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Leading a Local Summer Training Project

In this special expanded article, Paul Worcester shares some of the best practices for a local summer training project.

There are many options for what your collegiate ministry could focus on over the summer. There are endless summer camps, missions organizations, and church internships that would love to have your students get involved in their program over the summer. So how do you choose what to focus on?

Over the years I have discovered some common strategies that college ministries who are seeing radical life change over the summer invest in, and one of the most effective is summer training projects. The Navigators, Cru, Stumo, and others have paved the way and perfected how to lead these life changing projects. Resonate Church has recently set the pace for creative and strategic summer opportunities. The beauty of these organizations having invested so much time and effort is that there is no need for you to completely reinvent the wheel! The average student only has three summers to invest in a once in a lifetime summer discipleship training opportunity or mission trip. I believe that it is crucial to the lives of the students that you are investing in and to the momentum of your ministry over time that you choose wisely what you are going to focus on during your summers. Our ministry only recruits towards two summer opportunities. Our six- to eight-week mission trips to key international partnerships and “Chico Project”, which I will explain in detail below. Limiting the options we promote has greatly helped our recruiting efforts and has helped the overall momentum of our ministry.

One of the most strategic moves we ever made as a ministry was to start our own intense eight-week summer discipleship training project. We call our program “Chico Project.” One unique thing about our project is that we stay in the city of Chico rather than go to a exotic beach location or partner with multiple other ministries to lead our project. When we first started our ministry eight years ago we would recruit hard towards the beach training project where we partnered with multiple ministries to get 30-40 students total to live together, get jobs, serve Christ, and grow together. These trips were life changing, – but only two or three of our students would end up going. Since most of our students are new believers that come from a non-Christian homes, it was like pulling teeth to get students to go as it was especially difficult for students to talk their parents into doing the project. Their parents would ask “Why do you need to raise money to go get a job that you can’t keep? You will be asking my friends for money? Is this a cult? What about that internship or summer classes you need to take?” You get the idea; – it was hard and it was slow.

After several years of recruiting hard and only getting a few students to go to the project each year we started asking ourselves if the traditional model was best for our ministry. Now, before I continue, I want to be clear that I believe in traditional stateside summer projects and actually think it would be best for many ministries to keep doing them if they are seeing fruit and momentum. For us, however, we decided to try something that seemed to be a radical new idea. We asked “What if we could take everything that makes a summer project life changing and do it right here in Chico? What if we recruited with the same intensity and tried to make it just as life changing as any other project?” Our goal was to keep everything the same as a traditional project— – except we decided to eliminate the $3,000 that students might typically need to raise needed to raise and simply charge a minimal material fee of $150. Students were “on their own” for food and housing over the summer, and every one of them figured out these details easily. Most already had living arrangements. An additional perk for them was they could work a full- time job that they could scale back to part time when the fall semester started or they could knock out some summer classes. This made a lot more sense to students and their parents.

The first year we made the switch we went from three students going to project the year before to over 20 people doing Chico Project! God used that summer to transform many students’ lives in powerful ways and we are still benefiting from the fruit of that summer. Each summer since then, our number of participants has grown as we gain momentum and recruit like crazy for it. Last summer we had 38 people join us! It has taken a few years to gain momentum and for us to work out some of the bugs, but it has been worth all of the effort! We’ve actually found that you don’t need a ton of students to start a project like this and there can actually be advantages to starting small. If you have around five students who would participate, that’s enough to start!

Dawson Trotman once said, “It’s not how many men, but what kind of men” (or women!). If one student’s life is changed as a result of our efforts over the summer, it would all be worth it! We have watched God completely transform students’ lives as a result of doing Chico Project. One girl who is a sophomore this year caught the vision to share Christ and make disciples during Chico Project and this fall she has led five freshmen to Christ and was able to help baptize two of them at our last baptism service!

Let’s look at some of key elements that have helped create a life-changing summer project for our ministry.

Intensive Training from Staff, Local Church Pastors, and Student Small Group Leaders

Chico Project is intentionally designed to be intense and challenging summer for students, but relatively low maintenance for staff. The primary element of Chico Project consists of three nights a week of training in addition to several “Crash Course” conferences on Saturdays.

Tuesday night is “practical training night” where a staff member will do a workshop-style training session on a topic students don’t always hear about like money management, use of time, relationships, theology, worldview, apologetics, dating, getting a job and more. The workshop is often followed by small group discussion or a hands-on activity. For example if the topic for the night was time management, then the students would create a to do list and fill in their calendar. The practical training night is a great night for our newer staff to get some good speaking reps in and for students to get equipped on topics they need that don’t always fit into our regular teaching schedule during the year.  

Wednesday night is “character training night” with the pastor of our primary partner church and his wife at their home. They love college students and want to be involved in their lives, so this is a perfect way for them to invest in the students during a time of the year that is less busy for them. The last few years they read a book together on a character related topic like “The Heart Attitudes” and have used it as a launch pad to teach key principles for following Jesus for the rest of their lives. Other staff members from the church and our college ministry alumni have helped share with the students during these nights also. One of our goals for Chico Project is to see students to fall in love with the local church and gain a vision for what following Jesus and making disciples can look like after college. Getting weekly training from the pastor helps them bond with him and has caused many graduates to want to make sacrifices to stay in Chico after graduation to continue getting training and serving our church. As a result, our college ministry has become a great leadership pipeline into the church.

