Skip to content

The 5 Big Issues in Campus Ministry Today: #4 Innovation

July 16, 2009

innovation light bulbI’m devoting this week on the SENTinel to answering the question I posed last week: what are “The 5 Big Issues in Campus Ministry Today”? I’ll be writing on one issue a day. Today’s post is on Innovation. You can read previous posts on Missiology, Theological Foundations, and Ecclesiology. Be sure to check out the Comments under each of those posts as well, as well as Todd Engstrom’s related posts here and here!

I. The Need for Innovation

The world is rapidly changing all around us. Technologies that we didn’t dream of only a few years ago are now taken for granted. The world is more connected than ever. Google is changing the way we think. We relate to each other through tweets, txting and status messages. The only constant is change.

And yet, much of campus ministry operates with the same methods that it did 5, 10, even 20 or more years ago. Compared to other areas of ministry, campus ministry seems stultified. Before you object, I’m not talking about cosmetic repackaging with cooler graphics and hotter music. I’m talking about the need for deeper, more substantial, more creative changes to how we do things.

We could say that much of campus ministry is built like a Ford, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Henry Ford changed the world with the Model T. But he became so obsessed with it that it nearly ruined his company. He really did say that quote about having any color you want, as long as it was black. Even worse, he once destroyed an updated, low-slung, shiny red Model T that his engineers had redesigned during his vacation—with his bare hands. The message was clear:  “There will be no innovation. We will always do things this way.” What are the Model T’s of campus ministry? Where do we pay lip-service to innovation, “as long as it’s black”?

Stale campus ministry is incongruous, since we work with the generation that is living the future, right now. They’re already living 10 years in the future, and we’re living 10 years in the past. Why have our approaches to campus ministry become so dull, predictable, and cliched? While the church has been breaking new ground in church planting and thinking missionally, we’re still content to play chubby bunny.

We need innovation. We need new ideas. We need an entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to take risks, and courage to go beyond the manuals and prescriptions of yesteryear. Because while yesteryear’s methods may have worked well for yesteryear’s students, they won’t work for today’s. Innovation is a missional imperative simply because people, and culture, keep changing.

Talk of innovation may make you uncomfortable, due to the prevalence of theological novelty. It’s true, not all innovation is good. Yet Jesus said, “Behold, I am making EVERYTHING NEW!” (Rev. 21:5).  All our genuine innovation is really renovation, and flows from Jesus’ renewing Kingdom work. Besides, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). All of the best ideas have been thought of already—they just need to be recovered and reapplied.

II. Principles of Innovation

1. Be an active learner. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, since you’re not on this blog and reading this far unless you’re interested in “sharpening your ax.” (2 points if you know what book I just referenced). Quick: what’s the last thing you read, besides this blog, to sharpen your campus ministry ax? If you haven’t read it, make your first stop Benson Hines’ blog and superb eBook Reaching the Campus Tribes. Then order Chuck Bomar’s new book, College Ministry 101.

2. Be open. In at least three senses:

  • Open to new ideas. Leave open time and space for innovation. What if ministries instituted Google’s 20% rule? Be flexible.  Give yourself and others permission to try new things, and permission to fail.
  • Open in the sense of transparency. Don’t be secretive. Share the good stuff. Let people see your cards, whether or not you’re holding a strong hand. They’ll respect you more for it.
  • Open in the sense of open-sourcing. Everything is going this way.  Web 2.0 is about organizing all the information out there into a coherent whole, and doing that in a radically decentralized way. It’s about users CREATING the value of that content through their organizing, and doing it collectively. (I gleaned some of this language from Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything).

3. Work as a Team. Sharing, Teamwork, Peering—these are all essential for innovation to occur. Get people talking to one another. Waste less time in meetings not relevant to you, and get more involved in stuff you’re skilled in & passionate about.  All alone in your ministry? That’s no excuse. Share across traditional boundaries, both within your organization and without.

4. Embrace the Speed of Change. Stop trying to build a static institution, and start trying to build a fluid, dynamic movement. Students change, schools change, cultures change—so should we. Don’t build a treehouse—pitch a tent.  That way, when your tree is being chopped down, you can move on quickly and easily.

