StartLeading: Challenge or Opportunity, Part 1 — Jason Gaboury

I was visiting with some ministry partners recently. They told the story of having a visit from a young woman who works with a different campus ministry. “She was delightful… Her passion was really something.” I smiled waiting for the question I knew was coming. “Can you remind us, what’s the difference between your ministry and that one?”

I’m meeting with student leaders. The tension in the room is palpable. My heart is echoing in my chest and in my ears. An influential leader has just passionately clarified vision for ministry that has nothing to do with InterVarsity’s mission. I have 3 seconds to redirect this conversation or watch the chapter drift away from mission, or head over the cliff of division.

Goldfish jumpSheila asks, “Can I be a leader here?” Sheila is a Buddhist student who has been hanging around for a few semesters.

“I thought you guys were committed to prayer.” Bently says. “You should join in the campus wide prayer and worship gathering.” The invitation is a trap. Either we can go along with the event, and thereby prove our commitment to prayer, or we can say no and be branded as unspiritual.

These experiences are just a few of the examples of the challenges that InterVarsity leaders face. Over time, I’ve come to see these challenges as opportunities. The question is how. How do we take moments of challenge and transform them into moments of opportunity? Here are 3 ways you can do this:

1. Get Clear: Underneath each of these situations (and many like them) is a key question that leaders can learn to identify and answer. Answering these four questions, “What do you do? How are you different? What do you believe? How do you behave?” with clarity and passion can help you turn a challenge into an opportunity.

2. Enter the Danger: Leaders need to enter the dangerous places where there is potential conflict, confusion, or discontent. We need to become comfortable entering into the danger instead of avoiding it.

3. Call for Commitment: It’s not enough to simply enter the danger and clarify the truth. Leaders have to make the ask. We have to call others to join us in our mission unapologetically. Do you see moments like those above as challenges or as opportunities?

Write a comment about a challenge you’ve faced recently. (This is the first of a series dedicated to turning challenges into opportunity.)


StartLeading: Start with Who — Jason Gaboury

There is this popular reading of the gospels.  Jesus walks around Galilee after confronting evil in the desert.  He randomly chooses the most unlikely candidates as his disciples.  In fact he chooses the folks least likely to succeed and builds them into a core team.  For three years this band of losers follows Jesus around.  They get everything wrong.  They don’t understand him or his mission.  They fail him in his passion.  And then, miraculously, after Pentecost they lead a movement destined to change the world.

This is a popular reading.  And it’s wrong… or at least distorted.


The truth is that Jesus assembled a team of people who symbolically represented his mission, were willing to take risks, and had relevant skills.  Peter is an example of courage and action, a natural leader.  James and John were hotheaded enthusiasts.  Including a former tax collector and a zealot in his team demonstrated the breath of his mission.  Yes, they had a lot to learn.  Yes, they made mistakes.  But they had (or developed) the skills they needed to carry out Jesus’ mission.

When we give into the popular view we miss a critical leadership lesson.  We start, build, and multiply ministry by finding the right people first.

Every time I say this though, I run into resistance.  “What do you mean the ‘right’ people?”  “Does this mean there are ‘wrong’ people?”  “Isn’t that elitist and discriminatory?”

No it isn’t.  Our ministry is for everyone.  Saying we need to find the right people simply means that we can and should expand ministry by finding people who represent our mission, are willing to risk, and have relevant skills.

Consider your leadership team.

Does it represent the mission field you’re trying to reach?  Is the team sufficiently diverse to engage the ministry opportunity?  (I once sat with a team of engineers who couldn’t understand why all of their efforts to reach artists were not successful.)

Will they risk?  How willing is your team to take risks and try new things?  What is the courage quotient on your team?

Are they leaders?  Leaders (whether natural or formed) have followers.  Who is following the leaders on your team?  How do you know?  Can the leaders list the names of the people who are following their example or lead in mission?

Who are the people you need to start, build, and multiply your mission on campus?


StartLeading: Throwing Your Nets on the Other Side – Jason Gaboury

We are headed into the most dangerous time of our ministry year.