On Thursday nights students split into student led discipleship groups. At the start of the summer our staff select the student leaders and the members of each group. The groups consist of three to five students of the same sex with an upperclassmen small group leader. During these two-hour meetings, they meet wherever they want and take time to answer some pretty challenging accountability questions based on “The Big 5,” which are key spiritual disciplines that we want every student in our ministry regularly practicing. At the beginning of the summer we have them read this short ebook and tell them to be ready to answer the accountability questions on Thursday nights each week. For many of them this was the first time that they had consistency in a daily time alone with God or praying over a prayer list. One year when our staff was planning all the training topics for the summer, one of us declared “If we spend all summer packing our students brains with information and they are not having a daily quiet time, then we have failed!” From then on we determined to slow down enough to make sure every person we are training understands the why, how and is consistently practicing these basic spiritual disciplines.

The groups also discuss questions on the key discipleship book that we all read together and discuss the classic discipleship messages that they listened to during the week. We intentionally load them up with a variety of content to digest on their own time so that they grow a desire to become life-long learners. We want to push them to use time that most people waste. If they are being faithful with reading the assigned books, listening to the discipleship messages, and memorizing the key scriptures then just about every free moment is consumed with digesting great content. We want them to be stretched and to grow in their capacity to learn and realize there is so much more that they can continue learning. The small group leader leads the discussion during the two-hour meeting and then meets one-on-one with at least one of his group members at a different time during the week. Our small group leaders grow on a deeper level as they receive training from our staff on how to lead their groups well. It is a great opportunity for our student leaders to receive real leadership experience!  

Two or three Saturdays over the summer we have a “Crash Course” conference where we bring in great speakers that we know or a staff member will lead it. Each one is three to four hours long and we focus on a specific topic. It’s a no frills “Secret Church” style mini-conference that God uses greatly to build into students’ lives. Topics we have done include crash courses on evangelism, disciple-making, biblical wisdom, and theology.

Weekly times of evangelism and serving within our local church.

Each week our students meet up at a local park where hundreds of people hangout in town and they go in groups of two and seek to start spiritual conversations using tools like The God Test, The Bridge Illustration, the God Tools app, and other tools. It has been amazing to see God work in students’ lives and increase their effectiveness as well as seeing people make decisions to follow Jesus! Possibly the biggest win from this evangelism time is our students getting over their fears and growing in their boldness! For some of them it is realizing “I shared Jesus with someone and I didn’t die!” In his book The Fuel and the Flame, Steve Shadrach says, “I have never met a student who was unwilling to share the gospel during the planned times and then took the initiative to share during the unplanned times.”

Students also serve in the children ministry and other areas on Sunday morning at our local church. They get a chance to “shadow” different staff leaders at the church and ask questions of them and learn the why and how behind what they do on Sunday mornings. Serving in this way has given many of our students a vision to continue serving the church after the project is over. We want them to grow into lifetime contributors to the kingdom.

Work or Summer Classes

In addition to the training times at nights and weekends, we expect students to work a job or take summer classes during the day. This has helped us with our recruiting. Students can give a vision to their parents about working a job and making money and even keeping the job on a part time basis when they return to campus in the fall. Some students prefer to take summer classes or do internships during the day, and we allow that also. Learning to work hard and have a ministry at work is actually part of the training, as they learn what it means to be involved in ministry in a context that looks a lot like what life after college will be.

Tons of Fun!

Each Friday night a different small group is in charge of planning an epic social event for the entire project. It was fun to see the creative and fun ideas the students came up with. These events serve a dual purpose of helping project students bond with one another and to provide a place for them to invite their coworkers to whom  they are reaching out to come meet people and get connected. In addition to the student-led Friday night events the students do all kinds of crazy fun stuff in between and after our official project activities. My only concern is that they are having too much fun together!

We have a Facebook group for the project participants where they can post about hangouts and prayer requests, and we can communicate anything we need to with them. One fun idea that was a success this summer was encouraging the small groups to take a weekend away together. Some went to Lake Tahoe and others headed to the beach. At the end of the summer, the whole group took a trip together to the beach to end the summer on a high note. Lifelong friendships are formed at Chico Project – and lots of dating relationships begin after the project is over! The friendships students build with one another over the summer develop a relational momentum which snowballs into fall, creating a contagious community that new students are attracted to.

There are so many creative ways that you could lead a summer discipleship training project! For example, my friend Pastor John Mark Hart leads a project for college students in OKC called The Gospel Project that focuses on starting house churches in low income apartment complexes. Other ministries that I know of focus on different types of training and ministry opportunities. Let me know if you have any fresh ideas or have any questions about how to run an life changing summer project. You can find my email and some more free college ministry resources at this link. Or you can jump into the Collegiate Collective FB group and ask a question.

Reflect and Discuss

  • What would it take for you to start a local summer training project?
  • What are the pros and cons of leading your own local project or partnering with others to do a beach project?
  • Which of these elements would you include in your project? Is there anything else you would add?

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