More Than Free Pizza

January 31st, 2017

When you have a big, God-sized vision for your campus, your strategies for how you chase that vision have to align. But when you have a small vision, you keep trying the same things over and over again with the naive hope that you will eventually see different results. It’s an approach to improve things iteratively, week by week, with no real substantial change to how you go about reaching the campus just hoping God breaks through.

When you have a small vision for your campus, you do free pizza and Bible study.

Those are the two tools (perhaps adding a See-You-At-The-Pole event once a year) that youth workers have used for decades to bring a relevant gospel presence to a local campus. And they haven’t been working for years to reach a whole campus (if ever).

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Free pizza, or free Chick-Fil-A, or free root beer floats, or free iPads, or free anything- can draw a crowd. Football players, for instance, hear the words “free pizza” and they come running. And Bible studies, when done in an engaging, interactive, and inductive way can be incredibly impactful, to Christian and non-Christian students alike.

In our work with dozens of youth pastors and parachurch workers over the years we’ve noticed a theme: they all essentially have the same strategy to reach a campus. They use some version of free food plus a Bible study, or weekly gathering with a guest speaker. Sometimes we hear stories about youth ministries also offering to organize a campus clean-up or serve day, or be an assistant coach to the junior varsity lacrosse team, or support the annual drugs & alcohol assembly.

In our experience, free food and a Bible study and volunteering a couple other times only reach a very small percentage of the campus, because only a very small percentage of the campus knows that they’re hungry, physically or spiritually seeking.

The strategy most youth ministries are using is ineffective to reach the whole campus.

What Does Your Campus Want?

What does your campus actually want- when you think about the perspective of the admin, the teachers, the parents, and the students? And what does your campus actually need, from their point of view? Have you asked them? Have you taken the time to listen and understand them?

It’s a tricky proposition, highlighted by Gabe Lyons in a interview he hosted on qideas.org entitled ‘Better Than Prayer in Schools’ a couple years ago when he asked a pastor: “How as a Christian church do we partner with a public school system, that we realize many times is not interested in us promoting our faith in their school, and yet is there a way to do this and remove an agenda but still be faithful to the gospel?”

The Church-State Divide

The church-state divide has become a particularly tricky and intimidating arena for churches considering partnership with local schools. Depending on a school’s history and experience with local ministries, there might be a high level of suspicion, sometimes even opposition. We know of a local high school in San Diego where campus ministers haven’t been given access for years because the administration had felt like previous ministries had been too high pressure. Kip Jacob, pastor of SouthLake Church in Portland, Oregon, in the Q interview by Gabe Lyons, was being interviewed because his church has been engaged deeply in a local school, rewriting the old script of free pizza and Bible study and genuinely trying to develop a mutually beneficial partnership.

He said, “Any kind of agenda, if it’s not a response to their perceived need of how we can help, is a total turn-off.”


Let’s take a step back and look at how Jesus might approach a local school in today’s climate. He asks a pointed question to a man in Matthew 20:32 “What do you want me to do for you?”  It’s a genuine, open-ended question without filter to trigger a religious response.

[bctt tweet=”The heart of Jesus is to empathize with real people’s real needs.” username=”ys_scoop”]

What can non-credentialed, faith-based leaders of local ministries offer to an education system that is highly scrutinized and regulated, and under a tremendous amount of pressure? Certainly, free pizza and providing a safe place for students of Christian faith to gather is important. I’m also sure the schools who lack the coaching manpower they need to offer support to all of their teams are appreciative of youth ministers who coach teams. And undoubtedly there is significance in having an adult actively care for the wellbeing of a student population, who shows up regularly to Friday night football games and the annual assemblies.

Schools’ Greatest Needs

But schools have much greater needs than that.

The teachers and school leaders we spend time with are sincerely looking for programs that will help develop the social and emotional competencies of their students, so that their academic efforts can be more effectively balanced by the inner development of kids into self-motivated learners, contributing to the overall success of a community to impact kids’ lives. They tell us that they are looking for tangible help by proven methods that they can trust to be effective.

That’s where our work with YouSchool has been very interesting recently. Our posture to a local school, whether we’re being invited into a conversation or we’re the ones initiating it, is to ask sincerely what the school leaders see as problems, felt needs, and urgent opportunities. We want to hear their hearts, to understand what troubles them as it relates to their students’ lives, and only offer the solution of our program if it seems like we can solve meaningful problems.

As one local high school principal said to us,

“Look- we know from years of collecting data that improving attendance, test scores, graduation rates and college acceptance is only one version of success. In order for us to be truly effective, it’s all about the social and emotional development of adolescents- and that’s where we need a lot of help.”

Scott Schimmel is a master at helping people grow. As President & Chief Guide of YOUSCHOOL, he is responsible for leading the charge, ensuring that everything we do delivers on our mission and vision. After spending over ten years in a non-profit helping college students become world changers, Scott is deeply aware of the challenges students face when stepping into the professional world. This is why he’s invested his time guiding young people.”


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.