Enthusiasm for new student outreach has propelled us forward. We’ve seen great advances. And now the great temptation is to settle down and return to the familiar and comfortable. Peter does this in John 21. He says, “I’m going fishing.” And those early followers of Jesus say, “We’ll come with you.” This wasn’t a recreational fishing trip. Jesus had just risen from the dead! Jerusalem was consumed with conversations about Jesus! But, despite all this, Peter goes back to what he knows. Fishing. Peter’s not the only one.

throw nets

We often start out with an enthusiastic plan for reaching new students. But before long our chapter activities, outreach activities, and weekly meetings all begin to look pretty much like they did last year.

Some leaders feel the tension. They think, “We wanted to engage more people. We’d hoped to start new ministries. But, people are tired, let’s just settle here for a while.” Jesus comes to them. His first words indicate that he’s well aware of their situation. “You haven’t caught any fish, have you?” Then he invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat. I think that John, the most symbolic of the gospel writers, has a leadership principle in mind.

We can’t go back to what we know. Following Jesus and leading people into mission requires that we throw the net onto the other side. It requires us to do the unfamiliar. It requires us to engage new communities. To cast our nets where Jesus directs us instead of asking Jesus to fill the nets we’ve decided to cast.

Let me get practical. Do your chapter activities and demographics look pretty similar this year compared to last year? Are we essentially reaching the same types of students we reached last year? Are we starting the same kinds of groups and hosting the same kinds of meetings?

What would it look like to cast the net on the other side? Who did we meet at NSO who could open up a whole new ministry opportunity for us? What kinds of activities can we do that would have the best chance to integrate large numbers of students into our chapters? How do we need to change our activities so that we are throwing our net on the other side?

Share in the comments where God might be calling you to cast your nets in the coming week.


StartLeading: Questions Lead to Transformation by Jason Gaboury

Here’s a story that might make you think, “I never have experiences like that.”  Or worse, “I’ll never have an experience like that.” Read the story, though. It demonstrates the power of the gospel, God’s persistent love, and hope for transformation. Diane, InterVarsity’s staffworker at CUNY-Lehman College writes:

Today, I ran into a student that I met last semester named Brianna. She told me that she had a really rough summer and didn’t believe in God. This was a change. Last semester, she was curious about Jesus but didn’t get connected to one of our groups. I asked her what happened during the summer. She said she’d tell me later and walked away. I didn’t know if she’d come back but she did!


Brianna told me stories involving lots of alcohol and a boyfriend that she admitted she was using to feel loved. I asked to share a story from John 4 with her.  She identified with the Samaritan woman.

Then I asked if she knew the core message of the Christian faith. She said no.  So I shared the gospel with her using my New World app on my phone.  I emphasized many times that Jesus loves her and asked her to identify where she is in relationship to him.  She said she experiences the brokenness of the world and has not turned toward God for transformation.

So I asked if she’d like to follow Jesus & she said yes!

After we prayed she had a huge smile on her face.  One of our new members came over to high-five/hug her. It was awesome! I asked her to go to church with me on Sunday and she said yes.

While every story is unique, “the spirit blows where it will” (Jn 3), I believe that all of us who are willing to start leading can have experiences like this one. So what’s the key skill?


Read the story again.  Notice how Diane asks Brianna questions. “What happened?”  “Can I share?”  “Where are you?”  “Would you like to follow Jesus?”  “Will you come to church with me?”

Too often we think of leadership (and evangelism) as having answers.  Diane asked questions.  Jesus asked questions.  Great leaders become practiced at “making the ask.”

How are you at asking?  Think through a leadership or outreach conversation you’ve had in the last week.  Who asked most of the questions? What can you do in your next leadership or outreach conversation to increase the number of asks that you make?

Share some of the questions you intend to ask at your next leadership or evangelistic conversation in the comments section. 


StartLeading: Goals define what do you want — Jason Gaboury

“Stephanie, I think your desire for God is the truest thing about you.”

Stephanie listened attentively. Her eyes betrayed a mixture of hope and fear. Turning to John’s gospel I asked her, “If you were God and you’d come into human space, what would you say first?”

She thought for a moment, “Stop hurting each other, I guess.”

