If you’ve never planned a retreat for college age people, or just want to search for some ‘fresh’ ideas (which may or may not be the case for you here), I will be doing a series of blog posts on that will hopefully help out a bit.  So, I thought I would start with 2 sort of obvious things first…with a bit of wisdom [that term is used loosely] I’ve learned from making some major mistakes:

Tip #1: Do few and do them well. 

I’m a firm believer in doing a few things in our ministries and doing those things well. Trying to do too many events will inevitably cause all to lose their impact. In my opinion, just putting a bunch of things on a calendar can, and often is, detrimental to the ministry.  Pick a couple things you do annually and make these the trips.  Make them big and things nobody could refuse!

Tip #2: Keep the cost down. 

College-age people aren’t exactly known to have a ton of extra money laying around. Everything has a cost, but there are some things that can help. For instance, for our Utah trip we offered different packages. We offered a base package that included transportation, lodging, meals and some activities ($210). We had a separate package that included a one-day lift ticket, another for two days, and a third package for a three-day lift ticket. The base amount was pretty low which allowed people that couldn’t afford much to still be a part of the trip. There are all kinds of things you can do to try to keep the cost down, but offering different packages is a great and simple way to do that. You can also:

• Plan your trip during weekdays if at all possible. We did our Utah trip during the winter break of school, so this was possible. This helped save a lot of money with the hotel and really helped keeping costs down.

• Ask the hotel about complimentary rooms for leaders. Most of the time they will give you free rooms and usually suites – which can be utilized for a number of different things.

• Offer payment plans. As soon as we started promoting the trip we let people know that we could place them on a payment plan. Of course this took some administrative work, but working out a monthly payment plan with people can be a great help. Some people, unfortunately, didn’t end up paying their full amount. But this allowed for a lot of teachable moments too—that were priceless. Here are a few recommendations for this approach: (1) only offer them for the base amount, not things like lift tickets or other extra’s, (2) have a minimum amount they have to pay before they go on the trip—at least the cost of the deposit and preferably at least half the total price (3) develop a very short contract detailing the payment due dates and amounts between the church and the student.

• Do fundraisers. If your church allows this, these can of course help.

• Seek sponsors. If there are older adults in your church that are already involved with college-age people consider asking them to sponsor a student or three. You can divide these amounts any way you want, but having people donate toward this cause can really help.

• Be wise. Some things aren’t necessary to spend money on—like fliers. With all the technology you can invite people, even have sign ups, in ways that don’t cost money. Fliers aren’t the issue, the issue is just thinking through ways you can do things that don’t cost money. These small costs add up over time and many of them aren’t necessary.

• Shop around. If you are checking out places to stay, make sure those places know you’re also seeking pricing from others as well. If you find a better deal at one place go back to the other and let them know what they offered you. You might be surprised at how flexible they become.


Myth of Organic Ministry

 —  September 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

Talk of “organic ministry” is not lacking, that’s for sure.  Whenever people ask me about how I planted Colossae Church, follow up with me about one of my books, ask me to further explain my philosophy of ministry or even more specifically how I approach discipleship, they often say things like, “Oh, so you just want it to happen organically.”  I think I get what they are saying, which is why I don’t agree.  Let me explain a little.

Typically when people talk about organic ministry there seems to be an underlying assumption that as a leader I don’t provide structure, lack focus and intentionality, but instead just sort of hang out with people, sit back, and let things happen.  But this is the myth of organic ministry.  And people who start churches with this understanding of organic quickly realize that that approach doesn’t work.  Ministries (all organizations, actually) need direction and leadership.  Every community needs leadership, which means every church does as well.  Without structure and leadership the community will inevitably lack focus, become ingrown…and die.

And the truth is even the most organically minded house-church planters I know end up providing structure…they just don’t call it that.  The numbers of people they lead might be less, but there is structure no doubt.  They have someone in charge of bringing food.  Someone prepares songs and leads singing.  Someone plans camping trips.  There is structure and leadership.  The idea that they just let relationships dictate everything is a myth…or, (at risk of sounding overly harsh) it is the thing that will lead to their demise as a leader.

Here are a few distinctions/thoughts I will offer with this:

1. Relational and Organic aren’t necessarily the same.  I have a relational focus in everything I do, but I don’t just sit back and let things happen.  Some things, of course, take time to develop but that doesn’t mean I lock myself in a closet, pray, and hope it all works out.  If organic means I prayerfully and intentionally spend a lot of time with people and think everyone has different needs so we intentionally structure to meet those in the context of relational communities, then I would say I’m organic.

2. Intentionality and Formality are not the same.  We can be very intentional with people without formality.  For instance, we don’t have to provide a 4 step process for everyone in our church to formally go through in order to be intentional in their lives.  We don’t need to provide a curriculum for a group to go through in order for them to grow spiritually, although that can be helpful.  But if organic means we sometimes have classes for things, sometimes recommend content but place our priority on relationally connecting people to others who can help them, offering tools as needed, then I guess I’m organic.

