MARYVILLE – Having a high amount of freshmen engagement wasn’t something Campus Missionary Jason Yarnell expected in a pandemic year, but that’s exactly what happened at The Lighthouse at Northwest Missouri State University this school year.
When the semester began, Yarnell fully expected the campus to revert to online after just a couple weeks of classes. With that prospect hanging over his head, he prepped himself and his student leaders for a tiny window of opportunity to connect with new students. “That added a sense of urgency,” he says. “I tried to stress with our students, you’re going to have to do a semester’s worth of work in two weeks.”
The university began classes half a week early, on a Wednesday instead of a Monday. Yarnell’s leadership team still spent the weekend before classes began holding their annual leadership training weekend. They then spent the next three full days on campus engaging with residential students, most of whom are freshmen, before classes had even begun.
“Before we even had our annual welcome BBQ on Thurdsay night, we already had a bunch of freshmen whom we knew by name and were following up with,” Yarnell says. “They just felt like we were friendly and interested in them.”
Because of COVID, the university wouldn’t allow student groups to gather off campus, which forced the ministry to utilize on-campus space instead of hosting events at the BSU building. They couldn’t even have worship gatherings in their own facility for the first half of the fall semester. These restrictions turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “We were forced into a really good idea,” Yarnell says.
With student organizations fighting for the limited gathering space on campus, Lighthouse ended up holding worship services at the Bell Tower, an iconic structure situated between the dorms and the student Union. “People don’t usually do events at the Tower,” Yarnell says. “We just did. We were outside on campus – we had never done that.”
One freshman joined only because he happened to walk by as they were worshipping and felt compelled to stay. Yarnell was teaching on community. This student dove into a small group and stayed the whole semester. “He wouldn’t have been involved if we weren’t on campus,” Yarnell says.
As the semester went on, there was little for students to do outside of classes. Usually campus life revolves around football season, but with sports cancelled, nothing was happening on campus. This, too, helped draw freshmen to the Lighthouse. “Students didn’t have a lot of options,” Yarnell says.
Having suspended their weekly dinners which takes a significant amount of funds to pully off, Yarnell was able to offer his student leaders funding to create meaningful and fun ways for students in their small groups to connect with each other. “People were worn out,” he says. “Our leaders were very creative and did some cool stuff.
Yarnell credits his leaders with going above and beyond to connect with new students. Two of his junior leaders connected with two freshmen guys who brought another 6-8 freshmen guys into their life group. “Some knew Christ, some didn’t,” Yarnell says. Several students said this was the year when their profession of faith truly happened, mostly in the context of their life groups. Caleb, Yarnell’s son and ministry apprentice, is talking to three guys from his life group about baptism.
Yarnell strongly encourages Christ-following freshmen to sign up for their leadership team at the end of their first year of college. In his mind, “leadership is membership,” Yarnell says. “Everyone has a job. Everyone is serving, using their giftedness. Not everyone on leadership actually has the gift of leadership, overseeing, planning, strategizing. If you are committed to our ministry and you signed up to help set up and tear down after dinner, you’re on leadership.”
This spring, when signups for leadership team next year opened, Yarnell was shocked to see seventeen freshmen commit to serve, their largest number ever in his 20 years of ministry at Northwest. Some he expected, but others were a pleasant surprise. “I didn’t really change my approach,” he says of the increase in commitment. “It’s more students bringing in other students.”
With another fall semester on the horizon, Yarnell is jazzed to see what it holds. “Our sophomore leaders didn’t get a full schoolyear when they were freshmen. Our freshmen leaders didn’t get a real schoolyear at all,” he says. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for starting things back up.”