Posted on April 2nd, 2007
Want to worship to the tune of hip-hop music? Celebrate Jesus’ love through dance? Silently pray while focused on candle light? Have a traditional hymn sing?
All this and more takes place regularly at Eastern Mennonite University.
Worship expression at EMU is as varied as the student body, where 22 percent of the population is "diverse," counting African-American, Hispanic, international and multi-ethnic students.
To meet their needs, the campus ministry team makes a point of collaborating with students to develop and lead worship in a variety of ways.
"North American Mennonites are known for their hymns sung in a cappella four-part harmony," says campus pastor Brian Martin Burkholder. "But as the church has grown around the world, Mennonites have incorporated other worship styles. We recognize that there are many ways of tuning into the Holy Spirit."
University chapel services Wednesday and Friday mornings in Lehman Auditorium "lay the foundation for vibrant worship," says Martin Burkholder. Eastern Mennonite Seminary also holds weekly chapels that incorporate diverse worship styles and themes.
From there, the options fan out – including a series of Wednesday night gatherings ranging from traditional hymn singing to high-energy gospel to meditative, all student-planned and led.
EMU senior Kristen Swartley helps lead a Taize service held the third Wednesday each month, in which she often plays the flute.
"Taize services offer something different – a more restful, reflective service that requires persons to be quiet and to listen for God’s voice," said Swartley, a junior music major from Cedar Falls, Iowa. "I think something like this is needed in a busy college atmosphere."
‘Gospel 808’ and prayer meetings
Another monthly Wednesday night offering is "Gospel 808" that junior Joseph Macon helps organize. Macon, a business administration major from Philadelphia, helps line up persons to lead the service that may vary in style from contemporary gospel to more "choir-type" gospel music. Macon often accompanies singers on drum set.
Other alternatives include a Thursday evening gathering for worship led by EMU sophomore William (Billy) Seidel and prayer meetings in Northlawn residence hall.
On Sunday mornings, students fan out into churches in the surrounding community for worship. Many students attend more traditional congregations and others find meaning at churches like The Table, Resurrection Fellowship, a house church that meets on campus and Aletheia, a local church plant geared towards college students.
‘Celebration’ and Bible studies
"Celebration" is a student-led song, prayer and praise worship service held 9 p.m. each Sunday in Martin Chapel of the seminary building and open to everyone.
Student-led Bible study groups keep springing up. This spring semester, senior Timothy Shenk and senior Cheryl Heatwole are facilitating weekly inductive Bible studies on the Gospel of Mark. Shenk notes that it "requires the efforts of every participant to make the scriptures come alive."
Shenk, a senior liberal arts major from Harrisonburg, said students gather early Thursday morning in his Parkwood Apartment for a light breakfast, followed by what he termed a "communal discovery of the biblical text."
"This method was used at the Urbana missions convention that I attended last December," Shenk said. "The emphasis is on observation – reading a portion of text – usually individually, then often discussed with one other person, then returning to the larger group for interpretation and application. It’s exciting."
Shenk and Heatwole are nudging their study group through a half chapter a week, and since it’s unlikely they’ll finish the entire book by semester’s end, "We hope this opportunity will continue beyond that," he said.
Last fall, Shenk helped initiate a response to the fighting between Israel and Lebanon they called "Prayerfully Sleeping on the Hill." Students camped out on the hill overlooking campus, prayed about and discussed the conflict and ended up writing letters to refugee children.
The group moved to the nearby Discipleship Center when the weather turned colder and continued the observance until the semester ended.
So what’s next? Martin Burkholder would like to "help students reflect theologically on the lyrics of songs they use.
"Do the songs we sing reflect our theology or do we simply like how they sound?" he asks. "We give students a lot of freedom in what is used in worship, and I don’t want to quench the spirit in any way, but reflecting seriously on what we sing will help bring greater authenticity and integrity to all our worship."