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.

  • How many students who were regular attenders last semester haven’t been around this semester?
  • Do you have any idea why?
  • How many students from small groups aren’t involved anymore, or aren’t involved as much as they used to be?
  • Do your small group leaders talk about it with you?
  • Why did all those students who visited back in August or September not stick around?
  • What former “core students” – or even student leaders – have drifted into much less involvement than they used to have?
  • Which of your ministry’s students are off-campus this semester, studying abroad or for some other reason?
  • How many students graduated last semester? How many will graduate in May or August?
  • Are graduates thriving in the months after graduation?

These kinds of questions revolve around one concept: a college ministry’s “back door.” There are lots of reasons a student might come once, come many times, or be deeply involved… and then either disappear or move to the periphery of your ministry. Some reasons are right and good (like graduation!), others are troubling (problems at home, a falling out with someone in your ministry, a backsliding in faith, and many more), and others are pretty “neutral” (studying abroad, class schedule conflicts…).

But understanding your back door means understanding your campus ministry better. And more importantly, it means “shepherding the flock of God among you” better – and in this case, potentially shepherding people who particularly need it.

I mentioned getting to participate in a Using-Data-for-Ministry conference last week, and this is one of the notions that we ruminated on. I have a feeling we’ll keep right on ruminating on this concept, because it’s tricky and because it’s enormously important.

So how strong of an understanding do you have on your collegiate ministry’s back door? What can you do to understand it better?

What if the next time you got together with other college ministers on your campus (or even just grabbed coffee or lunch with one other), you purposely limited yourselves to the discussion of ONE topic?

General questions/discussions can be great: “What’s new in your ministry?” “What are you seeing in students this year?” “Tell me about your biggest changes this year.” But if you really want to improve in an area that two (or more) college ministers share, spend some time digging deeper, not wider.

Thirty minutes chatting about How We Do Small Groups can be far more valuable than 3 minutes talking about 10 topics. Or go even “smaller”: Small Group Curriculum (What We Use and How We Choose). I recently watched a bunch of ministries go for an hour on Tracking Volunteers… not recruiting, but simply tracking and connecting with them.

By limiting the questions to, well, one, it forces everyone involved to think beyond their normal spiel, whatever’s top-of-mind, or the paragraph they wrote in the most recent supporter letter. And don’t worry about filling the time: New sub-topics produce new questions, producing new lines of inquiry and edifying rabbit-trails in turn.

I have the excellent opportunity to attend the first of four “Accelerator” sessions (across the next 2 years!) with Leadership Network. We’re covering the topic of “Big Data” and how we use it to impact people.

A key question asked yesterday was simply, “Does data have a seat at the table” in your ministry? So I ask the same thing of you: Does data help you make decisions?

But in the world of college ministry, some ministries simply need to realize that data is available to be gathered. Yes, some organizations are really good at collecting data, but others – especially if overseers aren’t asking for it – may not attend here much. Data doesn’t just mean numbers – though they’re included – but also great pieces of info like “How students heard about us” or “What kinds of students are most likely to bring other students.”

And while data only matters inasmuch as we remember that it connects with people, examining and using the data available to you may indeed offer the next step of growth for your campus ministry.

(And if you need help figuring this out, ask some data-loving, data-studying students to help. Win win!)

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.

As the primary shepherd of most of your college students for this revolutionary season of their lives, you determine in large part the methods by which these students will grow – not only during the college years, but in the months or years between college and the firm footing they will (hopefully) find as young adults.

What they learn from you about spiritual disciplines, about sharing their faith with others, about finding a church, about finding mentors… this will mostly (or at least largely) come from you and your ministry.

This is no small responsibility.

Certainly the argument that eases our burden a little bit – and it’s a correct argument – is that fundamentally students must take God personally. Hopefully, whether they completely delineate this or not, their primary engine for spiritual growth is their own very intimate walk with the Lord – a walk that is healthy enough to grow whether well-watered by outside ministries or not.

That’s certainly true. But isn’t one of the primary opportunities of college ministry to shepherd students into that particularly personal walk with God? Whether a Christian college student has known Christ for months or already for a decade and a half, this sort of internally motivated spiritual walk is a – and maybe THE – primary need… right?

If you need a quick assessment for your campus ministry, ask yourself whether your students are growing “on their own” – yes, taking advantage of your ministry offerings, but also finding their own developmental routes with the Lord, advancing in Him each semester beyond what your ministry’s watering could catalyze alone. (It’s a quick assessment to think about, though not a simple one to assess.)

Or simply find out now how well the graduates of last May and last December have grown in the interim.

Discipleship is likely a stated goal for your ministry. But how large a focus is discipleship towards self-discipleship?

I’m taking a vacation this week, so I’ll have a collection of favorite posts about one topic that hits most college ministries… the Large Group Meeting! Whether you have a classic “sing-n-speak” or some twist on the all-come gathering, I hope you’ll find these useful.

Do the front-line students (or other volunteers) in your ministry act more like hosts or hawkers?

On a vacation awhile back, my wife and I got to enjoy some restaurants and hotels where the customer service was top-notch. The front-line staff – hostesses, valets, front desk people, etc. – often did a great job of making us feel very welcome. (This can happen in non-“fancy” places, too, of course!)

But on that same vacation we also visited Maine’s Fryeburg Fair, a famed New England gathering of exhibitions, animals, crafts, booths, and carnival games.

There’s a lot of “hosting” happening at a fair, too. For instance, the carneys running the games have apparently found success with high-pressure efforts, trying the blunt-force, yell-across-the-way to reel people in to throw darts, guess a number, and win prizes. (My wife isn’t a big fan of that form of “hosting.”)

But it’s easy for college ministry greeters to come off more like the latter than the former – in part because they are hoping to recruit new students all the time.

Have you taken an honest look recently at how your front-line volunteers might appear to a stranger or someone else relatively new to your campus ministry? This doesn’t just include students greeting at a Large Group Meeting; true “hosts” should be found at info tables, passing out fliers, recruiting on campus, doing announcements, and anywhere else people are encountering your ministry for the first time. (It even includes the styles of your ads!) Are all these people and papers staying on the hospitable side of hosting, or have they wandered a little too much toward hawking?

 

I’m taking a vacation this week, so I’ll have a collection of favorite posts about one topic that hits most college ministries… the Large Group Meeting! Whether you have a classic “sing-n-speak” or some twist on the all-come gathering, I hope you’ll find these useful.

One of the most important teaching steps college ministers can take is to define terms. Especially when it comes to exhorting students to “be” and “do” like Jesus, we’ve got to make sure they actually know what’s being said.

(Of course, that means the teacher has to know, too.)

Off the top of my head, here are some examples of terms that defy easy definition, either because it’s hard or because we (wrongly) think the meaning and application are “obvious”:

  1. “Gossip”
  2. “Judge” (as in, “Judge not…”)
  3. “Gospel”
  4. “Lust”
  5. “Self-Control”
  6. “Humility”
  7. “Sexual Purity”
  8. “Repenting”
  9. “Church Involvement”
  10. “Confront” / “Hold accountable”
  11. “Commit” (as in, what it means to commit to do something)
  12. “Dying to yourself”
  13. “Accepting Jesus” / Converting / Becoming a Christian
  14. “Honoring your parents”
  15. “Being a good steward”
  16. “Shame” (as in, the difference between “good guilt” and “bad guilt”)

That’s just off the top of my head, although a couple of them stick out for me. In high school, a youth pastor hurtfully brushed me aside when I expressed that some people don’t know exactly what “gossip” consists of. And in college, it was really helpful (and guilt-relieving) to hear a speaker and a pastor (two different guys) share what “lust” really is – and what it isn’t.

Think about the most recent message your students heard: Was every exhortation fully defined?

And another thing…!

And there’s another area that could often use more definitions. Too often we ministers assume students understand the words they’re singing during our “praise and worship” times. Words like “Hallelujah” or “bless the Lord” or even “Jehovah” are sung… but how sure are we that students know what they’re singing?

Have you “vetted” the songs you use for potentially-unfamiliar words?

What about the concepts they’re singing? In this case, especially if you’re singing older hymns (even if they’re set to newer music), there may be concepts that should be explained… or else our students really aren’t praising at all during those moments, are they?

On a less urgent note, a third way to facilitate our students’ worship is to help them connect the concepts in songs to Scripture. Sadly, we can’t assume that even songs directly derived from the Bible are understood as such by our students.

Have you considered highlighting connected verses, either alongside the songs, or before/after certain songs are sung? Even if only one song is “amplified” in this way each week, your students’ worship would be awesomely deepened.

What’s more, you could even consider teaching on the songs you regularly use in worship – either from the stage, in a series of emails, or by other means. How cool would that be?!

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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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