In 1979, a group of Eastern Mennonite College students started Celebration, a Sunday night worship service that was completely different from the formal daily chapel they were required to attend. Now a club with an advisor from Campus Ministries, the service continues today with a regular group of attendees. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Since late ’70s, student-led ‘Celebration’ service offers worship through contemporary music

At Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), there is always more room for God’s presence. In 1979, a group of students led by Jerry Holsopple, now a professor in the Visual and Communication Arts Department, wanted something more than what the institution’s daily chapel had to offer. They came up with the idea for Celebration, which remains a part of EMU today.

Celebration draws students on Sunday evenings at 9 p.m. to Martin Chapel for an hour of student-led worship. Student leaders recently hosted an evening gathering early in the fall semester at Thomas Plaza to introduce Celebration to new students and encourage returning students to attend.

Student-initiated ‘authentic’ worship

Celebration was supported entirely by students at the beginning, Holsopple says. Meetings in the Discipleship Center on the hill were advertised only by word-of-mouth. Because a campus minister did not offer help, Celebration was not officially supported by EMU, Holsopple recalled. No faculty or staff were involved.

“I think we were looking for authentic worship,” Holsopple said, “for being able to share our lives, our struggles, our joys and to be involved in our own spiritual lives in ways that didn’t seem to be happening in the more formal and large setting of chapel.”

According to the student handbook of the time, chapel was held daily. “EMC [Eastern Mennonite College] places emphasis on corporate worship and gatherings of the whole campus community,” the handbook reads. “Daily chapel represents this value. It stands as a unique characteristic of EMC and is based upon the belief that Christians strengthen one another in the faith through regular worship. Chapel is designed to enhance the Christian commitment.”

Students came to Celebration to join in a more informal style of worship than what they had grown up with at church or in the home, Holsopple said. Celebration served as a place for students to use their own gifts and to develop an understanding of what it meant to be leaders in a faith community.

From left: sophomore RJ Ocampo, junior Zach Sauder, junior Megan Bishop, junior Grayson Mast and sophomore John Sanchez perform at "Rock the Plaza."
Junior Megan Bishop, sophomore RJ Ocampo, junior Zach Sauder (not visible), junior Grayson Mast and sophomore John Sanchez perform at “Rock the Plaza.”

At first, the only instruments were Holsopple’s 12-string guitar, which he said was very loud, and another guitar played by a student named Kim. The students had to project their voices as there were no sound systems and microphones.

This search for “authentic worship” went beyond the festivities at Celebration. Holsopple says not all students liked the idea of required chapels. A few students, including him, received permission to put together Bible studies that fulfilled the chapel requirements. Holsopple remembers leading a study of the book of Hebrews that forced him to dig deeper into his own spirituality. “The creation of Celebration was an extension of that desire for more,” he says.

Connecting ‘to each other and the Lord’

Though Celebration is not officially a part of Campus Ministries, it has been a student club since 2007 and is overseen by a campus ministries staffer.

“The fact that it is led and attended by EMU students reinforces the desire to have connection with each other and with the Lord,” says Carmen Miller, Celebration advisor. “I’m so grateful for the time and talents students have shared in Celebration.”

Today, students are still seeking God’s presence at Celebration with a little more musical variation. Junior Grayson Mast, the current student leader, says the goal is for broad appeal. Last semester, the leaders included hymns in their song rotations and invited the Gospel Choir to lead Sunday evening worship. “These different musical styles offer a place for students from different spiritual backgrounds to come and worship our God together,” Mast says.

A service in spring 2015. (Photo by Andrew Strack)
A service in spring 2015. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Since the beginning, Celebration has been about worship more so than a message. Mast says they do not typically have speakers, but those present will get into small groups for a time of prayer.

Junior Hannah Shultz, a regular attendee, says the event is special because it provides a place to worship with others who love God. Shultz also worships with dance, and Martin Chapel provides enough space to do so, unlike other churches.

Shultz talks about moments that stand out to her during her Celebration attendance. In one instance, “We sang ‘Guide My Feet’ while walking around the room,” she says. Several times, a woman from the community prayed at the back of the room while the students were singing.

Junior Emily Augsburger also participates in weekly Celebrations. “It’s just really cool to worship together with other people in the same boat as you, age and school wise,” Augsburger says, “It’s a good reminder that though this next week of classes may be crazy busy, God is still bigger.”

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