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Here’s a great periodic assessment question for your leaders (and fellow college ministry staff): Is there anywhere in our ministry where we might be sending students mixed messages?

This is a deep-thought question, which means you’re not likely to get a lot of answers when you actually ask it! But having this top-of-mind (or at least middle-of-mind) for all leaders could be really valuable, so they notice when things DO come up. And this has everything to do with producing a good, discipleship-focused “customer experience” for your students (which is what I’ve been blogging about this week).

Examples could abound, so ultimately the Lord will have to reveal this in your ministry. But a few potential mixed-messages include:

  • Not teaching the Bible in ways you’d encourage students to study it. Remember, every time someone teaches (from the stage or in a small group), one of their most important jobs is exemplifying how the audience should study Scripture on their own. Your approach should be one you’d want them to emulate in their own personal Bible study. So if you (or other teachers, including small group leaders) stretch passages to make applications, ignore the context, read into the text things that aren’t really there, rely on shoddy sources, switch translations just to suit what you want to say, skip over obvious difficulties, etc. … then you’re sending mixed messages about how to study the Bible well.
  • Championing students as leaders… who shouldn’t be. In some college ministries, it’s very easy for students who are known for lacking integrity, lacking focus, lacking direction, lacking commitment, etc., to ascend through the ranks if they’re popular or have a skill or two. So how certain are you that each of your student leaders is known for HAVING – not lacking – these things, among the students who know them best?
  • Professing certain “pillars” or values with no matching actions. We can claim we’re all for unity… but never actually do anything with other college ministries. We can say we want to be really welcoming… but not build structures to make sure people feel welcomed. We can say small groups are vital, but not make it easy to dive in (or only allow students in to small groups once a year). We can say we love our campus, but never actually do anything to serve it, support it, celebrate it, or spend time on it. We can say churchmanship is biblical, but never facilitate students finding a good church, never hold students accountable to significant participation, or never prepare them to choose a great church in their new city after graduation. Have you operationalized each of your collegiate ministry’s values?

Here’s a tricky one: How would you (as college minister) know if your students were having a bad small group experience this school year?

The truth is, students are less likely to actually tell you than to

  • not realize their small group experience is sub-par or ineffective,
  • simply scoot away from the ministry (or at least from their small group), and/or
  • keep coming but not prioritize their small group (by coming infrequently, only keeping those relationships at a surface level, etc.).

But if college ministers should care about the experience of current participants (and they should), then this is one of the most pertinent areas to that experience (if small groups are a pillar of the particular college ministry as they often are).

So what means do you have to gauge their effectiveness… including to learn about groups from their participants? It can’t just be word-of-mouth… right?

Earlier this month, I offered an idea for college ministries’ large group gatherings: a “monologue” of sorts, chatting through the issues of the day.

Today’s Fridea offers a spin on that idea (and mostly comes from the fact that I love ESPN’s Around the Horn).

What if – weekly or occasionally – you offered a brief panel discussion on current events of the day? You may already use a panel on occasion, discussing Dating or Finding a church after college or Deciding about joining a sorority or fraternity. But couldn’t you do something similar for current events? What if trusted local Christian leaders – or even some of your student leaders – discussed/debated how they’re processing what’s taking place in the world (or in the city, or on campus).

The point – probably – wouldn’t be so much to argue a certain point of view, as much as to showcase how Christians are viewing “hot topics” through a Christian lens. (As long as everyone keeps this mission primary, it will go well.) Depending on the wisdom of your panel members and the topic under discussion, a panel could be as formulaic or as freewheeling as you want it to be. Anywhere on that spectrum, your students will get a view of how they too should process everything through a biblical worldview – even if that occasionally means mature believers still differ on their conclusions.

And don’t miss how I started this idea. While some panels could indeed take your entire Large Group Meeting, my original notion was akin to the “monologue” (of sorts) from a few weeks ago. This is something that many of your meetings could provide for a few minutes – and it might best hit its stated goal in that timeframe, anyway. That format – a 5-minute panel – could also be used on video (whether or not you did this in the Large Group Meeting at all!).

I was reminded this weekend at church how fantastic a panel discussion can be. I know “tried and true” methods like this one sometimes (wrongly) get thrown into the “boring and dated” trash pile.

