I put this together as a discussion starter for agencies attending student events. But I trust the relevance may extend beyond that. It may first help to gain some context by reading this post on the frustrations of dead-events, and this post on working with millennials. And to make it more fun, I’ve decided to use song lyrics for each point, which come mostly from songs known by millennials onwards – can anyone name the bands?!
- I bet you think this [event] is about you
First steps, let’s recognise what this event is, that you’ve been kindly invited along to. If there are a few stalls, if you’re partnering with others, or if the event has a general theme, it means one thing: this event is not primarily about you. You getting more sign-ups and you achieving your goals for your organisation, is not the goal of the evening. We must recognise here the goals of the event. Equip, the student festival run, has a tagline “5 days to fire and fuel students for a year of CU mission”. So the event won’t primarily be about a lifetime of overseas work, or about doing summer teams. This needs more than just a token acknowledgement. If we understand the event, and what the attendees expect from the event, it will be easier to bridge between that and what our organisation’s expectations are. There are SO many ways that you could honour the purpose of the event and have the beginnings of significant relationships and partnerships BY supporting these goals, not despite supporting these goals.
- Hey ya!
These words are all that is needed to start to engage. Many mission partners take up residency in their castle (/stall) and expect the castle will magically gather a crowd of those willing to sign-up. Strangely, they find very few engage, and those that do, often don’t like being watched from half a metre away as they browse the stall. Like the best evangelistic book tables, I find that if there’s more than a short time period that you’re at the event for, then its best to abandon the stall for large chunks of time, and go off and say “hey ya” to people where they aren’t scared you’re about to hit them over the head with your organisational spiel. If you do stay at your stall, or only have a 30 minute window to engage with people at the end of an evening, here’s some tips:
- Save Tonight
The meeting has ended. You have 1 hour to make as many contacts as you can. GO! The feeling of urgency in this context is, I would suggest, not helpful. In the heat of the moment, we revert to what we ultimately want again, not what is best. If every agency rep was to act like I’ve seen some do, it’d be the ugliest scene possible. You’ll be shocked at what I’ve seen before, though perhaps these two are the most common: flyer every thing that breathes around you; manipulate students to do your team, by saying things like “we’ll pay for your fees if you get a team from your CU to come”.
Instead, can I suggest a few things, flowing from gospel principles:
a. can you point a student to another agency as the evening goes on? What a delightful humility to realise we are not the best ones for everything,
b. can you learn from a student that approaches you? Why not ask them questions about their life, their context, and seek to learn and be encouraged. This is not a one-way relationship.
c. is your goal your organisation’s promotion, or that everyone leaves thinking more of the Lord Jesus, his gospel, and his hand at work in the world? How does that shape conversations?
It’s those people who we’ll be seeking to give workshops to, have on stage, and give as much airtime as we can to.
- (Come) South of the border (with me)
Many of the mission agencies on the island have full-time workers based in the north. I LOVE how many of them still care deeply for the whole island and travel sacrificially to connect and partner. Financially, it may not make perfect sense. Time-wise, it may be far harder. But spiritually, if all churches on this island are going to grow with missional DNA, we will benefit from partnerships forming when it doesn’t make sense. Invest in long-term relationships that seem to make no ‘business’ sense, and let God surprise you by His goodness. Hat tips to people like Africa Inland Mission, for their other-person-centred serving of mission in Ireland. Having said that….
- I can be your hero (baby)
We all know the Northerner (I speak as one) who thinks they are coming to the south thinking they (or their organisation) are the key to mission, or that they should be treated in a certain way. “They just don’t get it in the south, do they?” is a sentence I’ve often heard.
Nope. Just nope. Let’s first coming acknowledging our own cultural biases, weaknesses and struggles, and seeing the great joys and strengths of others. And that’s also to be said those who’ve come mimicking accents, imposing culture and methodology etc. I’m thankful for the grace that many have showed me in the past.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
So if I shouldn’t flyer everything that breathes, what is the best way to engage on an evening? Well whether at Equip, or at an evening event you’ve travelled for, I suggest that one of the primary goals should be relationship.
