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This week I’ve been contemplating some basics about the “back door” of a college ministry – how and why students exit. (Read here and here.)

But it’s important to remember that the old principle, “What wins them, keeps them,” applies here. Many students drift away from a college ministry because of the “entryway” experience… but there are a few facets to that:

1. There’s a difference between convincing students to try and convincing them to stay. New students may eventually check out a college ministry because of a big event, an intriguing poster, or simply because they’re trying out several. But it’s the next step that matters most: What convinces them to stay? If they’re “won” by elements that aren’t static or easily change, your back door will likely be crowded soon enough.

2. You have the chance to teach students how to pick their time investments. How often do you address “Why you should be a part of our college ministry”? Or better yet, “How you should choose an organization to join”? Of course, you might address this in different ways with believers and non-believers, and other groups may need different approaches too. But if you’re not discipling students about how to choose, then – and this is a bold statement – you may start with some students who really shouldn’t have joined in the first place.

3. You can design your entryway to be a “taste” of life in the house. It would be weird to walk into a home’s entryway that’s filled with dainty fixtures and a traditional feel… then find that the living room is quite modern. But college ministries may be tempted to have “first experiences” and “deeper experiences” that feel completely detached. While these don’t have to be the same, it can be very useful and kind to include elements that purposely point to the deeper experience available in the ministry. After all, the actual problem with “bait and switch” isn’t the “bait” – if you’ll pardon that term – but the “switch.”

I broached the topic of a college ministry’s “back door” in the last post, but here’s a simple follow-up:

Do your students see involvement in your ministry as enough of a “membership” that choosing to leave – or even pausing for a season – feels like it has some friction? Or would students in your ministry find it weird for you (or student leaders they know) to ask where they had been, or why they dropped out?

If a campus minister never expresses the notion that students are “part of something,” then students won’t feel they’re “leaving something,” naturally. And in some ways, a college ministry’s recruiting efforts – that make joining fun and… well, effortless – ,could make it far too simple for students to slip away when they’re not feeling it anymore, or when outside influences (like busyness or sinfulness) ramp up.

Even occasionally letting students know that you care they’re there – and that you care if they disappear – would go a long way toward encouraging a sense of belonging now, and an easier conversation if their involvement drops.

“Adopt-a-student” programs aren’t unusual within church-based college ministries, but even for those guys it’s an idea definitely worth spending a Fridea on… and it’s worth every other branch of college ministry considering how they, too, can connect students with individual families.

The idea, if you’re unfamiliar, is for a church family to “adopt” a student – likely for at least a school year. This means (at least) occasional meals in their home but often can mean service both ways – babysitting by the student, an opportunity for the student to do laundry, etc. This is one of those activities where a little training goes a long way – and it’s wise to train the students as well as the adults.

But it’s the practical beauty that you’ll want to focus on. How awesome it is to get college students around babies and soccer games and family tables! Let alone the impact on the families (though it can be substantial) – imagine the blessing for your students in seeing a strong home in action, driving “home” all that you’ve been teaching about marriage and adulting and career and conflict and probably several other things. These are potential mentors, definite role models, accomplices as you try to draw students outside of their own little worlds.

As best you can, get your students a family!

Here’s a question for you:

If someone new visits your college ministry this week, how likely are they to become regulars? Are they more or less likely than if they’d visited last September? That assessment is this week’s Fridea!

There are plenty of variables here, but it might be useful to think about each one: Is this theoretical visitor a freshman, or older? Did they come with a friend, or not? These two variables alone greatly affect their likelihood of returning. (And I’m sure you can run this scenario with a few other variables, too.)

And the question this week is how likely those students are to keep coming.

In some college ministries, nearly everything is set up for success at the beginning of the year: lots of explanation, easy entry into next steps (like small groups), student leaders and others whose hospitality efforts are turned up to 11, even a system for contacting visitors ASAP. Fliers are abundant, excitement is abundant, directions are abundant.

In others, I’d imagine, it’s far easier to get well-connected later: easier to feel like you know the leadership, less confusing and hubbub-filled, easier to find answers to questions, less likelihood of falling through the cracks – like slipping out un-greeted, and so on. Ten on-their-game leaders for every visitor might just make connections and hospitality inevitable.

Ultimately, you’re looking for ways to make the whole year visitor-welcoming, and you can learn from the strengths of each season.

