May 18, 2015


Are You Playing Jenga with Your Ministry?

Pastor and author Steve Lutz gives advice on preparing your ministry for changing conditions in an excerpt from his latest ebook The Future of College Ministry.

Let’s work through a practical exercise together, one that is more than just a theoretical question.

What, if it was taken away tomorrow, would mean the immediate end of doing ministry as you know it?

The answer to that question is your greatest vulnerability.

What’s your answer? For many of us, it’s as simple as the university deciding to remove one thing: the revoking of Registered Student Organization (RSO) status, and its privileges, including access to students, official standing, and campus meeting spaces.

If these were taken away tomorrow, where would you go? What would you do? For many of us, the way we do college ministry now is far too precarious.

Our philosophy of ministry has often looked a bit like playing Jenga. You know, the game of stacked pieces of wood, where you remove pieces from below in order to build it higher? You can end up with a very impressive tower, but the higher it goes, the more fragile it becomes. The fun ends when someone bumps the table or a strong breeze blows through, and the whole thing comes toppling down.

This isn’t Jenga though, and it’s not a game, either. If a strong cultural wind begins to blow on your campus, how precarious is your situation? We can try to keep the wind from blowing (good luck with that), or we can build something that stands (thrives) no matter the conditions.

The best way, then, to plan for the future is not to attempt the fool’s errand of pinpointing exactly when something catastrophic might happen, and where, and to whom. Instead, it’s better to engage in what Nassim Taleb calls “Subtractive Prophecy”: simply look at what is most fragile in the present, and imagine the future without it.

This is a superior way to look ahead, because it works with the well-founded assumption that surprises and emergencies will inevitably come. By identifying vulnerabilities (fragility), you don’t need to know when or exactly how they will come. You just address the most pressing weaknesses now—and if possible, design your systems and structures to benefit from change.

The message of the gospel is unchanging, but our strategies to communicate it are always changing. So here’s one practical suggestion for building a collegiate ministry that isn’t as vulnerable as a sky-high Jenga tower.

Decentralize Your Ministry

It’s becoming clear that RSO access is a key vulnerability going forward. In light of that, we must reconsider how we organize our ministries. Increasingly, one large group fellowship meeting may not be the way to go. Flatter and decentralized is far more adaptable to our ever-changing contexts. History bears this out.

In an issue of Christianity Today, historian Mark Noll reminded readers that in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was commonly said that evangelical Christians had “lost China,” because the Communists had expelled the missionaries. In retrospect, this change was likely the best thing to happen to the Chinese church because native Chinese Christians were forced to lead and work toward uniquely Chinese expressions of their faith. Today, the Chinese church is perhaps the largest in the world. If we in college ministry lose access to our campuses, might we see a similar spiritual resurgence among college students?

It’s my conviction that we in the West need to play catch-up, and learn elements of how the early church and modern-day global church movements are organized. Pretty much everywhere you see the Church thriving globally and in history, it is growing in ways that are far too widespread and decentralized to simply be stamped out. In this model, far more happens at the grassroots level. It is so viral no one can stop it.

In the decentralized model, we exchange one big fellowship group for many smaller, self-organizing, distinct groups that retain a loose affiliation. We won’t necessarily have the huge gathering, but will actively multiply smaller gatherings. Smaller is simpler and far more “antifragile.”

These networked groups have connections and can help each other, and come together on occasion. But they are not so centralized on one meeting or one person that they can easily be denied. They don’t need RSO status to meet in lounges, apartments, houses, and cafes, and can meet under the radar. If one should run into trouble, it is easily reorganized. Hydra-like, it absorbs the loss of one head, but grows more!

Even though my ministry is blessed with access and privilege at our university, this isn’t just think-tank prognostications for me. I’ve been experimenting with and building a decentralized college ministry for the last several years, and learning through much trial-and-error. We have seen real traction with our decentralized strategy, with multiple mid-size student-led groups (averaging 20 students), and we’re looking to add 2-3 more groups in the near future.

Decentralizing your ministry is not something to be done rashly or without serious thought, prayer, and counsel. For more insight on this, as well as six other ideas for your ministry, download my short ebook The Future of College Ministry for free!

about the author

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz is the lead pastor of Wellspring Church in State College, PA Penn State University. He is also the author of two books, King of the Campus (2013) and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (2011). He frequently speaks and writes on college ministry-related issues, and consults with college ministries across the country.