The Battle to Belong

“…I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!”

- 1 Corinthians 9:22, 23 (The Message Bible)

Do you remember your first few days being a freshman in college? What was your point of view? Who did you connect with? Did your desire to belong influence your decisions?

Students are trying to answer the question, ‘how do I do college life?’ Desperate to connect and anxious to belong, they’re driven to meet this need by any means necessary. A student summed this up for me recently when she regretfully described her experience this way, “They accepted me and I was so thrilled, I just went along.”

This is what our church calls the Battle to Belong.

Not only are the first 72 hours critical, but social scientists and universities across the nation are starting to call the first six weeks the Red Zone because of the heightened possibility of students making poor decisions. In fact, I’ve heard from some university officials that 80% of Code of Conduct violations are freshman, and most happen during this time frame.

Greeks are Great Evangelists

Only 48 hours into my college experience, two guys came to my residence hall and knocked on my door. They knew my name and where I played varsity basketball in high school. They connected with me and invited me to a party that same week. Before I knew it, I had pledged Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.

Being in a fraternity was a big part of my collegiate experience. I served as the Interfraternity Council President, led the Western Regional Greek Conference as Co-Chairman and as a senior was named Greek Man of the Year. After I became a Christian my junior year, I realized something that’s shaped my 30 years in campus ministry: Greeks are great evangelists.

Historically, Greeks understand that if they don’t connect with every freshman class, they won’t survive as an organization. My own fraternity Phi Delta Theta, founded in 1848, is still growing. I think their recruitment strategy is working.

It’s obvious that Greeks are determined to connect with the freshman class and I think campus ministers can learn a lot from them. What I find interesting is that most fraternity and sorority members don’t realize they’re following Biblical patterns of evangelism in their recruitment.

In leading a collegiate-focused church in the Phoenix valley where there are over 300,000 college students, I’ve brought my experience in fraternity recruitment and evangelism together. Here are three keys I learned from the Greek system that help us win the Battle to Belong:

1. Greeks understand they won’t survive if they don’t connect with freshman.

Only 48 hours into my college experience…” I hadn’t even seen where all my classes were when I heard a knock on my door. My fraternity was determined to connect with students the first couple weeks of school and they had a plan.

I believe campus ministries and churches can do a better job of connecting with students when they first arrive on campus. We need to be equally as determined to connect with students, especially during their first 72 hours.

Here’s a question to consider… As ministries reaching college students, are we determined that survival is incumbent upon connecting with the next generation, this year’s freshman class?

2. Greeks understand that everyone loves a party.

They connected with me and invited me to a party that same week.” We all know that when freshmen arrive to college, they want to have fun and make friends fast; Greek Life is known for both.

What are Christians typically known for on the college campus? We’re called boring, irrelevant, out of style and not funny. But I believe that, because we serve the Living God who rose from the dead, we can and should have the most engaging, life-giving and excellent parties and events for college students. Parties and events provide a pathway to build relationships with students, especially the lost and unchurched who wouldn’t otherwise darken the door of a church.

One example of what this has looked like for our church is Survivor Weekend, which happens the second weekend of the fall semester. It’s a key part of our outreach strategy for college students across Phoenix. Hundreds of students form tribes (based on where they live on campus) and they go up to Prescott, Arizona, where they compete against their peers. That weekend they have fun with no regrets, and when they’re back on campus, they connect socially with their tribes weekly. They’re also invited to join a Connect Group with our church. We are so committed to Survivor Weekend that we do something a little untraditional and cancel all of our Sunday church services for Survivor Weekend. Last year, over 90% of our church members participated and 73% of the new students who attended Survivor Weekend visited a church service that academic year.

3. Greeks understand that students can lead recruitment with guidance.

…two guys came to my residence hall.” Two guys who were just a little older than me made me feel like I belonged as a freshman. When connecting with students, we all know that it’s not about how much you know, but how much you care.

I believe college students can lead in evangelism on campus. They just need a guide who will come alongside them to envision, equip and empower them to engage their peers. Last year, our leadership team, 93% of which is under the age of 30, met almost 1400 students during the first 72 hours, 4,500 students in the first six weeks and 13,500 students over the academic year.

As you know, students are not going to come to us, we have to go to them. If we don’t have a strategy for students during the Battle to Belong, somebody else will — especially the Enemy! So, as you prepare to welcome the next freshman class this fall semester, here are some questions we hope will help you better connect with students:

  • How can you be more determined to connect with students in their first 72 hours? The first six weeks?
  • What parties or events can you host that are engaging and fun?
  • How can you envision, empower and equip students to lead your strategy to connect with other students?

For over 30 years, Pastor Brian Smith and his wife, Wendy have been clarifying the Gospel for thousands of college students across America. Brian is the Senior Pastor of Hope Church, a non-denominational missional church that helps people find and follow Jesus, discover their design, and live on mission (hopechurchtempe.org). They have three venues that connect with students from seven college campuses. As a husband and father of three sons, he cares deeply about the future of college men.