I showed her Jesus’ first words in John, “What are you looking for?” When she looked up from the text, I said, “Stephanie, Jesus’ first words here are an invitation to you. He is asking you, tonight, what it is you are looking for. God is interested in your desires. Will you take the risk of sharing that with him?”

what do you want

Leaders are often just as full of hope and fear as Stephanie. We long to lead something significant. We have this tug in our hearts to make a difference. We believe that great things are possible. And yet, we’re afraid. We’re afraid of failure, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, or just plain hard work. Jesus’ words in John 1 are for all of us? What do we really want? What are we looking for?

Goals clarify what we’re looking for. They take us out of vague generalities and press us to get specific. Goals answer three questions; what, when, and how?

  1. What – What goals clarify the outcome of our efforts. Will we reach 500 freshmen or 1500? Will our weekly meetings be focused on explorers or leaders? Will we follow up with 80% of those interested or 100%? Getting specific increases the likelihood of success exponentially. (The simple act of writing a goal down increases the chance of achieving the goal by more than 70%.)
  2. When – When goals clarify the timeline for change. Are we expecting to reach 1000 students this week, this month, or this year? Will we multiply small groups in December or January? Will the new focus for weekly meetings roll out in the fall or spring? Articulating a timeline helps us keep track of our activities. If we’re hoping to reach 400 students at a 4-hour club fair, we can check after 2 hours have gone by to see if we’re on track. This gives us the ability to celebrate our progress, or else change our tactics.
  3. How – How goals clarify the substance of our efforts. They force us to articulate the behaviors, attitudes, skills, plans, and strategies we need to succeed. How goals are the action steps that enable our mission to move forward.

What are you looking for on campus? This is Jesus’ question to us as leaders. Do we have the courage to get specific?

Write a goal in the comment section that captures your desire for campus. Make it specific by answering what, when, and how.


StartLeading: Vision Starts with the Why — Jason Gaboury

“What brings you to Hunter College?” I asked.

“Pre-nursing.” The mixture of hope and anxiety in her eyes was typical of freshmen attempting to major in nursing in Hunter College’s elite program.  “I guess I want to help people.”  She went on to tell a personal story about illness in her family, a compassionate nurse, and a desire to be that for others.

“Wow. You experienced compassion, and you want to pass that on.” I took a breath.  “What are you going to do while you’re in school to develop your compassion, this gift that you want to give to others?”

Her eyes moved up and to the right.  “I don’t know.”

“What about joining a community of people that believed compassion was the most powerful force in the world and wanted to help each other learn to live that out?”

I then introduced her to InterVarsity.


Simon Sinek gave a TED talk called, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.  In his talk he argues that most vision communication moves from the outer rim of the above diagram to the middle, from the most concrete to the most abstract.  “But”, he says, “the great leaders communicate from the inside out.”

Here’s an example from NSO.  A student asks, “What’s InterVarsity?”  A typical response might sound like this.  “Oh, we’re a Christian group on campus.  We have small groups, large groups, and God Investigation Groups…we build really great community.”  Would you want to come to a group that just wanted to keep you busy?

What if we said instead, “We believe that no student is here by accident, but that every one of the 14,323 students on campus are loved by God.  Tragically most students don’t know it.  Our events, activities, and service projects are all set up to help ordinary students connect with each other and experience God’s love in tangible and transformative ways.  Our next event happens tonight, wanna come?”

See the difference?

Write out your answers to these questions and share your vision message in the comments below:

  1. Why does your chapter exist?  (Hint: See InterVarsity purpose statement)
  2. What are your events and activities designed to do?  What impact are they designed to have on students’ lives?
  3. What is one specific action step you could invite the listener to do? 

Foundations: Faith by Jason Gaboury

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith … (Romans 1:16)

“I don’t have faith.” Justin said. We’d had many long conversations about faith vs. science, faith vs. doubt, and Christian faith vs. other faith traditions. I began to wonder if our conversations were missing the point.

“Justin,” I said, “You seem to think faith is some kind of character trait that allows people to shut off their rationality and jump into a mental abyss of some kind.” He smiled. “What else could it be?”

leap of faith2

Ever since the rise of existentialism, a nineteenth century philosophical movement wrestling with the heightened rationalism of the enlightenment, faith has been understood in this way. Religious, moral, aesthetical categories can’t be ‘proved’ scientifically so the only way to access them (human beings seem to need these things to survive) is to jump outside of our rational cage…to faith.

