Outreach to college students is a defining ministry of this Seattle congregation
By Aaron Willett
It’s a Tuesday night in Seattle’s University District, and for roughly 350 college students, the Inn—at the epicenter of University Presbyterian Church’s college ministry—is the place to be. Begun more than 40 years ago in a small building known as the Inn Chapel, the ministry now packs hundreds of students into the church’s gym each week for a high-energy worship service. On this particular Tuesday, clusters of young adults mingle in conversation over ice cream and popcorn in a narthex of sorts. At 9:05 the lights dim and students flood into the gym to spend the rest of the evening in worship.
The students listen with undivided attention as Ryan Church, director of University Presbyterian’s ministry with college students, delivers a message from the book of Esther, casting Esther as a contestant on the reality TV show The Bachelor vying for the affections of King Xerxes. Some 25–30 students play key roles in worship. This service—like all services—features one of the young adults sharing a testimony of faith. Students make up the entire music team. They welcome worshipers, edit videos, create powerpoint slides, set up the room and take down furniture and equipment after the service.
True to its name
Located just blocks from the University of Washington, University Presbyterian Church has long had a deep commitment to students. University is in the name and the DNA of this congregation. Since the founding of the Inn in 1971 by Steve Hayner, a former UPC pastor who is now president of Columbia Theological Seminary, the college ministry has symbolized the church’s commitment to outreach in its neighborhood.
“Reaching out to college students is ingrained in the fabric of UPC’s culture,” says Matt McCleary, one of the ministry’s small-group leaders. “It’s more than lip service. UPC’s pastors, staff and members are deeply dedicated to the university community.”
The college ministry seeks to cultivate a sense of belonging to the church as well as to the larger kingdom of God. As the ministry’s associate director, Janie Stuart, puts it, leadership is about helping students discover “you have something to offer the kingdom of God, and the church has something to give you.”
It’s a vision that transcends University Presbyterian Church—and even the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“University Presbyterian Church fully understands that collegiate ministry is not just about students and it’s not just about the church,” says Adrian McMullen, associate for collegiate ministries with the PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Mission Agency. “The people of UPC are not expecting college students to fill the pews or to create energy in their congregation. They simply want to help college students live an abundant life in Christ. They are asking for nothing but receiving so much in return.”
Mike Gaffney, a former director of University Presbyterian’s college ministry who is now vice president of the parachurch organization Young Life College, describes UPC’s ethos as “being present where you’re present.” Just as individuals should seek to be actively present in every moment of the day, he says, so should church members look at their neighborhoods and ask themselves, “What are you doing to be present where you’re present?”
UPC has answered that question by remaining committed to loving its closest neighbors—the university students—even as the rising popularity of nondenominational churches that cater specifically to young adults has diminished the numbers of students in Presbyterian pews on Sunday morning. By investing in outreach to the neighborhood rather than merely in membership growth, the church is seeking a larger “kingdom payout,” as Stuart puts it. “We’re not charged with creating more Presbyterians, and that’s never been an expectation.”
Building leaders and relationships
In their work with the Inn, Church and Stuart are firmly committed to student leadership. If a ministry is worth doing, Church says, “then by and large students drive it and own it.”
Like many involved in the Inn, Chanelle Huffman, a student at nearby Seattle Pacific University, has found herself challenged and stretched by taking on leadership roles. But it’s the sense of community that keeps her coming back week after week. At the Inn, she says, she “finally found a place where people love to actively serve God wherever they see a need, and who also enjoy having a lot of fun in the process. The Inn has provided me with some of the best friends I could have ever asked for.”
Nearly 80 UPC members volunteer their time to lead small “core groups” of students in prayer, Bible study and discussion each week. One of the things that stood out most for Inn participant Grant Gustafson, a student at the University of Washington, was the opportunity to form intergenerational relationships through his core group. “The Inn provided me with mentors to learn from and connected me with UPC and its rich community,” he says.
Stuart, who coordinates the Inn’s small-group leaders, says making sure “people in the pews on Sundays are invested” is key to building the kind of support necessary to sustain a successful church-based college ministry. Church suggests that any congregation considering starting a college ministry should first consider this question: “Do you have a team of people that are committed not only to praying but to being in the lives of university students—even when it can be hard?”
Just as she does with the students, Stuart reminds volunteers from the congregation that they “have something to give the kingdom of God.” And giving is a two-way street. Karen Stevens, a core-group leader, says the young women she leads “make me more alive in my faith.”
Campus mission field
The returns yielded by college ministries are not measured on a Sunday morning in the pews or the offering plate. “The campus is a mission field,” explains Gaffney, “and when a congregation treats it as that, it radically changes the expectation of what they’re trying to do.”
UPC has approached the ministry of the Inn through this lens, trusting that God is at work whether or not students are joining the church. Says Church, “We’re so grateful that we’re never evaluated on how many people took the membership class.”
This approach has opened doors to collaboration with groups such as Young Life College. The Inn benefits from Young Life’s expertise in outreach, while Young Life benefits from the small groups and theological depth of University Presbyterian. Church advises Presbyterians interested in campus ministry: “Don’t be threatened by relationships with other people who love college students. In fact, embrace them.”
Stuart shares a quote from Hayner (affectionately called a Haynerism around the office): “People over program.” The Inn is organized around students and their vision, not a staff-developed program. The staff’s responsibility, Stuart says, “is creating space for ministry to happen among students.”
Church agrees. “It’s not about our vision; it’s about theirs, and we have to listen really well to catch what that vision is,” he says.
This approach requires leaders who are willing to take risks. But as Church observes, noting the irony, “The key to success in college ministry is being totally willing to fail.”
Aaron Willett is communications coordinator for the Presbytery of Seattle.
College students on a mission
Overseas— For the past 59 summers, University Presbyterian Church in Seattle has financially and prayerfully supported college students in a service experience known as World Deputation. This spring, in a worship service at UPC, 32 college students were “deputized” for a summer of service in Cambodia, Ecuador, Russia, Kenya, Ireland, India and the Dominican Republic. To learn more, visit the University Presbyterian Church website.
Behind the camera—The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s office of Collegiate Ministries is sponsoring a series of student-produced videos about college ministries across the country. The first video in the series features the Inn, the college ministry of University Presbyterian Church. To learn more and view the video, visit the Collegiate Ministries website.
101 New Collegiate Communities
Establishing 101 new worshiping communities on or around college campuses is one of the initiatives proposed by a task force that has been studying the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s ministry with college students. The goal is to target campuses across the United States where there is no PC(USA) ministry or where the ministry is in need of new vision, funding or leadership and to work with congregations to establish worshiping communities of students. Over the next 10 years, the PC(USA)’s office of Collegiate Ministries will provide support and leadership for this initiative.
The effort is part of a larger movement to establish 1,001 new worshiping communities in the PC(USA) in the next 10 years. To learn more, visit the 1001 Worshiping Communities website.