Eighty people came. We were happy and surprised. There were less than 20 Christian students on campus and somehow every one of them had brought several friends along to the meal.
The room was full of candlelight and looked beautiful. Christian students from a nearby university campus came along and cooked the food. They dressed formally and served the tables. This freed our students to talk and mingle with their friends.
After the third of the four courses, somebody tapped a microphone and the hum of conversation died down. A speaker was introduced. He managed the transition from food to Jesus very smoothly. Nobody felt awkward, his jokes were genuinely funny, and his closing challenge packed quite a punch.
When he finished, dessert came out and conversations resumed. This time many of them were about the speaker's message. For some of the Christian students this was the most in-depth discussion about faith they'd ever had with their friends. They were amazed to note the openness and responsiveness of these newcomers to the story of Jesus. By the time everyone went home, we were brimming over with excitement and thankfulness for a very successful evening.
The most amazing facet of the whole evening, though, was the number of people present who became followers of Jesus during the months afterwards. How many do you think? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? All of them?!
No... the actual figure was zero.
That's right. Sixty newcomers have a great evening listening to someone explain the message of Jesus, love what they hear, and spend a long time discussing it afterwards with their Christian friends. Somehow, though, not a single one becomes a follower of Jesus.
Very odd. It's not like this was a tough audience. What went wrong?
When Awesome Isn't Quite Enough
The issue wasn't with the event. It was excellent in every detail. Sadly, though, it wasn't a part of a bigger picture. The great conversations and the interest stirred faded when the last candle was blown out at the venue. I later asked many of the Christian students if they thought their friends would have been interested in following up the meal by joining something like a GIG for several weeks of meeting (one-to-one or in a group) to discuss the story of Jesus in further depth. Most said their friends would probably have been open to this. It never happened, though, because we’d thrown all our energy and focus into this one event: The meal.
We should have known better. A glance through the book of Acts would have shown us what we should have expected. Take Acts 17:32-34 as an example: Paul has just spoken about Jesus and his resurrection to a group of philosophically-minded pagans in Athens, Greece. Right after the speech we read:
“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.”
See what happens? Two reactions. One group just sneers and dismisses the whole thing. The other asks to hear more and to investigate things further. Interestingly it seems like—just as with our meal—nobody actually became a follower of Jesus immediately after Paul’s speech. He appears, from the phrasing in Acts, to leave the room when he is done speaking. But soon afterward, some Athenians do put their faith in Christ. It’s clear that the discussion didn’t end when Paul left the room; he continued intentionally pursuing the Jesus conversation with those who wanted to know more and it bore fruit.
Strangely, though, the students in our chapter just assumed that conversions would be immediate. Unlike Paul, we didn’t make space for post-event investigation on the part of those whose interest had been piqued. If we had, then who knows what might have happened?
It’s Bigger than You Think
It isn’t just me who has organized a great outreach and yet seen nobody come to faith through it. I expect you’ve probably been in the same situation too. Perhaps this happens quite often. The good news is that there are ways to avoid it happening again.
I recently sat down with a man who knows a thing or two about helping InterVarsity chapters recalibrate their outreach. Doug Schaupp, InterVarsity Associate Director of Evangelism, literally wrote the book on effective evangelism strategy. As we chatted, I asked Doug what advice he would give a chapter looking to create an effective strategy of its own. Did he have some top tips he could share?
He gave me five great pointers that are useful for any chapter to stop and reflect upon.
Tip 1: Reverse Engineering
Don’t begin with an idea for a great outreach and then rack your brains as to how you might follow it all up. Instead, decide where you want people to end up and design something that will most effectively help them arrive at that destination. If, for example, you hope that people will end up in small groups, then ask yourself what most naturally leads people into joining a small group. One example Doug gave was an event that focused on injustice and human trafficking. The speaker made clear that selfishness was a major cause of injustice and invited people to join a group that would be looking at what Jesus says about selfishness. Many came.
Tip 2: Bridging
If you have something going on (e.g. a Proxe Station, an invitational event, a retreat, etc.), then you need to make it very easy for the participants to move from there to the next thing you are doing. There needs to be a clear bridge between the two.
If, for example, you are using a Proxe Station to invite people to a big event with a speaker, then make sure that the big event has the same theme as the Proxe Station, and that there is publicity available that clearly outlines the location, theme, and time of the event. Perhaps even arrange to meet someone and walk with first-timers to the event.
Too often we ask people to make a jump when we should really be inviting them to take a step. Constantly ask what makes things easy and simple for people to move forward in their spiritual journey and in their participation in the life of your InterVarsity chapter.
Tip 3: Cycles of Harvest
Structure your chapter’s year around a series of “harvest events” where people are invited to commit their lives to Christ. Doug suggested between four and six such events, spaced throughout the year, would be appropriate for most chapters. You can then use the time in between the harvest events to make new contacts and walk people forward through the Five Thresholds of Conversion so that they have arrived at a point where they are ready to make a response to Christ when the harvest event arrives.
One sample harvest event schedule Doug suggested was:
Something during the first two weeks of the semester, while new students are still making up their minds on whether to live as Christians at college.
A fall conference, where you go away together for a weekend.
A Christmas party. Doug thinks that Christmas may be the most-underutilized evangelism opportunity for many chapters.
“Back to school” in January. Many students have had space to reflect over Christmas and are open to re-evaluating how they live at college.
Black History Month in February, combined with the Hope Proxe.
A retreat in March, perhaps focused on some social-action project.
That’s just one suggestion… what might the cycle look like on your campus?
Tip 4: Integrate the Five Thresholds
The Five Thresholds fit into things other than event planning. So, if you are in a period of seeking to arouse curiosity, perhaps have a slot in your weekly large-group meeting where you suggest three curiosity-arousing questions members could try and ask a friend during the coming week. Then, ask them to each pick the one they will ask. Things like this ensure that the whole chapter is a part of the big plan you are implementing.
Tip 5: Think Follow-Up
Many students actually come to know Christ personally because of follow-up efforts. Have a person or team who is personally responsible for this aspect of your mission and let them prioritize that above all else. If you run an intensive week of outreach events, for example, you might want to think about letting the follow-up person/team take it easy during that week and have no responsibilities. Even let them skip events and sleep in. That way, they will still have loads of energy to throw into the follow-up when the time comes.
This is all great advice from Doug. I wish we’d heard some of it before we organized our dazzling candlelit dinner. If we had, then we would have easily been able to create a bridge from the dinner to seeker small groups, and we would have had plenty of good people we could have asked to handle follow-up. Such simple changes could have had a huge impact!
Perhaps you feel the same way about your own campus. If so, then maybe you could get together with some others from your chapter and pray about what strategy might look in your context. Ask God to guide you as you seek to develop a more strategic approach to engaging the students at your university.
Had any good or bad experiences trying to create a strategic approach to evangelism on your campus? Any tips you’d like to add? Share them below.