What else could it be?

Paul uses the word faith (pistis) in the first chapter of Romans four times. Gentiles are called to “the obedience of faith” (v5). Paul rejoices that the faith of the Roman Christians is proclaimed “throughout the world.”(v8). He sees faith as a source of mutual encouragement (12) and as a sign of salvation (16). What can we learn from this?

1. Belief & Behavior – For Paul faith connotes belief in the gospel as well as action consistent with that belief. If Jesus is the messiah of Israel and lord of the world, then we are summoned not just to believe something, but also to reorder our inner life, relationships, and cultural participation in accordance with this truth.

What would it look like to weave together belief and behavior in communities on campus? What impact might it have if our communities were to practice life on campus as though Jesus was king?

2. Public Truth – Paul’s announcement of Jesus as Lord could only mean that Caesar wasn’t. Paul wasn’t announcing a private spirituality that good Roman citizens could try on to improve their lives. Paul was announcing the good news that Jesus, not Caesar, was ultimately in charge.

This rules out the popular (enlightenment) idea that faith is a private thing that should have no bearing on public life. What would it look like for our communities to practice sharing the good news of Jesus as public truth?

3. Gospel, not Faith – Conversations about faith miss the point. As followers of Jesus we do not point at ourselves but at the God revealed in Jesus. It is possible for women and men to look at Jesus’ life, claims, death, and resurrection and conclude that he isn’t messiah or lord. This was true in Paul’s world, and it is true in ours. On the other hand Jesus is globally relevant. His life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension have changed the world and continue to change it. There is plenty of evidence to justify belief and trust.

What would it look like for us to start, build, and multiply communities where the global relevance of Jesus can be seen and experienced?

Question: What’s one experience you’ve had of exercising faith, even when you didn’t “feel” faith-filled. Share your experience in the comments to encourage others.


StartLeading: Develop New Leaders – Are you a Searchlight or Spotlight? – Jason Gaboury

Pick Your Seat

Find the brightest spot in the room.  Square your shoulders.  Make an impression!  These were just a few of the maxims David taught us.  As an aspiring actor in my first ‘real’ job, I was quick to learn.  Success as an actor would mean finding the light.  It would mean picking the chair in the spotlight.


The seat in the spotlight is influential, but the influence is limited.

Spotlight or Searchlight

By the Sea of Galilee Jesus chose a different seat.  He got into a boat belonging to a fisherman named Simon and taught the crowds.  (My guess is that he had one eye on Peter the whole time.)  After that was done, Jesus focuses in on Peter drawing him (and his partners) into an adventure that would change their lives.  At the turning point of this story (read it for yourself in Luke 5) are Jesus’ words, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.”

It isn’t immediately obvious how different these two seats are.  After all, doesn’t Jesus use the water as an amplifier?  Isn’t he positioning himself in the spotlight?  Luke’s emphasis (and Jesus’) is different.  The story is about Jesus’ catch of Peter.  It’s Peter and the other disciples becoming ‘fishers of men’ that Jesus is focused on.  In the hands of the master, the spotlight turns into a searchlight looking for others to advance his work.

Expert or Multiplier

As ministry leaders we have to choose what seat we’re going to occupy.  We can choose the spotlight, honing our ministry skills, becoming experts, expanding our capacities to teach, preach, organize, evangelize, and manage.  Or we can sit with a searchlight looking to identify, develop, and multiply others to carry the mission forward.

Great leaders choose the searchlight.  This doesn’t mean that leaders never get up in front.  Leadership requires moments of sitting in the spotlight, clarifying vision, catalyzing a movement, or calling for commitment.  But most often the leadership seat is the one where you catapult others to carry the mission forward.

Which Seat Do You Want?

What seat do you want?  Really?  Are you drawn by the potential influence of being the ministry expert, the hub of activity, the one making the big impression?  Or do you want to release other people to make their biggest potential impact?  Both great talent and great leaders serve the kingdom of God.  There’s room for both, but it’s helpful to be clear which seat you’re choosing.

Pick your seat.


