals, from Wolverines to Razorbacks, and others that hope to embody the spirit of Musketeers, Mountaineers, or simply the Irish (known as “Gaels”).

(The variety of tribal names reflects the striking variety of these tribes – a diversity between locations that might not be recognized by those unfamiliar with this mission field.)

The Tourney inspires much festivity, and all the more in these final stages. Dancers are prevalent – as are musicians, food, drink, wagers, and even prayers. The chiefs of the tribes are here, and can even be found celebrating alongside the youngest from their villages. Healers stand by, though actual bloodshed is minimal. Impartial judges are assigned to regulate the games (but face much taunting throughout). And often, above the din, tribal chants can be heard: sometimes jubilant or jeering; often rhythmic, even solemn.

But we look closer.

We can’t deny the deep passion in these tribes, among warriors and watchers alike. When competitors win the crowd’s elation is profound. But losing warriors may weep with bitterness that would be shocking if we hadn’t seen fervent zeal displayed all along. We view transcendent “shining 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. These brief contests reveal passion and enthusiasm that have yet to be tamed – not only in contestants, but in their tribes. There is a grit here, a rowdiness, a wild youthfulness. Wisdom will be important to add 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. Meanwhile, we also notice that the bond between tribe members – known as “spirit” – is not frivolous. It is through this sort of community and comradeship that truth can travel quickly – but so can falsehood.

As we continue observing the Tourney with missionary eyes, we are thrilled that God might ask us to reach such a unique people. 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 has shown us: These mission fields offer great opportunity and blessings untold. And if these particular people are reached well, they in turn will 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 2017 version of my annual “sixty-eight” essay.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to visit 39 of the schools in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and I proudly wear shirts from 4 more that were donated by ministers or alumni.

An oldie but goodie, updated and important to ponder…

Since first exploring college ministries, I’ve discussed the role (and value) of complementary college ministries, and I covered those unique efforts in Reaching the Campus Tribes, too. My hope is that eventually all the individuals aspiring to “do college ministry” or to plant a ministry for a specific organization (such as Cru, the Southern Baptists, Chi Alpha, or the church starting a college ministry) would consider the complementary route as a real possibility that can achieve amazing results.

In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s how I describe complementary college ministry in the book:

Some college ministry efforts will best help reach campuses by approaching those mission fields with an eye toward complementing. In fact, a fully complementary college ministry may focus on only one area of students’ discipleship, allowing for specialized impact in an important area. Other ministries may not limit their work to this extent, but complementing may still be a key component of their structures and activities. – Reaching the Campus Tribes, page 115

(You can see more there on pages 115-116.)

But here’s something to consider: If you’re already at the helm of a large, “classic” college ministry, how do you feel about a new ministry coming to town? Wouldn’t it sometimes be preferable for a new ministry to get set up in this way – complementary – especially if there are already several healthy, impactful college ministries on your campus? Why simply recreate what everybody else is doing?

So the question for the launcher (whether an individual college minister or a supporting organization) whether you’ve considered complementary college ministry.

But here’s the question for those with established ministries: How good are you at allowing our own work to be “complemented”? Would you be okay with some of your students learning top-level leadership – if it was taught really well – from somebody else? What if your students were being discipled by a local church elder (instead of by your fellow staff members)? Can you see the value in a “paraministry” with specific expertise in training students for young adult life after college? Or a Christian fraternity that raises up Christian men in a way that complements their involvement and leadership in your ministry?

It’s not that I believe that every possible complementary college ministry effort is needed. Not at all. But I’m a big fan of the approach itself, and I hope you’ll consider being a fan, too. But for this to work, it will require current, more “traditional” campus ministries having a Kingdom mindset, a shepherd’s heart, a missional approach, and an openness to what God wants to do through other works.

So far this week I’ve typed up three areas of spiritual growth I wish I’d gained during college. Today, I turn to an aspect of college ministry methodology – an area that wasn’t likely to come up, but that would have helped me if it had.

And it’s an area that many haven’t learned yet, both inside and outside the field of collegiate ministry.


 

I graduated early from Texas A&M because I believed God was calling me to impact college students out in Abilene, a small city in West Texas that boasts three Christian colleges, among other schools.