Our entire church staff has been asked to read Onward by Russell Moore, which we’ll be discussing at a staff meeting soon.

It’s something you could try too – an inversion on the normal book club – encouraging everybody to read a certain book, and offering a study (or a party?) to chat about it… for everyone who actually reads it.

You might be surprised at the mix of student leaders, brand new attendees, and those in-between who get drawn to something like this. (You’d have the same sort of fun nmix if you offered an elective “lunch chat” about culture issues or a book of the Bible, too.) And that’s a win – anytime you can gather collegians who aren’t normally running in the same circles, you’re deepening the community of your campus ministry.

And of course, you get students reading a great book.

A double-Fridea that I’ve posted before but gives you something great to consider for the week after students return!

Why not put some extra effort into recruitment in January? I think this is one of our most-missed opportunities to draw students to our college ministries. Plenty of students will be looking for something to do, will have a new schedule, will transfer in, will come back from studying abroad, never got well-connected in the fall…

…and…

Consider holding a Winter Break “reunion” before your first Large Group Meeting. Let your students reconnect with each other early so they can be “outward focused” to welcome guests at the Large Group. Plus, this can be a neat way to debrief with your students about what God did or challenges they faced over the break.

It’s paradoxical to talk about developing organic community through structures, including accountability. But the truth is, that’s a paradox we have to live in. Your student leaders will build community if someone’s challenging them to do so… and checking up to see if they’re doing it.

How often do you ask your student leaders about the steps they’ve taken to build community?

Whether it’s a challenge like “Connect with a new visitor each week, and sit down (for lunch/coffee/etc.) with a newer visitor once a month” or simply asking good questions – “How did you connect with someone outside of your small group time?” – you have the chance to hold leaders accountable to the what without micromanaging the how.

What you measure is what you’ll get. We know that theoretically but can forget to put it into practice, and this is one area where a little accountability could go a long way.

I’m on vacation this week – but don’t worry, I’ve already visited Caltech. There might be another “campus tribe” visit or two now that we’ve moved up the coast. In the meantime, I’m reposting some great posts from past Novembers. Enjoy!

Today’s practical idea comes from a simple enough notion: It’s hard to imagine a good argument for not encountering your students between mid-December and late January. And yet that’s how plenty of college ministries will allow that month to pass.

Forget your calendar for a second: Isn’t this one obvious? For some campus ministries, the situation may be even larger – the last ministry event might occur in late November, and things might not start back up until the second week of school. Is that like 6 or 7 weeks?

So that leads to today’s idea: Plan several ways you’ll connect with your students between early December and when they return to your college ministry.

Schedule these community-building, encouraging, shepherd-like “touches” over those six weeks. Put it on your calendar; set alarms in your phone. Doesn’t matter if you’ll be paid for those hours or not, or if no overseer (and no student) is expecting it. They should hear from you or someone in the ministry.

Right?

A holiday like Thanksgiving shouldn’t pass without college ministers pondering how they might leverage it. And yes, Thanksgiving is a prime opportunity – with weird schedules, unique groups of students “left” on campus, and more.

I’ve posted these potential opportunities before, but they’re worth revisiting:

  1. Service projects. Find out some ways to impact local ministries, and throw those ideas out to your students.
  2. Meals or other fun. Students who are here during the Thanksgiving weekend would probably be especially blessed by being offered a chance to get together – they’re likely bummed they can’t be home with family. This includes international students! If you’re going to be around, consider inviting students into your home, or find a place (like a local church or somewhere on campus) where you could hold a meal / games / football-watching / etc. day.
  3. Point to other orgs’ planned opportunities. What are the local churches (including your own) doing? Does the campus have any official plans? Do any local organizations have plans for that week? (You might be surprised what you can find.) Service projects? Serving meals to others? Holding festive meals for their own members (and potential student visitors)?

One more tip: Talk to administration (including the office that looks after International Students). Not only might they have ideas, they’ll likely love the fact that you’re serving students during this weird week.

It’d be a good time to remind your students that NOW is the time to greet, meet, and start getting to know those in their world around them. In their dorms, in their apartment complexes, in their classes.

 

The longer they wait in the semester, the weirder it will feel.

The longer they wait in the semester, the less time they’ll have to build relationship.

Remind them that the window’s closing. Challenge them to meet 2 people, or 10 people, or 25 people this week.

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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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