III. Let’s Make Something New

Here’s just a few ideas, all of which I’m implementing in my ministry at Penn State. I’m hoping you chime in with some of yours.

1. Fellowship Meetings.

The Old: Many people I know are bored and burned out with the traditional “Sing-n-Speak” fellowship model, but most of us just keep doing it because it’s all we know, and we have to justify our paycheck somehow.

Make Something New:

  • Decentralize your ministry. Maybe you don’t need one big meeting. Maybe you’d reach more people if you weren’t spending so much time and energy planning your “big show.” You’re also limiting your connecting points to one time and place.  Instead, go cellular/organic, and free up you and your students to meet with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
  • If you have a large group meeting, take out certain “essential” elements, like musical worship—occasionally or even on a permanent basis. Stop trying to reproduce a worship service. You’ll reinforce students’ need to connect with a local church.

2. Discipleship

The Old: We take static content, written by someone else, and take (ok, sometimes drag) our students through it.

Make Something New:

  • There will always be a place for basic discipleship materials. But don’t stop there! Help your students move beyond being consumers of static content to becoming producers of dynamic content.  You’ll be helping them to become active learners, and they’ll take more away. Plus, you’ll have material uniquely tailored to your ministry context, because it’s by and for your students!
  • Open-source your Bible study materials. I have a project that’s a good example of this. Commontary is an open-source Bible commentary, making orthodox, accessible, and missional Bible commentary available to anyone, anywhere. Check it out, and feel free to use it!
  • Open-source your organization.  You should have a wiki, for everything from Policies & Procedures to Resources.  If you don’t have savvy students around to setup MediaWiki for you, use a free one at or another free site. It will cut WAY down on emails—and we know our students aren’t into emails anymore. You’ll also get better ideas.

3. Support Raising

The Old: Newsletters. Phone calls. Home visits. Direct Asks. Repeat. Again and again and again.

Make Something New:

While the above are still necessary, are you using social media technology to connect with your supporters in new and fresh ways? Facebook, YouTube, MailChimp, Twitter—all of these can give a sense of immediacy and connection.

  • Save yourself some time and postage with MailChimp.
  • Tweet your missions trip.
  • Post interviews with students on YouTube.
  • Start a group for supporters on facebook.

I presented on this topic at CCO’s Spring Institute. If you’re interested in the material, let me know. The possibilities for social media are endless, and the world is only getting more connected through social media. We should not only be getting on board, but looking to jump onto the next curve.

4. Resourcing with “Ideagoras”

The Old: New ideas and breakthroughs are hard to find. When they get to us, it’s usually through slow and cumbersome top-down initiatives, not through peering.

Make Something New:

Innovation, contrary to popular belief, does not “just happen.” It must be cultivated and nurtured. It must be encouraged. This happens best when innovative people get together and hash out ideas together. The ideas are out there, but we need forums for sharing and venues for implementation.

Wikinomics called these “Ideagoras,” meetingplaces for sharing ideas and resources, and even marketing potential solutions to the larger ministry world. The business world has sites like this, like InnoCentive, a sort of Craigslist for inventions and solutions.

Are you a higher-up in a church or organization? Then ask what happens if someone has a great idea: Does it have go up the chain several steps (losing speed and risking death) before it moves back down to implementation? Or can it move laterally? How long would that take, if it did happen?

Concluding Thought: What are YOUR ideas, whether you’ve implemented them or not? Please share them! Let’s start innovating by turning these comments into an “Ideagora.” Tell your friends. I’m eager to read what you come up with.  Let’s make something new!

About these ads
16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2009 9:13 am

    What would we say are “the constants” and “the variables” of campus ministry? In RUF we have a saying, “fixed theology, flexible methodology.” I have the freedom to be creative, try new things, and fail. I think the tension I wrestle with in this is best captured in something CS Lewis once said. “Our Lord said ‘Feed my sheep’ not ‘Try experiments on my rats.'” I realize this is the call of the local church and that we have more freedom to be creative. There are ways to better reach, to better serve my students that I need to be willing to try. In our innovation may we still keep fresh in our minds our Lord’s promise “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”

  2. July 16, 2009 12:05 pm

    Amen. This is exciting stuff.