I had come (as I discussed on Monday) from the strongest collegiate ministry culture in the U.S. Ours was a campus where, among other things, commitments from Christian students to large ministry undertakings weren’t uncommon. It was simply normal to offer dozens of hours a month to help impact the lives of students around us, and we were held to that commitment by both our leaders and the norms.

When I got to Abilene, I expected to be able to call student leaders there to similar commitments. After all, I knew students could rise to great challenges and be held to high standards; I’d seen it.

And Abilene students could, too. But those leaders I was able to gather still weren’t quite accustomed to this, so I (and they) went through some major growing pains.

That wasn’t the only problem with not realizing that every campus is a whole new world. For instance, I had to come to realize that while freshman ministry worked great at Texas A&M, a huge school that actually plays up the pride in each individual class, students at much smaller campuses didn’t necessarily think about their “freshman status” after a semester or so. Weekly chapels, smaller campuses, different sorts of struggles, less – or a different sort of – school pride, a sense that “everybody’s Christian,” fewer campus-based ministries but a large representation of church-based ones… I could keep writing. I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve forgotten.

The point is, reaching Abilene students wasn’t the same as reaching College Station students. Eventually, I got that. And it stuck with me, all the way until I took a giant road trip that identified this truth 181 times over.

Denominational leaders, church leaders, and, yes, college ministers themselves have to recognize the wild, unpredictable diversity of college campuses. The unpredictability is a major point – it means until you arrive on a campus and “exegete” that campus, you can’t assume that your “brand” of ministry is best… or even that your approach or “pillars” or “non-negotiable” are actually needed from a new college ministry. A recognition of the uniqueness of each campus provides us not only with humility but with a felt need to explore, exegete, and contextualize.

This week (while many are in Finals or just past them), I thought I’d ponder some future opportunities for college ministry.

I’ve touched on some of these before, and I’ll only be lightly touching on them now. But hopefully it’s fun pondering for you, too.

Today, something that I think about a lot: the many rather “unreached” tribes of college students scattered throughout our country. These are the community colleges, tech colleges, junior colleges, and the other “lower-profile” schools. Often situated in the shadow of larger and/or more illustrious institutions, the students at these schools – which may number in the hundreds or sometimes in the tens of thousands! – may lack any great presence of Christian ministry.

Meanwhile, the nearby schools might have drawn dozens of college ministries.

Churches – which have a special opportunity at the commuter schools – aren’t often a big help, but that has a lot to do with the general disarray found in the branch of church-based college ministry. (Of course, there are many fantastic church-based college ministries. It’s the branch as a whole that’s terribly underdeveloped.)

I bring up churches because they may in fact be in the best situation to reach many of these – at least the commuter campuses – than any other branch. Another reason they may have a unique chance is because some of these schools are best served through a Young Adult ministry (as opposed to Collegiate), because, despite students’ age, they’re functioning much more as “20-somethings” than as collegians. (Life stage matters much more than age here.)

Of course, I’d also be thrilled to see parachurch and denominational ministries reach out to many more of these “unreached” campuses. And if there’s any group that has already done it, it might be the latter? But that, I’m sure, varies state-by-state and region-by-region. Still, I think the denominational ministries may have an easier time – for whatever reason – casting such a wide and strategic net. But I understand how tricky it might seem to generate financial support, for all college ministers who are directly supported, when your supporters have never heard of your mission field. (Of course, international missionaries do that all the time, so it’s presumably possible.. starting with great storytelling and vision-casting.)

In any case, I’m not aligned with those who decry the presence of multiple college ministries on individual campuses. I have no problem with it, and often having multiple college ministries remains a perfectly good and wonderfully strategic way to reach the variety of students on the campus. But international missionaries, as best I can tell, have developed a sort of balance here – a willingness to recognize that while multiple denominations make sense in some contexts, it’s always worth evaluating whether one more ministry is needed.

My hope is that, more and more, college ministries big and small would never enter a campus without very carefully evaluating who’s already there.

And at the same time – whether because we remove ourselves from ministry-saturated campuses or because we simply want to reach everybody – I hope that more and more “unheard-of” schools receive a major Christian witness, from our best and brightest.

I’ve visited probably 350 college campuses, and I still love it. I make time to explore when I’m in another town; I even sneak away (or bring my wife) when we’re on vacation.

But why does it matter? What good is it for me – and you – to visit college campuses and connect with ministers on those mission fields? I jotted the bulk of these notes down over six years ago, but they’re as true now as they were then.

