If you asked your students to raise their hand if they feel a natural bent toward evangelism, very few would respond. But what if you were to ask them: “How many of you are good at eating food?” Every hand…and maybe foot…would shoot up. According to Matthew 9:11, so was Jesus’.
“And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Jesus’ disciples, ‘Why does your teacher EAT with tax collectors and sinners?’ ”
In the first week of November, we’ll read this story with our student leaders. Then we work with them to plan a Thanksgiving party as an evangelism opportunity in the context of their small group. These parties help build momentum for us at a time in the school year that is typically scattered. Even more importantly, they help us implant the value of evangelism a little deeper in everyone who feels like they stink at sharing the gospel.
Unfortunately, Christians are often champs at throwing lame parties. So forgive me while I give you some painstakingly practical tips so your Thanksgiving parties will rock.
- Inspire- A couple of weeks before the party, have an icebreaker about family Thanksgiving traditions. Read the story of Matthew, challenging everyone to begin identifying those people in their life that are far from God.
- Plan the party- Give the party a twist. We have had a turkey cooking competition (I usually take this contest with my “slap yo’ momma” fried turkeys). Consider passing out invitations. Keep two goals in mind: get your students fired up for a huge party and get them praying for their friends.
- Get commitments- It’s ironic how many students get mysteriously busy and are unable to make it on the night we are sharing the Gospel. To ensure students won’t bail, and that we will have enough grub, give everyone the responsibility of bringing food. The goal is to have more food than could possibly be eaten in a given night! And don’t worry about the traditional menu, let them get creative. Last year a freshman in my group brought a bacon wrapped turkey and it rocked!
- Location, location, location- Have the party as close to campus as possible. When I offered to host a party at my home 10 minutes from campus, my students suggested that if their friends couldn’t walk across the street to the party, they likely wouldn’t come. So we went to them…because that’s what Jesus did for Matthew.
- Station everyone- Put your extroverted people at the front door giving high-fives, and have your high relational IQ people working the room, making everyone feel comfortable. Designate students to take food and get everything ready. Throughout the night, have leadership make relational connections with the guests, inviting them to coffee or lunch.
- Set expectations- To start the meal, have a student welcome the group, tell them the order of events, pray, and then get people through the line as quickly as possible. Let guests know you respect their time and they will be able to get back to their studies or other commitments in a timely manner. This will give the guests a sense of safety knowing they’re not trapped! If you have people serving, you can ration food accordingly, and move the line quickly. The people who eat first will have a tendency to leave quickly, so speed is of the essence!
- A moment of crazy- As you pass out dessert, do something crazy. From dance-offs to slurping pudding through a panty hose mask competition, I’ve seen it all. One year we pitted two athletes against one another in a hands-behind-your-back pie-eating contest. We warned a female athlete before she ate too much, but everyone’s favorite football player was purposely left out of the loop. He was whining about it, but when she started talkin’ smack, he had to man up. It got loud and crazy and people started putting it on Twitter and Instagram…bam!
- Getting down to business- After the insanity, have a student leader transition to the giving thanks portion of the evening. Each person should say their name and describe one thing for which they are thankful. Prep your leaders to set an example and go a little deeper than simply saying, “I’m thankful for all my friends.” Intentionally work it so the last person sharing is a student who has given their life to Jesus or returned to Christ in the last year. That is what they are thankful for. By sharing their testimony and describing how small group changed their messy life, they invite others to come back and be a part of a group that loves God and loves them. Then give specific details about where and when the group will meet the following week, pray, and dismiss.
While we have seen salvations occur at these parties, we know that tons of people won’t immediately come to faith that night. The party serves as a catalyst to build relationships with the spiritually sick who need to meet the same Messiah Matthew did. From the athlete who is starving after practice to the boyfriend who refuses to go to church to the international student who never gets invited into an American’s home, Thanksgiving parties can open doors that were previously shut.
One of the largest meals any of us eat in a calendar year is at Thanksgiving, so why not maximize that time to create some “Matthew moments” in your college ministry? Most students are typically freaked out by the idea of evangelism. But if Jesus was good at eating dinner with those far from God, maybe we can be good at that, too.
What events have been most effective in bringing in the lost? How can those be incorporated into a Thanksgiving party?
How can you use a Thanksgiving party to reach out for Thanksgiving break, the last weeks of the semester, and Winter Break?