Foundations: To Everyone – Jason Gaboury

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone … (Romans 1:16)

By the light of their cell phones, student leaders at one of the Chico State students spray painted t-shirts with the slogan, “IV — ask me”.  The InterVarsity chapter was not permitted by the university to participate in events designed to engage new students, so these leaders devised a way to meet students.


Chico State is just one of ten chapters in the 23-campus Cal State system that has denied InterVarsity chapters recognition and access. Closer to home, students at SUNY-Buffalo have encountered similar oppostion.  Campuses in New England, Tennessee, Florida, and Maine face similar challenges.

At the heart of the conflict is a cultural and legal conflict about inclusion.  InterVarsity is accused (sometimes virulently) of excluding students because we believe that it’s important for a Christian mission to be led by Christians.  (There is a certain logical inconsistency in being excluded from campus life and told, “You can’t be on campus because you exclude people.” But that is a topic for another day.)

Can Romans 1:16 help us with campus access?

Paul says that his gospel is God’s power… to everyone.  Consider this for a moment.  Paul was a first century Jew raised with the doctrine of election and trained in the Pharisaic hope of national liberation for Israel.  Here he says that his good news is for everyone.  This transformation of Paul’s worldview is so significant that it’s possible to argue from it (and some have) for the resurrection of Jesus.

Our gospel is to (and for) everyone.  No one is excluded from the grace of this good news.  No one is beyond the scope of God’s intended freedom.

We in InterVarsity love the whole campus.  Our chapters are to and for the whole campus.  Our proclamation does not conform to the categories of this cultural moment.  Our proclamation is good news, power, and true freedom for all people in this cultural moment.

Lord have mercy on us if we ever lose sight of this truth.  In the meantime, let’s pray for our sisters and brothers doing ministry on campuses that deny access.  And let’s learn from their courage and creativity.


Foundations: Salvation = Freedom by Jason Gaboury

16For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith… (Romans 1:16)

I’d just witnessed a miracle. I’d shared the gospel story and asked Jane if she wanted to become a follower of Jesus. The confusion and angst that had hung on her face relaxed.  She looked up. “Yes,” she said. freedom

What had happened?  One minute Jane was peppering me with questions, wrestling with the gospel story.  The next minute she believed.  Over time she would come to be baptized, join the community, and share her story with others.

The power that brings freedom

Paul says that the gospel is the power of God for salvation.  The word literally means deliverance, release, or preservation.  The faith that began to rise up in Jane as she heard the gospel story and believed is a sign of salvation.  The gospel we proclaim is the power for salvation.  What is salvation anyway, and why do we need it?

Paul describes the problem in Romans 1:18 – 32. We do not live in truth and harmony with the world and one another because of our idolatry.  When we put ourselves, or any other created thing, in the place of God the result is personal, social, and spiritual disintegration.  Despite the fact that we all experience the deception, destruction, and disintegration that stems from our idolatry, we’re trapped in a closed system.  Even knowing it’s wrong… we’re stuck. “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”

Salvation describes God breaking into this closed system and setting people free.  Those who hear and respond to the call of the gospel become free from the prison of idolatry, deception, spiritual, and moral disintegration.  Those who hear and respond to the gospel are set free for the liberating and humanizing purposes of God in the world.  God’s good news sets people free, restores right worship, and sends them to work for the liberation of others.

What does freedom look like?

Freedom is a big deal on campus.  And yet, the truth is that most people on campus aren’t free.  Students are under tremendous pressure to succeed socially and academically.  Celebrating freedom looks at first like the big freshman (or frat) party, but quickly disintegrates into the hangover of isolation, anxiety, dislocation, and despair.  Faculty promotes free thought and study, but are themselves subject to huge pressure to perform, publish, and gain popularity.  Our mission field has placed all kinds of things in the place of God and is locked in a rapidly disintegrating web.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation…”

What if communities of truly free people started growing all over campus?  What if the distinguishing characteristic of our witness was freedom?  What if our passion for proclaiming the message about Jesus was rooted in the true freedom we experienced and longed to pass on to others?

God’s gospel is the power for salvation for your campus.  Will you celebrate it and share it?  When we do, we witness miracles.

Question: What kinds of freedom do you long to see people experience on campus? Share your thoughts in the comments.