But if it’s done well, a panel can prove powerful. Varying takes on an important topic provide far more “handholds” for your varied audience – whether those are concrete ways to address the problem of poverty, testimonies from a variety of young adults about seeking God beyond college, or different ways student leaders have shared their faith on campus. Even if you’re the absolute best about including pertinent illustrations in every message you deliver, it’s still hard to touch the practical nature of a panel.

Something to think about working in this fall?

Occasionally I’ve pointed out that Thanksgiving Break serves as an awesome warm-up for the looming Christmas break. Most of your students likely go home for just long enough to remember/realize what they’ll face when they go home for five-ish weeks in December.

But the same is true for Easter. Though not all students likely went home, I bet plenty did. And now, Summer Break is right around the corner.

One of the less-apparent but most valuable roles a college minister (or student leaders) can play this time of year is helping students intentionally prepare for the summer. Specifically…

  • How will they continue to grow in the Lord, not simply coast?
  • How will they respond to and minister to old friends?
  • How will they avoid old temptations?
  • How encouraging or discouraging do their family dynamics tend to be… and how will they respond there?
  • If they have a job, how will they work “as unto the Lord”?

I’m not sure this happened much when I was in college. While I remember offering prayer requests in small group settings, I don”t remember anyone helping me process the summer ahead – identifying the opportunities, identifying the challenges, developing a plan, and organizing mentorship or accountability.

But you can do this for your students. If they’ve just spent time home at Easter, then it’s an easy discussion based on that “experiment.” But regardless, they can recall Christmas break and look ahead to summer. And they can prepare for what the Lord might want to do.

Happy Good Friday Eve.

I’ve been blogging a few discipleship principles this week (here and here) – and especially discipling students toward self-discipleship. So I thought I’d cap it off (while taking a break for Good Friday) with a related Fridea.

One way to “lift a finger” to help disciples become self-disciplers is by presenting them with easy on-ramps, straightforward “next steps” that provide examples of how a self-discipler takes charge of their own spiritual walk. Before we get lost in that tangled description, here are concrete possibilities:

  • Providing an event calendar of possibilities for growth that aren’t in your ministry. From local seminars or conferences, to various (trusted) churches’ upcoming Membership Classes (if you’re a campus-based college ministry), to on-ramp service opportunities with non-profit ministries in town.
  • Offering “electives” or other optional growth opportunities within your ministry. Whether you’re giving people their choice of small groups for a semester (with differing topics or emphases) or holding “one off” seminars, etc., on occasional weekends, you can put simple growth-choices into the hands of students.
  • Give a “first read” or “first listen” every chance you get. For instance, sharing your suggestion for a first C. S. Lewis book or a first site to visit to learn about Justice or a first podcasted sermon about Missions gives students an action plan. Bonus points if you provide such a list with each Large Group Meeting message. And small groups are ripe for this sort of springboard-suggesting too.

Yesterday I wrote about the college minister’s role in discipling students so they’ll disciple themselves well. Alongside teaching spiritual disciplines – or, now that I think about it, included in the “spiritual discipline” category – is exposing students to authors/speakers/works/concepts that they can explore on their own.

This week our pastor brought in Dr. Jerry Root, a renowned C. S. Lewis scholar, to speak to our staff. And even though the entirety was fantastic, what was great was our pastor’s stated goal of the time with Dr. Root: to help us thirst to learn more about (and from) C. S. Lewis.

Not all of us on our church’s staff will be discipled by C. S. Lewis, but some of us should be. Others should be impacted by other authors of old (or current people). Others may need to know that Spirit of the Disciplines exists, or that there’s a whole line of study in the area of vocational discipleship. And on and on, the theologies and personalities that could be vital parts of our testimonies for the next months or next decade.

That’s part of the job of a shepherd – to hand off a disciplee to other trusted mentors. And that’s what happens when we lend a book or present a field of study previously unknown.

It’s probable I’ve mentioned something like this before, though it may not have been in exactly this form.

We all know – and we all hate pondering – that people forget most of what we teach soon after we teach it. So I’m a big fan of finding ways to remind, review, and repackage, giving extended life to teaching we’ve spent so much time on… and that we truly believe is what our people need to hear. (Of course, this only makes sense if you were really purposeful in choosing your topics in the first place!)

One way to do this in a college ministry is to engineer review opportunities for the natural breaks between semesters – Christmas break and summertime.

What if there was a way for students to get re-immersed in ministry-wide teaching from the previous semester (or year)? Or what if their small group learning content was “repackaged” into something that could impact them over the break? Meditating on truths a second time around could dramatically increase their retention – and application!