If I attend an event far away, I’ll always schedule time in the few days after to follow-up with people in person (ideally), or by some other way. At Equip, quite often my goal in the “rush” period is just to say to someone “there’s lots more to chat about – how about breakfast tomorrow?”. And when the stall doesn’t seem to give me those opportunities, I’ll go a seminar or workshop, and chat to the person next to me, and develop deep relationships other ways over the week.
The other person is a human being, and should be treated like such. I remember how baffled a few students were who signed their email addresses up to receive updates from an organisation they were fascinated about, only to be sent an email once about why they should do their student summer team! An example of an organisation who thought they were going quickly, getting email addresses, but actually missed the point entirely. Therefore….
- Million Dollar Question
We must understand the people in front of us and their questions. At a festival like Equip, their questions will quite often be about campus mission. Lots of what mission agencies can offer (resources, longterm partnership etc) can speak into the needs of campus mission. But it’ll take a bit of thought.
“What are your questions about mission?”
“What went wrong on your CU mission team this year?”
“What are you trying differently this year?”
“What are the frustrations of life as a mission team on campus for you?”
“where do all your students hang out and how are you reaching them there?”
“are there any [insert nationality] students on campus?”
“What’s the least reached demographic on your campus?”
But more immediately, student questions might be about the session they’ve just been to, or the circumstances that have just arisen in their life. What they say their questions are, may not even be what their heart-questions are – that’s the same with evangelism too – we’re all humans!
The response to the student’s answer may be a story about a worker in your agency on the field. It may be an offer of a resource that would help with that question. It most likely will be an unknown, but a chance to pray with the student. But whatever the answer is (if there is one), it ought to be in relationship. Perhaps a fleeting relationship, perhaps one that will never be sustainable, but a respectful relationship. And in that way, you’ll get far more longevity of support, and opportunity to develop links longterm, than any person who crudely just wants people to sign up to their organisation.
There is always opportunity to plant other questions, that you feel may need asked. And Jesus’ questions, often do exactly that – they turn around the questioner to a new direction and open their eyes.
“Every interaction starts a chain reaction”. You’re one of say, 15 stalls in a hall. You can have a pot of gold on your table, but you’re still unlikely to get sign-ups from it unless people see the gold and how it relates to you. Instead, why not think about doing something interactive? A prize is always a good motivator, if you’re running a challenge. Or something visually that says – “wow, look at me! I’m not like those other table and chair stalls”. But the best interactive elements get people interacting with your organisation’s Unique Selling Points, or get respondents sharing their questions/stories. I’ve seen shoe-stands and coffee stalls work, but I’ve also seen a very simple question cause everyone to stop, ponder and engage.
- Bittersweet Symphony
We’re humans. We can’t do everything. We can’t engage with everyone in an evening, or even in 5 days. And let’s not try or desire to escape our humanity. And that’s good news for us as mission agency reps. We’re given freedom to rest and to enjoy having some craic at all of these things. We’re given freedom to trust that God will bring people across our paths that will be divine appointments. We’re freed even to partner well with others and train them (eg: volunteers who will serve instead of us at some bigger events).
Why shouldn’t we be competitive and more business-like in expecting to engage with every person? (by flyering etc.) Because if everyone did that, it’d be an ugly mess. We are not competitors. We’re on the same team.
- In the end
We’ll all get this wrong at points. And some of the above thoughts may mean that we should decide not to buy into a life of trawling conferences with stalls. I pray that “fear of missing out” will not be the shaper of our time. We’ll always get folk who complain to us “oh I didn’t see you this year at this”, but they are often not the ones we should go to the conference for, as a whole – they are on board already and we can communicate with them in other ways. My prayer is that we’ll be able to all think of creative ways to engage with folk, that will flow from gospel principles, honour the Church, bless the individuals, and make people think more of the Lord Jesus, because of our interactions.
Suggestions/thoughts/comments/questions? I’d love to hear them.