3. Our culture is horrible at cultivating relationships.  In western culture we are very slow to trust and truly commune with others in every aspect of our lives.  So, if organic means we understand this and thus provide room for relationships to naturally develop over time, but also provide some intentional structure and avenues for people to do so in the context of community, then again, I guess I’m organic.

All this to say, just because our church doesn’t provide a bunch of classes, studies, programs, etc. for people to become a part of, it doesn’t mean we sit back and just let it happen organically as some might define that term.

Training Opportunities

 —  September 25, 2012 — Leave a comment

To those interested in learning and talking about, or contributing to a conversation about ministry to college age people, I will be in two regions of the country in October to do just that!

First, next week on October 5, I will be in Omaha Nebraska for a one-day training at Nebraska Christian College.  For a brief description of the topics covered and details for registration for this date, click here.

Then, on October 23rd, I will be in the Bay Area (Pleasant Hill, Ca.) doing the same training.  For a brief description of the topics covered and details for registration for this date, click here.

Space is limited for these to allow for intentional conversation and focused question and answer times…so if you’re interested, make sure you sign up soon!

Hope you can join us for one of these days in October…

Becoming a 'Relief Valve'

 —  September 18, 2012 — 1 Comment

I came across an article about undergraduate students stress.  There were some interesting facts that stood out to me.  Here are a few of those found in a Study by the American College Counseling Association:

  • There has been a 21.6% increase in students who have been diagnosed with “severe psychological problems” from 2000 to 2012.
  •  42% of counselors noted there has been an increase in self-injury issues
  • 24% said there has been an increase in eating disorders

In the article, John MacPhee, executive director of the Jed Foundation, which oversees the website ULifeline.org, a resource center for students dealing with emotional issues says, “Only back pain, sinuses, and allergies are more prevalent [than depression and anxiety] among college students.”

I don’t think it’s any surprise that undergraduates are under stress.  They feel pressure from all sorts of angles.  Tuition is rising and so is debt issues.  In fact, the debt stuff is detrimental to more and more in school.  Finding a job is tough and students know that.  Everything from schooling to job market has become more and more competitive.  Then add in relational tensions, trying to find a sense of identity as they become more self aware, figuring out what they actually want to do vocationally and then facing the challenges or pressures of their family (whatever that may look like) all adds up.

Then they face mid-terms and finals….on and on.  THEN, add onto all this internal pressure, ministry leaders who pressure them to be involved in their ministry.  Ministry leaders who push them to serve in a ministry and be involved in some “program.”

Well…being connected in a church is certainly important, but perhaps they could just use a little conversation.  Maybe, just maybe, they could use someone simply coming up to them after church and inviting them out for lunch, only to see how they are doing.  Maybe they could use someone in their life that is simply interested in them…as a human being and places zero pressure on them, but instead is a “relief valve.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different books, theories, studies, etc. on how “Millenials” are leaving church.  I’ve written a bunch about it and friends of mine, like David Kinnaman (UnChristian and You Lost Me) and Dan Kimball (They Like Jesus But Not The Church), have written well articulated books describing this issue as well.

But I’m becoming less and less convinced they are leaving the Church.  Instead, I think many are simply leaving the sub-culture of a particular type of church.  And this is something that I haven’t seen articulated yet.

For instance, in You Lost Me David Kinnaman describes “exiles” as people that feel more comfortable outside of a church context.  If you have not read this book yet I would recommend doing so.  But regardless, I believe much of the reason is because they just don’t fit into the sub-culture of the church or churches they have been exposed to.  So, depending on context, this may be correctly articulated as them “leaving Church.”  However, I think we can be more pointed and say they are leaving a specific sub-culture of Church.

I travel frequently and see so many different contexts of church.  I’m not just at conferences.  I’m also at a lot of college’s and churches across the country.  And if there is one thing I can say for sure, it’s that every church has it’s own sub-culture.  Music is a variance, teaching styles can be drastically different but so is the way people dress, how pastors are approached, specific language that seems to dominate in certain contexts, programmatic structures are vastly contradictory, what people of certain ages can or cannot do, etc.

And it’s important for us to realize that none of this is necessarily “Christian” or an accurate expression of “The Church.”  It’s simply a sub-culture’s way of doing things or thinking about certain aspects of life.

I am hearing more and more young people simply not feeling like they fit into what they call “Church.”  But I’m beginning to realize (or maybe just beginning to articulate clearly) it’s simply the sub-culture of their “church” experience they are not fitting into.  And I’ve found that helping them make this distinction in their own minds is extremely helpful.  This may not be a huge distinction that changes the conversation about this topic in publishing, but I do think it’s something we should keep in mind.

And I must say that I don’t personally think it’s bad to leave a particular sub-culture – regardless of context.  In fact, I think it’s far more dangerous to think of some of the things we do in church (culturally) as actually being “Christian” or the way of living as “The Church.”

