During the second week of this semester I was leading a small group discussion with graduate students and I asked our group if we needed to do introductions. Since everyone in the group had been showing up at worship for at least the past two years, I was ready to move on to our scripture reading when three of them spoke up at once, pointing to someone else in the group and saying, “I recognize you, but I don’t actually know your name.” And all of the sudden I felt like the worst pastor in the world. How is it that these students had been a part of our program for so long and they didn’t even know each others names?
I’m always the last person to find out two of our Wesley students are dating, sometimes many months after the fact. It’s not that I need to know these things, however, I’m always surprised and I know I shouldn’t be, because when college students get together these things naturally happen.
Every other Thursday I meet with a group of graduate students at a local bar. We like to eat, drink, and talk about God. When I asked them what they wanted to talk about this semester, they said “relationships.”
If I’ve learned one thing, then forgotten it, then had to remember it again, it’s that college students are looking to build relationships with one another. Yes, sometimes romantic, though, mostly, they are just looking to make friends.
I’m not going to lie, we had a rough start to the 2011-2012 school year at the Arizona State Wesley Foundation. In May 2011 we had sixteen students graduate, which was a significant percentage of our program. I wasn’t worried, though, because we had a solid Freshman recruitment plan in place.
Well, our plan turned out not to be that solid.
It was a rough fall semester.
Over winter break I prayed and thought a lot about what we needed to do to be in ministry with more students.Then, one day, it hit me like a ton of bricks: We needed to get back into the business of building relationships.
We decided to take a risk with worship. If most of our students were willing to give Wesley an hour or two, each week, then we needed to maximize our time with them.
It was time for me to stop talking to them. It was time for them to start talking to one another.
So, for our worship time, we kept the music and communion, but I scrapped my sermon.
Instead, students are now meeting in small groups for forty five minutes.
So far, the small group model has been a success and, in addition to our worship service, we’re using it to grow an informal lunch gathering we have on campus during the week, another lunch gathering we do on Sunday afternoons, and with our graduate student group. This has already made it easier for students who have been on the periphery to find new opportunities to be involved with Wesley in a meaningful way. It’s also made it easier for students to invite their friends to something less intimidating than a worship service. We plan to add back in a more traditional worship service, but only after we have built a strong relationship based ministry.
So, are we creating programs that we are trying to “attract” students to?
Or, are we creating space where students can be in relationship with God and one another?
We don’t even have to create those spaces, we just have to be present in those spaces that have already been created on campus and in the community.
One of the most brilliant presidential campaign strategies ever was used by Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, in the 1992 election. He coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid!” The economy wasn’t doing so well so Carville had Clinton keep bringing every issue back to how bad the economy was. No matter what, the campaign just kept repeating, to itself, “It’s the economy, stupid!” over and over again. That phrase is often argued to be the reason Clinton won the election.
What does this have to do with relationships?
Well, there’s a phrase that we need to be repeating to ourselves over and over again: “It’s the relationships, stupid!”