It’s easy to think students won’t want to relearn content they’ve been exposed to. But this is where the whole “they’ve forgotten it already” reality comes in handy, especially because you can repackage in a format that isn’t exactly what they experienced before. And you may not even need to do a lot of repackaging.

Some examples of ways this could play out, to get you thinking:

  • Create a summertime devotional (or suggest a book they can buy on Amazon) that teaches the same book of the Bible or theological topic you studied this spring.
  • Challenge students to re-listen to the Large Group Meeting messages once a week over the break, and provide new study questions they can do on their own.
  • Offer an online forum that will discuss various themes from the earlier semester more deeply, while allowing students to connect even though they’re in various cities.
  • Offer a study, a book of the Bible, etc., that is different from ones you studied this year but that hits a lot of the same themes.
  • Let students create a lot of this for you – for instance, for each of the past school year’s teaching themes, find a student who was impacted by that topic. Have them write a testimony and new devotional on that theme.

A quick thought on where “we who teach” find application steps to push people to take…

If a college minister is discipling people, he or she should expect fruit, right? Of course there are always fits-and-starts among our students, some complete backsliding, and other frustrations. But someone, somewhere is learning from the discipleship.

And as a college student (or anyone) works out their salvation, they’ll apply truth – if it has really soaked into their bones – in ultimately personal ways. Someone will take your message on trusting the Lord and apply it very specifically to their decisions about next summer. A sophomore will hear you teach on evangelism, and they’ll develop – unprompted by you – a goal to grab lunch with five people from their Intro Psychology class.

And on and on, application being driven by the Spirit as a result of God’s word seeping into lives. Presumably that’s the story of your life, too: of countless Bible passages and messages, presented pretty broadly, but then applied by yourself to some pretty unique corners of your existence. Sure, many times too a teacher offered an application step that applied directly and distinctly to your life, no adjustments needed. But not nearly always, right? Don’t application steps usually provide examples, springboards for us to find personal application that may look quite different?

So I wonder if there’s meant to be a communication loop here, especially in college ministry. Can you do a better job of “collecting” students’ Spirit-led application steps, to broadcast those examples for the next round (or the current round) of students? I’m particularly thinking of the opportunity you have, just a few weeks after teaching on Hospitality or Unselfishness or Disciplemaking, to let students share their testimonies of applying those things to their particular day-to-days.

Christian ministers of all stripes are often good at presenting testimonies of salvations, and college ministry does this perhaps more than many. But how often do we present testimonies of faithful applications of other truths? Might these application steps inspire more students to more personal application, providing a cycle of deep obedience in your ministry?

Often we – or at least I – get into a rut of aiming to inspire people to action without giving a good dose of practical how-to. Sometimes people need good examples – not so they can simply “check a box,” but to get their heads around exactly what obedience might look like.

For instance, I’d imagine it’s a goal of yours for students to be inspired to connect with their dormmates and apartment-mates. Right? It’s a ready-made mission field. And even if you (or others) have established great dorm Bible studies, etc., you still hope your students are intentionally growing their relationships organically, too.

If that’s the case, have you provided a roadmap? I know it’s easy to castigate people who don’t get to know the guys on their floor or the girls in the suite next door: “They must be radically self-absorbed or simply not interested in God-advancing conversations.” But some students – many students – might have a mix of a little real fear with a big lack of vision for how such an action might look, or how it might be accomplished. Whether it’s because they’re introverts, went to Christian high school, or simply haven’t experienced a situation where they lived in tight quarters with hundreds of non-Christian classmates while balancing a surprising schoolwork-load (i.e. all your students), building relationships with dormmates may not come naturally or easily.

Here are some ways you might provide a roadmap (which, you might notice, could apply to any activity and not just building relationships):

  • Testimonies by students who have done this well
  • A very straightforward ideas list
  • A combo of the two above – a list of ways their fellow students have actually connected well in their dorms/apartments
  • A challenge to do one thing (or one thing out of a few choices) in the next week
  • Accountability (once you’ve made this otherwise very practical and shared the biblical why)

Like I said, this is coming from someone who doesn’t it find it easy to think about discipleship this way. But I’m getting better.

For each “big pillar” of a college ministry, like evangelism or justice or Bible study or “life together,” a roadmap that gently shares expectations while providing concrete ideas accomplishes the “lifting a finger” of obedience-assistance we’re called to do.

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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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