    I would say, simply ’cause I know how we college ministers are, that we need to be careful never to apply any innovations (or non-innovations, for that matter), without a reason we can delineate. Part of innovation & creativity is understanding that there are few methodological “automatics.”

    We should treat the traditional with as much objectivity as the non-traditional, the simple as much as the complex, the normal as much as the strange. Most of us probably err on one side or the other.

    (I run into a LOT of ministries that simply seem to be “running plays” without deriving those methods from actual strategy-work. So that’s just an issue that’s close to my heart.)

  3. July 16, 2009 12:23 pm

    Really liking this discussion. What would you say (Steve & Benson & others) have been some of your greatest innovation “successes” & your greatest innovation “failures”? Or innovation “successes & failures” you have seen? I think what’s tempting about all of this is I want to take others’ innovations and plug them into my campus. Actually doing some “metathinking” about my campus, my students, our methods, etc. Much easier to “run plays” than it is to design them!

    • July 16, 2009 12:41 pm

      Yes, great thoughts guys.

      True innovation always meets a clear and specific need. I’m about to attend a conference for ministry innovation called Ideation Experience. They’re coaching us on how to give our “elevator speech,” in which you must be SURE to explain the problem, and how your idea addresses that problem. So “running plays” without a clear-cut strategy vs. true innovation, is like the difference between me playing Madden and an NFL offensive coordinator designing, practicing, and then calling plays in a real game situation.

      Sammy, my greatest success/failure is from my previous ministry through liberti church (PCA) in Philly, where I led Crosswalk at Temple University. We had the largest christian gathering of college students in the 3rd biggest college town in the country, but it wasn’t missional. It was attractional, very much so. I wasn’t satisfied with the degree of discipleship, community, church involvement, and service.

      So in many ways, we blew it up. We made it less and less like a worship service. We really pushed local church involvement and community and service. Predictably, the consumer-oriented kids first became angry, then just left. After a couple years, the group was half of its original size.

      Were there some aspects I would have handled different? Of course. But in general it was a necessary innovation, driven by ecclesiology, discipleship, and mission, and I’m glad we did it, even though it was hard.

    • July 16, 2009 6:14 pm

      In one sense, I’ve gotten to see all kinds of random things around the country – and I’m always glad to help people brainstorm!

      But on the other hand, there’s a surprising lack of creativity / innovation out there in college ministry (which is why I really applaud this as one of Steve’s major emphases here). I wish I could say I’ve seen dozens and dozens of models of the various activities present in college ministry. I haven’t.

      This is another way we should function like foreign missionaries – pioneering new approaches to match our contexts with all the creativity and brilliance God desires to provide!

  4. July 16, 2009 3:00 pm

    I think the tension to hold in being innovative in college ministry is to be both indigenous and catholic, that is, find ways that truly speak and relate to this generation and group of students, but to also be faithful to biblical forms that transcend people groups and time. Holding these two together helps me from, negatively, ignoring relevant ways of reaching students, nor ignoring the rich tradition of church history and history of missions. Positively, it helps me embrace all the great ideas you have, especially with technology and social networking, and also thinking about how those ideas relate on an ecumenical level with what is God is doing with college students and his church all around the world, and has been doing for centuries.

    Sometimes the most innovative things we can do are simply biblical and historical, since much of evangelicalism has cut itself off from anything that smacks of being “Roman”. To develop this would take too much space, but one example is taking an ancient practice of the daily office of prayer (set times throughout the day focusing on the life and death of Christ) and doing it with a group of students via Skype, twitter, or even cell phone text.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion; it has been helpful. Am I weird, or do others think broadly historical and ecumenical, too?

