I’ve been writing about “customer experience” in college ministry, because any college minister should care deeply about the actual experience of the ministry’s members, whether or not it translates into “numbers,” etc.

One big opportunity to improve students’ experience within your campus ministry will arise if/when you become familiar with what they hope your ministry provides. Many college ministries already have some sort of “Get to Know You” form that new guests fill out. Many ministries also make a point to have a leader sit down with those visitors ASAP. In both cases, though, I wonder how often students are asked,

“What do you hope to get out of this college ministry?”

(If they’re clearly still in the deciding process, you could change “this” to “a” and accomplish the same thing.)

Clearly, students will have a variety of reasons for attending – some more noble than others, some more practical than others, and some more actionable than others. But don’t you think knowing this information – for as many students as possible – would help your staff and leaders think better about providing a great experience? Even when a student “just wants to find a girlfriend” or otherwise hasn’t set their hopes high enough, it’s very useful information for discipling him (or her). And plenty of students might surprise you, even leading you to consider new activities or new emphases.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t about “meeting customer preferences” to keep people or get new members. I’m talking about discipleship, which should always concern itself with how well forms fit the audience.

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?

I’m thinking about the “customer experience” within college ministry – how college ministers can help a ministry’s participants, from newcomers to core members, truly thrive.

One element that comes to mind is the opportunity – within the time of a student’s involvement – to discover and be deployed in at least one major area of strength.

College ministry – with its 3 or 4 “prime years” with a student (if we’re lucky) – still offers a big enough canvas to give this a shot. While many students won’t f fully grasp their strengths or “best and highest use” for several more years, collegiate ministry should start them on that journey. And, I’d argue, that “start” should do more than simply offer them a little bit of latitude to “try stuff” in their very last semesters on campus.

Instead, I’d hope that many campus ministries would take an aggressive approach in this area. I would hope that early on – by the middle of sophomore year at the latest – students well-involved in a college ministry might have begun identifying very specific bailiwicks and even start getting chances to serve/shine in those particular areas.

Of course, those two activities – discovery and deployment – can be a bit reciprocal. Students might get deployed in order to (better) discover, too. But my point here is that collegiate shepherds should help guide their sheep in these paths of realization, with the goal that very few graduate without knowing strengths – and, as much as possible, having implemented those strengths in key ways within the ministry, on campus, in a workplace, or in town.

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?

And… I’m back. Our son’s birth went well, and we’re sleepy as we learn about life with two under two.

I’ve come to realize through the years that I’m drawn to all sorts of (what I would call) “ministry gaps” – areas the big-C Church seems to have under-served, under-appreciated, under-funded, etc.

That’s a big part of why I gravitated to college ministry nearly two decades ago.

And even as I do explore other ministry gaps, what’s great is that I can usually connect my pondering on those gaps to the world of collegiate ministry.

One thing I’ve had on my mind a lot lately is what you might call “user experience” within ministries. Since “UX” in the corporate world most often applies to digital settings (like how easily customers can navigate a company’s web page), the closest comparison here might actually be to CX – customer experience. But of course ministry people like us sometimes get a little queasy talking about attendees as “customers” – understandably.

So maybe it’s just “experience” for now. In the case of our field of ministry, CMX perhaps.

Whatever we call it, our “users’ experience” should be a major concern to anyone who leads a ministry. And significantly, for college ministers this MUST apply to “users” beyond freshmen.

Yet college ministries may function often like churches that put heavy investment into “first impressions” (for new guests) and “assimilation” for new regulars and/or new members… but then leave longer-term members largely to their own devices when it comes to going further up and further in.

So that’s what I’d like to blog about this week. It’s not a new discussion around here, but maybe some new thoughts in new ways will pop out.

In the meantime, I’d encourage you to ask how your investments line up: What percentage of emphasis, activity, and resources is dedicated to students “pre-assimilation”? (In your ministry, a student may be “assimilated” when they’ve joined a small group… attended three times… attended something more than the Large Group Meeting… or whatever. It doesn’t have to be an official designation to be useful here.)