  1. We see the broad differences between contexts. If anyone believes they have “the model” for college ministry, they should spend more time on more campuses. Soon enough, we realize that these individual campus tribes have striking differences – whether they’re across the country from each other, across the state, or across the street.
  2. We are confronted with the need for wisdom. This exposure and humbling should bring us to our knees to beg for God’s specific brilliance for any particular tribe He’s called us to. There are few Best Practices in college ministry, which means there aren’t a whole lot of automatic wisdoms. Our knees are needed.
  3. We have the opportunity to support our fellow collegiate missionaries. By simply viewing the mission field that another brother or sister serves, I’m honoring the work they do. Further, as I talk with ministers and ask about their work, I let them know that their field is not forgotten. Stanford University matters. Richland College matters. Emporia State matters. So as the opportunity arises, we walk upon the field that others rejoice and weep over.
  4. We better understand the actual needs. Until you and I have been “on location,” we have a much harder time knowing what is truly needed. Many collegiate ministry “experts” I’ve run into through my years struggle because of this very point – their experience isn’t broad enough to recognize what’s needed by different kinds of ministers on different kinds of campuses. (And they’re all different kinds of campuses – see point #1.)
  5. Our hearts are stirred. For whatever reason, God has rigged many (or most? or all?) of us to respond to immersion. Being among the campus tribes – even several of those tribes – does something to our hearts. Climb to the top of the bell tower and see the campus before you. Stand among the disoriented pre-freshmen at New Student Orientation. Watch the drama of a Friday night on Fraternity Row. Campus visits call us to the missionary task more deeply than before, even as we return to our own contexts and our own students.
  6. Our hearts are awed. In the same way, we are hopefully reminded of the awesomeness and beauty of our task. Sometimes it takes a trip to another campus to remember just how wonderful it is to work at such amazing places.
  7. We get to practice. Finally, visiting campuses gives someone the chance to “practice” for their own campus. As you observe a new campus and (if you have opportunity) connect with ministers, you’re sharpening your skills of observation and exegesis for your own campus. Further, there may be no better way to catalyze your own brainstorming than to learn what’s happening elsewhere. By “discovering” a new campus, you’re aiding your ability to discover your own.

Monday and yesterday, I posted some thoughts on collegiate ministry contextualization, one of the most important ingredients in achieving the best possible “mission to the campus tribe” to which God has called any college minister. To continue the line of thought, I want to offer a few “riffs” on just what this might look like – not simply so someone on a campus with certain characteristics can have a guide, but to get each of us thinking about our own campus’s “quirks” (and how we can contextualize accordingly).

The Land of Achievement

As I discussed with a local college minister last week, SMU here in Dallas has fostered a strong focus on achievement within its student body. For example, there’s a very high percentage of students who have chosen to double-major, which is something you notice right off as you ask the normal, “Where are you from? What’s your major?” questions at the beginning of a school year. An interesting sort of academic ambition is definitely a part of the Mustang tribe culture. The education is certainly strong at SMU, but the college ministers would probably say that achievement, even more than academics, is a focus for students.

So what questions or thoughts might a new college minister weigh at a place like this? If you were suddenly transplanted here and had to begin a ministry, how might you contextualize? The goal isn’t to coddle students in their weaknesses, but to meet them where they are… and to draw students who may not (at first) be interested in our Jesus at all.

Welcome to my brainstorm.

Schedule

I’d immediately start paying attention to how this “bent” could affect our schedule. If students are consistently busy (or at least think they are), do biweekly or monthly gatherings make more sense than weekly ones? Especially if I want these busy students to learn the value of church involvement on the weekends, too?

Is there a day of the week that’s preferable – even Friday nights, as I’ve seen some ministries on more academic-concerned campuses adopt?

Should we avoid summertime involvement (like mission trips), but double-down on winter or Spring Break?

Dovetailing with their Focus

If they’re already thinking a lot about their majors, future careers, and “achievement” opportunities, are there ways we can tie in to that?

Occasional career-oriented seminars for the student body might be a major opportunity. I’d look into bringing Veritas Forum and other outside orgs / speakers. And right off the bat, I might want to present a “Student Success Seminar” during orientation week – followed by several weeks of freshman discipleship (so God, not “the cultural focus,” determines their steps from the outset).

What if, instead of a “large group meeting,” we formed “medium group meetings,” organized within majors or colleges/sections of our university?

