Jul 10, 2017


Resisting Tribalism

Andy Cimbala offers some wisdom to help you fight tribalism in your heart as your relate to other college ministries on your campuses.

The other day I got an email informing me that several new staff would soon arrive to join a different ministry on my campus. A number of thoughts flooded my mind. Perhaps you’re like me and immediately feel jealous. “Why can’t WE have more staff?” Maybe you’re even fearful or angry. “Do they really need more staff? I hope they don’t take away from our group.”  And then there’s just the simple question, “How will this affect my ministry?” At that moment I had to decide. How would I respond?

If you’re a leader in college ministry, you’ve probably struggled with tribalism.

Tribalism can be a big problem among college ministries on the same campus. Each group has their tribe: their parachurch organization, their local church, their denominational agency, their online communities, their networks and favorite teachers and leaders. A tribe is a group with a distinct culture, with their own favored language, methods, and models.  Tribes are not a bad thing! They’re a natural outworking of how God has created human beings with diversity, personality, and culture. Tribes also flow out of the great freedom within Christianity to take the timeless truths of Scripture and apply them into our context in timely methods.

But tribalism is a bad thing. Tribalism is thinking our tribe is the best, and the other ones are the enemy. This kind of territorialism and competition is dangerous. We can easily be tempted to compare our ministries with others on campus. It’s a slippery slope as we start to be jealous of the success of others, to gloat when their ideas struggle, and to take pride that we’re doing it better. We’ve elevated a good thing (tribes) to be a God thing (tribalism), and that’s idolatry. It won’t satisfy, it makes for a flimsy god, and the fruit will be poisonous. How do we resist tribalism? Let’s look at one radical shift mindset, and several practical applications that flow out of it.

Here’s the radical shift mindset: It’s all about the kingdom and glory of Jesus. Well, duh! Hopefully all the collegiate leaders reading this would agree with that. But it’s so easy to forget it and begin operating out of a very different belief.

Tribalism makes it all about MY kingdom and MY glory. I want my ministry to succeed, and be the best. I want everyone to see my performance, my good ideas, my better methods. I begin to think, “Their campus group is silly! They aren’t as clever as us. And they keep stealing sheep, I just wish they weren’t here.”

A Kingdom mindset makes it all about Jesus, HIS kingdom and HIS glory. I want to see men and women be saved and trust in Jesus, and so I rejoice when I see others sharing the gospel on campus. I view myself as an ambassador for Jesus, so I welcome and encourage the other laborers, because we represent the same King. I recognize that before I am a worker and minister, I am first a beloved son or daughter, adopted into the family of God, which makes these other college ministry leaders my brothers and sisters. My tribe is DiscipleMakers, where I’ve been serving on staff for 10 years, and I love my tribe! But we even state in our Core Values, “All DiscipleMakers will be forgotten, but we will rejoice in God our Savior forever.” Wow I need to be reminded of that.

Here are some practical applications to help us all resist tribalism:

  1. Respond wisely to double student involvement.
    Many young students are checking out multiple campus groups, multiple churches, and trying to figure out what tribe they best resonate with. That’s normal! In the beginning stages, don’t feel threatened by it, but ask them questions, guide them in wisdom, and give them freedom to make their own decision. For more mature student leaders, I would recommend that you encourage them to commit to ONE ministry wholeheartedly, which might mean sending them out from your ministry in order to bless the other one. (I’ve done this, and it’s hard! But it’s good.) And don’t try to steal leaders from other organizations. Trust the Lord with what He’s given you. Job 1:21, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
  2. Build trusting relationships with other staff.
    Meet regularly with the staff and leadership of the other ministries, perhaps once a semester. This creates open lines of communication that you can access when there are challenges and conflict between groups on campus. Know them well enough to pray for their ministries, maybe even sign up to get their ministry updates. What big events do they have? How are they personally struggling? Are there ways you can serve each other? They also know what it’s like to be in college ministry, they also know the challenges. Be a friend! And here’s a crazy idea: What if you gave a financial gift to support their ministry? Woah! Now that’s kingdom-minded.
  3. Celebrate the victories of others!
    This one is from David Worcester. In his article Collaboration Without Comparison he writes, “Instead of being jealous when someone else wins, celebrate with them! After all, we are all on Team Jesus.” Always try to speak well of other ministries and Christian student groups. We each do our model because we think it’s best. And that’s fine! You’re naturally going to see the other ministry’s model, and have a critique. But look for the good. Where can you build common ground? Where can you recognize and praise them for their strengths? As you meet with new students or as you train new staff, always speak well of the other ministries. And cheer when they score some points for Team Jesus!
  4. Welcome new campus plants.
    Some ministries and churches will be pioneering their new group at a campus that already has existing ministry groups. Think of the parallel of new church plants. Have you ever heard the objection, “Why do we need another church!? Look at main street in our town, lined with churches?” It’s complex, but new churches are good for several reasons: to reach more people, to reach unique subgroups of people, and to bring gospel life where some older churches are dying. (read: Why Plant Churches?) Having multiple campus ministries on one campus is similar to having multiple churches in one town. It’s a good healthy thing, and it helps the Kingdom reach into more and diverse areas.
  5. Be aware of your own tribe and culture and flavor.
    Different ministries have different flavors, tend to attract a certain type of staff, and a certain type of student. Are you aware of yours? Your type might be racial and ethnic (like a majority black Christian fellowship, or Asian-American) or a particular theology or denomination (RUF or a charismatic group) or even a particular focus (evangelism or social justice). Even if you’re trying to be multiethnic and interdenominational, you still have a flavor, you still have a type. It’s helpful to at least be aware of that, don’t remain blind to it. Our God desires every tribe, every nation, and every tongue to worship King Jesus. (Revelation 5:9) Diversity is GOOD! Your tribe is not the standard, it’s just one of the many flavors of God’s kingdom.
  6. Remember that Jesus wants more laborers on campus!
    He said that “the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:37f) Do you pray for more laborers? That’s great! But what if God answers by bringing laborers from a different tribe? Do you still rejoice at God answering your prayer?

Remember that email I got about new staff coming to my campus? By God’s grace, here’s how I responded: First, I learned about this through the newsletter of a staff from that ministry, I’ve chosen to get her email updates so I can read them and pray. So I Facebook-friended the 3 new staff, sent them a short message introducing myself and welcoming them to the campus. They’re not the enemy, they’re reinforcements! Sure they’re part of a different ministry, they’re not MY staff, but they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need more laborers. Praise God for providing! The campus is certainly big enough for more laborers, we’re not running out of unreached students. And we all get a fresh batch of students every year! It’s not like we’re all competing over 3 fish that are in one barrel. We’ve got the OCEAN of the college campus to fish in. Praise God!

How are you allowing tribalism to sneak in and sabotage Jesus’ kingdom on your campus? Remember that we are all on the same team, but wearing different jerseys. Team Jesus is the best team, the winning team, and by God’s grace, WE get to all be on that team. It’s not about us, it’s about Him. He gets the glory, because He’s the King!

about the author

Andy Cimbala

Andy Cimbala and his wife Melissa have a passion to make disciples of college students. They work with DiscipleMakers at Shippensburg University, leading Bible studies and mentoring leaders. Andy has written a book called The Relentless Fight.