I’ll be taking the week off for family time after the birth of our new son. See you later this month!

The rhythm of collegiate ministry is an interesting thing – hardly comparable to any other form of ministry. Even youth ministry, which does have to account for the school year, tends to have a continuing flock during the summer – as well as a steadier roster (because of the influence of parents).

College ministry’s unique rhythm, among other things, carries with it natural deadlines – particularly that yearly one called The Start of School in August or September. Perhaps the second most dramatic deadline is in May. And don’t forget the “shepherding deadline” for each student before he or she graduates.

These deadlines (hopefully) work for you, not against you. You’re forced to prioritize and push when asking things like,

  • What improvements will we make for the upcoming school year?
  • Are our recruiting materials ready?
  • What are the most important themes to teach before summer?
  • How will I prepare them for summer?
  • How will I prepare them for life beyond college?
  • What leaders will serve with us in the new school year?

And on and on.

I know these deadlines can feel like a scourge sometimes. But their presence forces, as I said, prioritization. And prayer. And practicality. And all those things are fantastic for moving along, improving year after year, “making the most of every opportunity,” “numbering our days.”

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3 Jn. 4 ESV)

As I write this blog, I’m listening to our 19-month-old play in the other room. It’s a joy to hear her busily poking and spinning the toys that are far higher-tech than mine were 35ish years ago.

I look forward to taking joy in her all her life. As I think is the case for many Christian parents, it gives me glimpses of how the Lord views us (and me!), how He takes joy in His children. But there’s another opportunity to reflect some part of that: in the joy we who shepherd get to take in our “children,” the various flocks/congregations/ministries/mentees God has given us some leadership in.

Until we forget to delight in them.

This post is an encouragement to make sure you’re spending enough time and/or emotional energy purely delighting in these college students God has allowed you to minister to. Go to recitals and games, talk with them about hobbies and dreams, watch them worship or teach. Enjoy them, smile to yourself about them, take the relational joys as part of the grand portion God has provided you in making you a college minister.

This coming school year, could you make more space – both in new calendar events and within the calendar events already in place – to delight in your college students?

An oldie but goodie – and there’s good room to do this in the summer if students are around.

When’s the last time you took a young collegiate couple on a double date with you and your wife?

That might seem like an awkward idea – and no doubt there would be some awkwardness – but I can’t think of a better way to call college students to date well… and marry well, too. (If you’ve got adult volunteers or want to recruit some – even just for this – that could be really great too.)

Whether you’re married or not, I hope college students get to hang out at your house on occasion. I hope they see you in your “work life,” too, even if that’s simply more college ministry work. I hope they rub shoulders with you in your other ministry habitats, too – like your church, your neighborhood, and your city.

Letting students into our lives is a chance to show them what they should aspire to – as adults (whatever our age happens to be), as spouses, as family men and family women, as employees, as church members. And even, right now, as really great dates.

I’ve posted this before but probably can’t say it enough.

Summer slows down for me a bit, so, for example, I might get the chance to press forward on the theory and strategy side of my ministry by reading a variety of books. I’ve attended heavy-duty conferences in summers past, or started working on something spring simply didn’t provide time for.

Crash-coursing can be a joy.

I don’t know what your summer looks like, but here’s one thing I can guess is true: There’s at least one portion of your college ministry which, if you improved during this summer, would truly (and forever) impact the ministry as a whole.

So the question is, can you take the time this summer to make that advance?

Could you take a few days, or an hour every day for a couple of weeks, or a weekend retreat, or some other “crash course” season to move the ball forward in that area? Sure, a crash course is not the only way to learn – maybe not even the best way. But it can work for certain topics – and even more importantly, it may actually be something you’ll actually do!

If you HAD to choose something to take a crash course on, what would it 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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