College Summer Ensembles: Ministry or Marketing?

by Eric Lovik

I have always looked forward to summers because that’s when a lot of college groups travel through the area. To me, there is something very refreshing about seeing and hearing young men and women sing, act, and play instruments for microphones.jpgthe Lord. I’ve learned so much about colleges, even the ones I’ve never visited, just by seeing a group perform at my church or at one nearby.

Perhaps the most enjoyable summer of college teams was six years ago not long after my wife and I had moved to central Pennsylvania from the Philadelphia area. I checked out a bunch of Christian college websites to see their itineraries, and surprisingly nearly half a dozen were scheduled to perform at churches in our area. We missed a couple groups, but within a three-week time frame we had the opportunity to attend three college teams’ performances at various churches. Two of the colleges we had never seen before. Piedmont Baptist College’s drama group presented a challenging performance on missions. It was especially touching because only a couple months before, the ABWE missionaries whose plane was shot down in Peru included Piedmont grads Jim and “Roni” Bowers and the pilot Kevin Donaldson. We also saw a musical group from Cedarville University. We had stopped by Cedarville’s campus once, and we know some people who graduated from there, but that was the extent of our knowledge. During their performance, we learned several new songs, some of which are now popular in “our circles.” Then we had the opportunity to see the Clearwater ensemble perform several songs, followed by a challenging message by the college’s president, Dr. George Youstra. Afterwards, the church provided lunch for the team and church members. Though my wife and I were just visiting that day, we enjoyed a free meal with people with whom we shared much in common. All in all, it was a fun several weeks of meeting students from various colleges.

Okay, let me say that the title to this article is misleading. We all know that in reality college summer ensembles, ministry teams—whatever you want to call them—serve as both ministries and marketing strategies. Dramatic, vocal, and instrumental traveling groups are spiritually encouraging to the many local churches where they perform. At the same time, they are representatives of the institution, salespeople who are always delighted to collect names and e-mails of prospective students and their parents in the lobby after the program.

So really, college ensembles are exclusively neither a ministry nor a marketing tool; they are both. They serve a dual purpose. Is that a problem? No, not at all. When you think about conservative Christian higher education, especially the American Association of Christian College and Seminaries (AACCS) institutions, you have to understand that these colleges and universities are drawing from generally the same pool of churches and Christian schools. They are reaching the same target population, usually alternating geographic regions from one summer to the next. But when you compare the itineraries of the well-known fundamental colleges, there’s a lot of overlap. In fact, it’s not unusual for a fundamental church to experience visits from two, three, or more groups from well-known fundamental institutions during the same summer season.

The Drawbacks

There are some inherent problems to this practice, as you have probably already noticed. Potentially, there is the danger of the summer circuit turning into a “good ol’ boys club” mentality. That is, if we’re not careful, it’s possible for pastors and college administrators to use the summer tour schedule as an opportunity to play politics. Church A shows its stamp of approval on College A by inviting College A’s summer ensemble to visit. There certainly is legitimacy in scheduling musical groups you know and trust—and that is a wise thing—but let’s be careful not to let politics interfere.

Another potential problem is the perception of the college’s relationship with certain churches if the ensemble hasn’t visited those churches within the last several years. One might think that because College B did not stop at Church B (or Christian School B), then one of them is possibly on the other’s “black list,” especially if a visit hasn’t occurred for quite a few years.

Economics, location, and communication can affect whether an ensemble visits a certain church during a tour. Economics can be an issue because sponsoring a summer tour costs a lot of money, especially these days with the price of gas. Also, an ensemble can’t visit everyone all the time. Location can also be an issue. For example, west of the Mississippi are large stretches of land between churches. A college group might be prevented from targeting specific churches in that region because of the vast distances. On the other hand, in metropolitan areas and suburbs a team might spend a couple weeks visiting many churches within the same general area. Communication between a church and a college might also hinder a college’s visit if a new pastor is on board or if a new person is coordinating the itineraries.

The Benefits

I’m guessing (because I do not serve as a pastor, I wouldn’t know from experience) that during the summer, a pastor, especially at a small to mid-size church, would love to have the occasional break that ministry teams typically provide. If the traveling group offers to lead a youth activity or to run other events for the church, that gesture of kindness can go a long way in helping a church’s paid and volunteer staff take a much-needed break.

Other than a prospective student’s visit to a college campus, nothing is as effective as the personal touch of a face-to-face conversation with someone from a college. Prospective students and their parents can learn about the Christian colleges and universities on their “wish lists” by talking to members of the traveling groups and by getting promotional literature.

The opportunity for church members to learn new music or new ways of singing familiar music is also of great value. Not every church has its own bookstore or a conservative Christian bookstore in town, so the presentation of music by college-age men and women can be refreshing for personal and corporate worship. My wife and I bought a CD from one of the college teams we visited back in the summer of 2001. To this day, we often listen to that recording.

Certainly, a college traveling group’s appearance at any given church offers a wonderful opportunity to begin or, in many cases, to strengthen existing relationships. The team can provide an update of what the Lord has been doing on campus, and the church can get a better understanding of the prayer needs at the college. It’s also a good time for alumni to re-connect with their alma mater.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of college ensembles may be to the students themselves, the ministry team members. I never traveled on a group, so I don’t know from personal experience. But based on the testimonies of those who have, it seems like a summer tour is an experience that stretches a student and makes him grow, whether he’s ready for it or not.

Closing Thoughts

After reflecting on the positive impact I’ve experienced from a variety of college summer ensembles, three thoughts come to mind:

To those who are currently traveling on an ensemble this summer, hang in there. You have only a few weeks left. Do your best, make the most of the time left on your tour, and stay healthy.

To those pastors who are considering whether to invite a college group to their church, consider learning about more colleges than the ones you historically invite. Expose your congregation to new ministries. There may be more opportunities out there than you realize.

To those college administrators and music faculty who develop the program and select the music, use the program to demonstrate what your college is all about. Be yourself and don’t try to present a false image of who you really are. As you try to balance the musical preferences and styles of the churches where you will perform with your own preferences, don’t be afraid to try new things.

To all who are involved in some manner, directly or indirectly, with a college ensemble, thank you. I pray that you will have a safe, profitable time the rest of the summer.

By the way, if anyone who is reading this article traveled on a ministry team or ensemble and has a funny or unusual story to share, please tell us!

lovik_eric.jpgEric Lovik is director of institutional research at Clearwater Christian College (Clearwater, FL) and a doctoral candidate in higher education at Penn State University. He and his wife, Glory, enjoy traveling and playing with their two daughters at the beach.
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