Connecting college age people to older adults certainly has challenges.  And as I’ve written much about this subject in previous books, we need to find connecting points.  Well, vocation is one of the best (if not the best) avenues for this connection to be made.  Here are some reasons why connecting people with this common interest is easiest:

1. It puts the older person at ease.  This puts an older adult in a position where they can speak from their own experience, which tends to be most comfortable for people.

2. The ‘spiritual meter’ is lessened.  Sometimes starting conversations with other Christians is just plain awkward, because we feel like we need to be spiritual.  This allows people, who potentially don’t have any history together, to come into a conversation and simply talk about practicalities of life…first.

3. College age people’s interest is at its peak.  College age people are extremely interested in the practicalities of the workforce.  And to be able to sit down with someone with this as the focus is intriguing to say the least.

4. Expectations are low.  Going into a conversation that simply begins with two people who have similar interests in life is easy.  There is much more likelihood of a true relational connection taking place with minimal expectations on either side.

5. Practical theology.  If the older person is a maturing believer, the aspects of how faith is lived out in the workplace comes naturally.  It’s not forced and the conversation didn’t necessarily start there, which is how why sometimes it actually gets to the point of talking about spiritual matters.

A question many church-based leaders of college ministries face this time of year and throughout the fall is: should I connect my students to a campus ministry on campus or a local church ministry?  There are a few tensions here that need to be recognized:

1. Everyone says we need to be involved in a local church, but many lose contact after engaging with a campus ministry.  Also many, although it’s tough to put numbers on it, who attend Christian colleges that provide everything a local church does (chapels, accountability partners, small groups, bible classes, etc) also lose touch.  This is just a fact.

2. I have noticed most campus ministers say they value the local church, but tend to develop structures on campus that hinder people from engaging in a church (although not intentionally) versus structures that are pushing people to be involved and to be connected to one.  I recently wrote about this in my column in Youth Worker Journal.

3. Those that disconnect from the local church during their college years, even though they are engaged on campus with Christian community, tend to have a hard time reconnecting back into the local church after they graduate.

So, here are some thoughts for those who are church-based:

  1. Continue to encourage people to be involved on campus.  There is amazing peer-to-peer connections to be made and huge evangelistic opportunities on secular (and even some Christian campuses) to be had.
  2. Continue walking alongside students, even if they are thousands of miles away.  Keep in touch, call, text, email, Facebook, tweet, instagram….use this resource, keep in touch and allow them to see there is someone in a local church context that believes in the local church and still cares for them.
  3. My advice is, and you may disagree here, if a student has to choose between being involved on a campus ministry or a local church ministry for whatever reason, tell them to be involved with the church.

About a month ago I was sitting outside my favorite coffee shop talking with Landen, a freshman at Cal State Northridge, while sipping on a vanilla latte. He was telling me about how lonely the fall semester was for him. It came as a shock to him because he never expected college life to be this way. Initially he was excited about meeting new people and the next stage of life—you know, “the college life.” But like most college students face (at one point or another), loneliness rudely interrupted his life.

In high school, he had a lot of friends, a serious girlfriend, was president of the Christian club, and was a very good athlete. This didn’t just keep him busy, but kept him feeling good about himself and his life. But then his friends went in all different directions, things didn’t work out with his girlfriend, his superiority in sports was very different, and to top it off, he wasn’t totally sure what he was going to do with his life. He was starting at square one again.

It happens naturally and pretty much to everyone, but college freshmen typically have their entire identity tied up in their high school life. Then overnight, it is gone. When you lose your identity, you begin to question, search, and turn within to find answers. Then loneliness begins. This is the identity issue of the university world.

Up until junior high, your identity was pretty much tied to your family life. In high school, you more than likely found your identity in the group of friends you had. You felt comfortable around them, clicked with them, they understood you, and you understood them. Maybe you played sports, an instrument, or acted in the school plays. You may have even found much of your identity and self-esteem in getting good grades or possibly even your youth group. Whatever it was, you never thought about it, but you searched for and probably found your identity in something.

Now think about it for a minute. Take all these things away, and who are you? How would you define yourself? You spent four years of your life with this identity, and now, most likely, it is all going to be taken away. The struggle you will have in college is finding a new identity.

Life’s circumstances always change. Each stage of life brings different issues, struggles, joys, and pains. You cannot allow these things to define who you are. This is a lesson you will need to learn quickly.

The Scriptures talk about who we are: children of God. This is our true identity. This is where our self-esteem really comes from. We search for our identity in all kinds of things other than who we are as a Christian. The thing we need to realize is that all of our circumstances stage in school, relationships we have with people, sports we play, or even careers we have—will at some point change. The only thing that won’t change is who we are in Christ.

In college you will inevitably face lonely times and turn within to figure out who you are. The question is where will your identity and self-esteem be found? You can temporarily find it in your current circumstances or the people who are around you, but these will eventually leave you searching for something else to fill the void. At some point, hopefully sooner than later, you will find it as a Christian. Away from a church, campus ministry, sport, grade, or career…just you and God, in your personal relationship with Him.

Who are you? This is the question you will have to answer. I hope you find it in the One that will never change, never leave, and never disperse. Let the search begin…