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4 must-have environments for your ministry

April 10, 2016

Are juniors or seniors leaving your ministry after a couple years? Are young Christians or non-believers not attracted in the first place? It might be because you are not creating what’s called the four-stage environment.

A few years ago I was talking to a campus director who was discouraged by how few new students remained involved in their group. I discovered they had started the fall with a four-week series on the Great Commission at their weekly meeting. They also wanted each freshman small group to participate in an outreach during the first semester.

Their logic seemed sound—Christian groups on campus wanted incoming students to know what they were all about and how they differed from one another. However they set their focus too high on mature students. There was little in their group for curious but not committed students. Not surprisingly, they had only five freshmen return as sophomores from that fall.

Without a place for people who just want to check Jesus out or get to know some of His followers with nothing more asked of them, only the more mature and committed incoming Christian students were comfortable in the group.

When my husband and I first went to the University of Minnesota we noticed that few juniors and seniors were involved in the college ministry. As we listened, getting a feel for what we were walking into, we noticed none of the students talked about discipling others. There were no stories of how they helped someone else develop spiritually.

Instead, they were all on various teams. They put on a weekly meeting, led people in prayer, and planned social events, but none involved themselves personally in evangelism and discipleship. No wonder students committed to Christ were bailing after their sophomore year. They didn’t need two more years of the same thing when they could be better challenged elsewhere.

Too often, mature students lose interest if there are no opportunities for leadership or appropriate challenges. On the other hand, passionate campus leaders can go too fast too soon and scare students away with lots of talk about the mission.

No wonder students committed to Christ were bailing…They didn’t need two more years of the same thing

That’s why creating a four-stage environment is so important. A “stage” is an opportunity for involvement where students, at various points in their spiritual growth, are able to find a comfortable home—a place within your group where they can grow at their own pace.

Before I describe each stage, let me give credit to Jim Sylvester, a sage and mentor of mine when it comes to campus ministry strategy. Everything I know about the four-stage environment I learned from him. He further credits the Guidebook to Discipleship by Hartman and Sutherland. I am grateful to all of them for passing along information that has made such a difference in my ministry.

As you read the description, evaluate your group. Ask yourself how you are doing at offering activities to accommodate students in each stage. Perhaps one will be weaker or stronger than others.

Stage 1—The curious

Think of this stage of students as the multitudes who hung around Jesus. These are people who might be curious about Christianity, or Jesus, or just your group for now. You need to provide opportunities for them to be exposed to what Christianity is in a no strings attached setting.

Maybe your weekly ministry meeting is friendly for new guys. Perhaps a social, sporting, or evangelistic event would also work. They may even feel comfortable coming to an entry-level small group or a retreat depending on their level of interest.

Stage 2—Lord, I want to know You

If stage one encompasses the multitudes, then stage two would be Jesus’ followers. These are people who have decided to follow Christ and are ready to learn more about Him.

Your weekly meetings, small groups, retreats and conferences are great for stage two people. They will be able to learn a lot about both Jesus and His mission from these settings.

As you can see, there may be overlap in these categories.

Stage 3—Lord, use me

The people in stage three have begun to make that critical shift toward giving back, not just receiving. These people want to be trained in ministry and are making time for ministry activities. I compare this stage to the 72 from Luke 10.

They will need opportunities to be trained in ministry skills and to put these new skills to the test. They are candidates for discipleship, a summer mission trip or even leading a ministry team (ex. prayer team, social events, etc.).

Stage 4—Lord, multiply my life

A person in this stage is discipling people who, in turn, begin their own ministry. They’re not just leading programs, but leading and discipling people. They want their life to count. I liken them to the 12 disciples.

They should certainly be discipled. Hopefully they have the opportunity to own a target area they can pursue evangelistically and begin to develop those who want to grow.

Leading and developing others spiritually is very different than leading a ministry team. It will require intentional training on your part to equip them to succeed. Train them in ministry philosophy—not just skills. Let them take part in decision-making for your group as it’s appropriate.

These things capture the heart of a stage four person. This level of challenge is compelling and worth sticking around for. Your whole group will benefit from the maturity and example of these students.

Accommodating stages one and four will take some serious intentionality and effort. Sadly, a lot of ministries begin and end with stage two.

We’ve always used these stages as our small group structure. There are plusses and minuses with any structure you choose. But I’ve seen more problems having small groups that contain many stages at once versus small groups that are designed for people in the same stage. In this structure your small groups become a tool for leadership development and training. It helps develop spiritual depth as opposed to merely a place for community and a devotional.

Creating and maintaining all four stages will take determination on your part. Take some time with your student leaders (or staff team) to evaluate how you’re doing at creating a four-stage environment. Done well, a broader group of students will be able to explore their curiosity about Jesus, find a place where they can get to know Him, be used by Him and eventually multiply their lives for His kingdom.

Reflection Questions:

What activities do you provide for people in each stage?

What happens if you don’t provide anything for stage one? Do you see any evidence of this problem in your group?

What happens if you don’t provide anything for stages three or four?