Students knit in a Wednesday chapel break-out session called "The Chronicles of Yarnia,” hosted by administrative assistant Barb Byer. The small group sessions during chapel time have expanded faith-sharing opportunities for students, faculty and staff at Eastern Mennonite University. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

New campus worship format broadens, deepens engagement

With the beginning of the new academic year at Eastern Mennonite University comes inevitable changes – a new schedule, new courses and new demands on time. But this fall, one of the mainstays of the weekly schedule looks and feels much different.

Consolidated into one weekly meeting that alternates with convocation, campus worship is now twice the time, supported by a multitude of volunteer leaders, and hosted in a multitude of different places.

Professor Jim Yoder (left) speaks during a STEM-oriented small group session in the Suter Science Center attended by five faculty and staff and approximately 20 students. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Word is, too, that the multitudes are responding.

That makes absolute sense to pastoral assistant Lindsay Acker. “One worship style is never going to fulfill everybody’s spiritual needs,” she says. With different “break-out groups” meeting around campus, Acker summarizes the new format as “so much opportunity to do your own thing.”

STEM fans gather in Suter to explore science and faith. Seminarians host “welcoming prayer.” A residence life director offers co-exploration of a book about the journey from Christian to Christ follower. A staff member opens space for entering the Gospel through informal dramatics.

And there’s more, Acker says. “There is a queer theology break-out, celebrating a community that is too often ostracized and silenced in Christian spaces, including EMU. Peace Fellowship is working on an interfaith break-out group to co-host with the Center for Interfaith Engagement. And have you heard about the ‘Chronicles of Yarnia’ group? They are gathering for knitting and reflection. I love that spaces like these are now being welcomed and supported by the university, and I hope it can lead to greater change and understanding.”

A long-term re-visioning

This revisioning has been years in the making.

During many chapel worship services of the past, campus pastor Brian Martin Burkholder kept an eye on the clock, watching the 30 minutes trickle away. So, too, did some of the audience – heading out of Lehman Auditorium to class or other commitments while music was playing, a speaker was wrapping up final conclusions, or announcements were being completed.

Yarnia knitters pause for problem-solving.

The amount of time for chapel wasn’t the only concern shared by Burkholder and the campus ministries council. They were asking questions attentive to enhancing faith and spiritual life on campus.

Would other formats for gathering be more formational? Could more options be offered to meet more community and individual needs?

The experimental answer is programming that is both “invitational and intentional,” Burkholder says, offering multiple spaces in a variety of venues facilitated by volunteer campus community leaders – students, faculty and staff. “This structure expands our time together, offers choices for how a person wants to engage and brings people into spaces around campus where they are both comfortable and challenged. We are broadening our ministry to better meet the growing diversity of our student body in connected and collaborative ways.”

Lehman service brings together different worship styles

Lehman Auditorium provides the largest space for a traditional service, highlighted by music offerings from different student groups. (Photo by Riley Swartzendruber)

As worship coordinator for the campus worship service hosted in Lehman Auditorium, Abigail Shelly coordinates between the many student music groups on campus, including Hymn Sing and Celebration worship music teams, “to form different worship experiences in song.”

Though gathering in Lehman may have a traditional feel, Shelly says the space has opened up to explore the “meshing of different worship styles” through music and speakers. It’s still “collective, corporate worship,” but with an edgy feel that she describes as “a call to step into the inclusivity of a collective, community-supported space of worship while also embracing the new – and, potentially uncomfortable – ways that other brothers and sisters express Christian faith.”

‘Some kinks,’ but also a new energy on campus

Pastoral assistant Luke Hertzler calls the new format “a beautiful and energizing space for the EMU community to come together centered around Christ … embracing unity in diversity.”

“We all have different ways we experience and love God,” he said. “We hope the break-out groups will be an outlet for those who feel more comfortable in a smaller setting or have a desire to be a part of other learnings and conversations. Regardless of what our God-given calling or passion is, we can still be a part of the same revitalizing, Spirit-led movement emerging across campus this year.”

Though Lindsay Acker agrees that the break-out groups are a “great way to celebrate our differences,” she sees some “kinks to work out.” She’s not convinced yet that all students feel welcome or that they really understand how convocation, break-out groups and campus worship relate to each other. The fact, though, that EMU is trying something new towards the goal of engaging with the community’s diverse spiritual needs is meaningful.

“I hope that in doing so, we can grow and keep ourselves accountable to students’ needs,” she said.

The new format will be reviewed and evaluated throughout the semester, Burkholder said.

 

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