What if we helped our students find valuable, Christian-connected internships during the summer or after they graduate? IJM, Chick-fil-A, Growing Leaders, and other organizations would help with career goals and continuing to handle those goals “Christianly.”

I’d help students find Christian mentors from the community, too, who have excelled in their own fields but also in living out their faith.

Can we create missions opportunities that fit with various callings, tie in to the school’s “Alternative Spring Break” options, or otherwise go beyond the norm?

Teaching

Of course, teaching on all sorts of related topics will likely happen a lot. Academics as a Christian. The Christian, Career, and Calling. Time Stewardship. I’d have to become an absolute expert on this – it’s a new topic for most of us, right? And then out of the overflow of what I learn, I’d teach.

A few years ago, I had the chance to “present” at Guy Chmieleski’s collegiate ministry blogathon – with this round’s theme being “The Future of College Ministry.” Before jumping into more discussion of contextualization in college ministry (after posting some new thoughts on the topic yesterday), I wanted to re-post those thoughts, which still get me fired up!

Further In: A Future of Deeper

The brightest future for any individual college ministry might be found in going deeper, not simply wider. And coincidentally, this could just be one of the most exciting paths forward for our field as a whole, too.

After exploring the wide world of American college ministry over the last four years, I’m occasionally asked about anything that I’ve found disappointing. One of my common responses: “It all seems too similar.” I’ve seen hundreds of ministries in action (in all four branches of college ministry), and while I’m quite excited about what they’re doing, it’s still rare to find ones that seem, well, all that different.

Of course, I’m not saying ministries are identical. But it’s far too rare to find college ministries (or even aspects of ministries) that don’t pretty closely fit a common mold (whether their leaders realize it or not).

the difference is real

College campuses differ in plenty of ways. Sure, we can paint schools with broad strokes: “big state universities,” “private Christian schools,” “liberal northeastern schools,” etc.. But only a moment of reflection reveals that those generalizations work about as well as “African tribes” or “North American neighborhoods.”

And if we approach them in generalized ways, we’ll get “generally good” results! I want more.

It’s no secret that I view college ministry through the lens of Missions, and this is perhaps the biggest reason: College campuses differ. Widely. They’ve been structured that way, with all sorts of factors affecting demographics and sociology: a school’s region, its size, what kinds of students it chooses, what kinds of students choose it, its academic foci, its history, its religious climate, its faculty and administration, and on and on.

If the four colleges (of any kind) nearest to you vary as much as they do (and I bet they do!), then isn’t it possible that we’re better off approaching every campus on its own terms?

the difference should make a difference

So that takes me back to the point of this post. If colleges truly are different – at least past the thinnest of surface impressions – then shouldn’t there be pervasive “different-ness” within our field, too?

But the questions might make us cringe: How contextualized have I made my mission to this campus? What are we doing only because this campus is the way it is? What are we doing that would be unlikely to work at most other campuses?

When I impact another person, my greatest effectiveness comes when I know his needs, know his wants, and otherwise know him – and tailor my approach to reaching him as a person…

The same is true for an entire campus. We should be learning these places, falling in love with these places, and begging God for approaches that will fit them best. As we do, deep contextualization may lead to adjustments to present forms, entirely new initiatives, or even entirely new ministries.

  • A future of contextualization would mean refusing any sense of “manifest destiny,” instead diligently exegeting each context before I, my national organization, or my church decides to reach it.
  • For places we are called to reach, this means digging down into what makes each campus unique – and only determining our methods afterward.
  • This could very likely lead to many additional niche ministries (efforts that reach specific groups of people) and complementary ministries (efforts that focus on one piece of students’ discipleship). Some of these forms will come from within present college ministries, some will spin off from present ministries, and some will start from scratch.
  • And when it comes to training each other, we must leave behind senseless extrapolation. What has worked well in one or two places is rarely the prescription for most. We should definitely be sharing what we’ve learned, but much more often as theories and possibilities than as blueprints or patterns.

I genuinely love what God and His people are doing in college ministry. It’s exciting and impactful. But when I think about the future, I’m hopeful we’ll get to know our campuses, come to love our campuses, and reach our campuses on an even deeper level – both in individual campus missions and in regional and national efforts.

I really do envision a day when we see a wide variety of college ministry efforts and practices – many that would be unrecognizable to us today!

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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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