Most of these tips over the last several weeks have been about ending the Spring semester well, wrapping up the year, preparing for summer ministry, and getting set to hit the ground running in the fall.
Today’s tip is typically my last one of the year. But I will have one more next week.
Today’s focus is on the importance of a strong start in August, planning ahead, being intentional about our efforts, and maximizing the single most critical week of the campus year. Not everything applies in our missional context, but this article speaks to the urgency of the first week on campus and the reality of how quickly a student determines allegiances on campus.
“Every group I’ve studied has followed roughly the same pattern. In fact, with only two exceptions, I have never seen a campus ministry grow after the first month of the year.”
Off And Running by Mike Woodruff
Three weeks into the Fall quarter finds most students in a rut. They’ve picked their classes, joined their clubs and scheduled every waking minute between now and Thanksgiving. Some have carved out time for “significant others,” most will have set aside entire weekends for football, pizza and parties, and a few will even have blocked out an hour or two for class. But by the end of the first month it’s all in stone. And if attending your large group meeting isn’t in their schedule by then, there is little hope it will be there come May.
During my 8 years with a church-based campus ministry in Washington State, I watched student involvement at our large group meetings climb from 150 to 700. With the exception of one small hiccup up, all of that growth occurred in the Fall. If we ended Spring quarter with 200 students, we started back in September with 350. That May we’d be down around 300-far from growing, every group seems to lose numbers over the year-but by the next Fall we started with 450. We grew by starting strong. Every other group I’ve studied has followed roughly the same pattern. In fact, with only two exceptions, I have never seen a campus ministry grow after the first month of the year. And that means that if you’re serious about expanding your influence you need to begin with a shout. If ever there was a time for a home run, it’s the first meeting of the Fall quarter.
Be Ready: Of course, starting strong is hard to do because first meetings are full of early season mistakes. The worship team is rusty, the microphones are lost and no one can find a three-prong adapter to plug in the overhead. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Use the summer to jump start the Fall. Put summer students to work preparing publicity and drama. Work on your first message during June and July so it’s one of the strongest you give. Ask the worship team to come back to campus a few days early for a planning and preparation retreat. Or hire the worship band from a local church to help you begin with a bang. Hold a dress rehearsal the night before. Make it a party and buy pizza for the whole team.
Additionally, apply the popular business philosophy of continuous improvement. Keep a separate file folder just for the events that occur during the first few weeks of the Fall quarter, and as those events unfold critique them. What could we do next year? How could we have reached out more effectively to freshman? Should we have started the meeting earlier? Later? Gone shorter? Longer? By continually updating this file-technically called an After Action Report-you can insure that your kick-offs get better and better.
Be Visible: If you normally meet in a church or a room that is the least bit hard to find move your first meeting. We picked one of the most visible buildings in the middle of campus even though that meant competing with a back-to-school kick off dance right outside the door. If your school has an activity fair where you can advertise, set up the best booth and offer the most free food. I’d suggest spending up to seventy-five percent of your advertising budget for the entire year on your first couple of meetings-and be creative. Anybody can do posters. Try banners, balloons, sandwich boards, flyers, blackboard blitzes and, of course, personal invitations. We sent out letters to all returning students welcoming them back to school and inviting them to our first meeting. The invitation includes the who, what, where, when, and why of every event we have planned during the first week, and ends with me egging them to invite anyone and everyone they know to our very first meeting. If they will send me the name of someone they’d like invited, I’ll send them a letter or give them a call. We also make a special effort to reach freshman by handing out lots of flyers around the freshman dorms and in their registration lines. I know several Christian groups whose members come back to campus early just so they can help freshman move into the dorms. They find that by being one of the first friendly faces a freshman meets it’s easy to form friendships that might later lead to a chance to share the Gospel or invite someone to a meeting.
The Sardine Effect: During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s advance man picked small high school gymnasiums for their political rallies. He didn’t want the nicest auditorium to meet in; he wanted a place they could pack. We’ve done the same. In fact, the room we now use seats 150 fewer students than we expect. The fire marshal hates us, but the energy we create is incredible.
Pray, pray and pray: But not right before the meeting. The last place you want your leaders just before the start of the first meeting is locked up in a room with you. They should be out inviting friends, greeting early arrivals or picking up newcomers who need a ride. Hold your prayer meeting earlier in the week or earlier in the day. That frees everyone up to deal with last minute headaches and mingle with people.
Force Fellowship: Helping freshmen feel welcome is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face; especially since upper-class students all gravitate to friends they haven’t seen in three months. Place greeters at the door, plead with your Bible study leaders to befriend lost freshmen and end the meeting by asking people to find two people they don’t know and introduce themselves. I also explained that everyone-including our staff-feels like everybody here knows everybody else-except them. The bigger the group the more of an issue this becomes and the more proactively you need to deal with it.
The Meeting: First meetings are not for regular attendees. Serve food, skip inside jokes, explain all terms, don’t sing any songs that you do not have the words for and otherwise bend over backwards to make visitors feel welcome. Screen all announcements and any drama to be certain they are done well. Seekers and nominal Christians are more likely to check you out at the beginning of the year-actually, most everyone is there to check out the opposite sex. This is a point I make during the beginning of my talk because it’s guaranteed to prompt lots of nervous laughter-so adjust worship and your first message. Be light. Be user friendly. Be funny. Be short. Your goal is to get them to sign up for a Bible study and come back next week, not explain the finer points of the hypostatic union.
“… the first 168 hours after a student sets foot on campus represents the most strategic time for them to get plugged into your fellowship.”
Follow Up: Life long friendships are often formed in the first few days of college, so cram as many opportunities for bonding into that week as you can. We held a picnic the afternoon after our first meeting and sponsored a social event that weekend. Additionally, our staff worked around the clock placing people in small group Bible studies. Our goal was that everyone who signed up for a study was contacted within twenty-four hours by his or her study leader. That means at least one all-nighter for our staff, but it was worth it. We wanted Bible Study leaders to be able to spend time with the members of their study during the first week. They could meet with them at the weekend social, walk with them to church that first Sunday and sit with them at the next large group meeting.
Was all of this work easy? Not hardly. Trying to jump-start a college ministry is a lot like trying to kick start an aircraft carrier. At least two or three people will nearly die of exhaustion. But someone has to do it and without question the first 168 hours after a student sets foot on campus represent the most strategic time for them to get plugged into your fellowship. Plan now to begin with a bang.