  5. August 5, 2009 5:35 pm

    I commend you for another solid post. While I prefer “creativity” to innovation, I agree that in the present, interconnected generation there is a need for flexibility and change so long as it remains consistent with God’s character. I found some of your suggestions interesting. From experience, sometimes removing “essential” elements causes a HUGE uprising. In one setting, people were insistent on having worship, prayer AND a Bible study in one gathering (church, anyone?).
    How have you handled such conflicts in the past? Often the types of communities being generated become almost TOO democratic – is there a place for authority within this network and if so, how have you seen folks respond to such sources of authority?
    Also, thanks for the “commontary” link; I haven’t looked at it yet but I’m intrigued.

  6. August 6, 2009 11:41 am

    thanks for your various comments and the feedback. Yes, when we remove a sacred cow such as musical worship, there will be a revolt. At a previous ministry, we revamped our large, attractional ministry to become more missional. We lost quite a few students who were there for the wrong reasons: they were jaded church kids who wanted a cool place to hang out. they were using our group as an alibi to tell mom and dad, and were not involved beyond spectator status with us, or with a local church.
    For us, it was a hard, weighty decision, but it was a John 6 moment where we called people on their motives and saw many depart because it was “too hard.” Yet it was the right decision.

    In retrospect I think we could have prepared people better for the change, and walked them through their expectations and motives better. Of course there was a buckling against authority but leadership is doing the hard, necessary things that others don’t see, and sticking to your guns.

    Interested in your thoughts on Commontary, and also on your new book–what’s it about?

  7. August 14, 2009 9:16 pm


    I’ve had similar experiences in a church context – some folks were bent on having a worship/preaching experience rather than a community Bible study/missional ministry. I approached leadership very democratically, and it was voted to move toward a “church service” type of format, which led to a drastic shrinking of the community and the eventual collapse of the ministry. So I agree that there are times we need to step in and make the hard decisions, so long as they are made in accordance with God’s redemptive purpose.

    I haven’t looked at Commontary too much, other than logging in and registering. I’m interested in exploring it a bit further.

    My book is called “Dearly Beloved,” and consists of a series of abstract paintings telling the story of redemption from creation to re-creation. The book contains this art series as well as commentary (with heavy footnotes) detailing the theological meaning of each painting as well as the concepts being expressed. Right now I’m trying to use it as something of a gimmick – my blog’s readership is much more substantial than I had predicted, so in order to gain a more regular audience I’m giving away free copies to email subscribers by August 17. You’re welcome to subscribe if you so decide.

    Anyway, thanks again for the thoughts and reflections. God bless.

  8. CAiken permalink
    November 4, 2012 2:26 pm

    I really appreciated this article. I am a current undergrad student, who has tried many times to innovate in a ministry setting. In my experience, it is much easier to get students on board with new ideas than it is to convince the staff. The larger the ministry (nationally or international), the more difficult it is to make grassroots change (with some definite exceptions).

    Staff seem to be pressured by their higher ups to meet specific goals, which limits their flexibility to respond to the student’s needs and desires. And since they are focused on meeting these goals, student leadership is pushed aside. The fear of having students fail, resulting in a poor evaluation for the staff worker, stifles real innovation.

    In my opinion, I think it is better to mentor students by giving them hands on experience (with varying levels of supervision based on their competency). Trust students to lead and innovate, because they are often both highly skilled And motivated. I have seen too many good students / leaders with solid ideas who end up leaving campus ministry because they become stifled by the ministry institution.

    I was actually told, by a staff member, that students who innovate usually do so to avoid dealing with a deeper spiritual problem, basically a character flaw. Yes, i have a lot of growing to do, but the idea was solid and quite a few students were on board.

    This isn’t true of all campus staff, but when discussing innovation, I felt it was important to share the frustrations of a student who has tried, succeeded and failed, at innovating on campus. Your questions and comments are welcome. :)

    Thank you for your time.


  1. solid discussion @ college ministry blogs « Exploring College Ministry blog (daily notes about our field)
  2. Food For Thought « Sweep Us Away
  3. The 5 Big Issues in Campus Ministry | Innovation « Ethereal Thought Train

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers

%d bloggers like this: