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New Madison, Wisc., young adult ministry to debut in 2018

Presbyterian collaboration with Lilly Endowment hopes to address young professionals’ needs

by Gregg Brekke | Presbyterian News Service

Sunday worship at Pres House in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo via

LOUISVILLE — Not unlike many urban centers around the nation, Madison, Wisconsin, is undergoing what can only be called a renaissance. Lured by work in health care technology and other industries, hundreds of young adults are pouring into the downtown area to work and live in the transformed environment of housing, shopping and recreation.

But where will these young professionals find spiritual care and community?

That question is being answered, in part, by a coalition of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministries and congregations, all focused on providing “third space” alternatives for young adults to grow relationships, engage in service and deepen spiritual connections beginning in mid-2018.

The project is getting off the ground thanks to the initiative of Pres House, the PC(USA) campus ministry in Madison, with support from several local churches, John Knox Presbytery, the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, and a grant from 1001 New Worshiping Communities. A recently received three-year, $310,000 grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. provided a big boost for the funding of three staff members, a part-time chaplain and programs. An advisory board of young adults and local church leaders will work with staff to shape the ministry.

“There’s a strong sense of support from the community,” the Rev. Erica Liu, co-pastor at Pres House, said of the leadership and financial corporation with local churches and Presbyterian bodies. “That sense of partnership and collaboration amongst different entities is really exciting. Especially because nobody is going to directly benefit from [this ministry] — we’re not acting as a pipeline into one of these congregations.

“We’re pouring into this effort simply to equip and nurture young adults wherever they are at, and most of them are not in our churches.”

Liu said those engaged in campus ministry have a unique perspective for this type of ministry — they’re accustomed to working with people for years and then having them “move on.” Given that 86 percent of downtown Madison’s residents are between the ages of 15 and 34, there’s an expectation of transience.

“There are some lessons for the larger church about this way of doing ministry,” she said, noting the transient nature of those who’ve left college but haven’t yet “settled down.” “You cannot count on people coming and staying and having a traditional sense of membership. That’s not the way we operate. And how can we learn from that?”

The initial vision for the effort includes building community through potluck meals in community members’ homes; a monthly dinner with a program; weekly small groups that focus on study, faith sharing and prayer; and “Brews and Banter,” a weekly gathering in a downtown bar. It also hopes to provide space several times a year for evenings of storytelling, art and music, and ways for young adults to respond to the community around them.

Liu and her husband, the Rev. Mark Elsdon, came to Madison 13 years ago to work with Pres House. According to the Rev. Scott Anderson, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Madison and a Pres House board member, the clergy duo breathed new life into Pres House and the campus ministry in Madison. Although she’s quick to say the new ministry isn’t part of Pres House, Anderson and others involved recognize Liu’s leadership in initiating discussions and forming the vision for what is to come.

“We’ve been talking for at least five years now about what a ministry like this would look like,” Anderson said of the Pres House board acting as a “spark plug” to move the idea generation along for the new project.

“I’m keenly aware that we Presbyterians don’t really know how to do ministry that’s not traditionally church,” he said. “But there’s lots of support in town from congregations that have signed up to support the project financially. There’s a lot of goodwill around this as we get started.”

Instead of closing churches, as Anderson acknowledges is happening across the country and in John Knox Presbytery, he said, “Here we have an opportunity to expand ministry, which I think has really raised the hopefulness of the presbytery.”

As for the temptation to see the new ministry as a feeder for new members, Anderson said it’s not even a consideration for his congregation or other supporters.

“We had to be clear from the get-go, this is not about saving the institutional church — it’s not about gaining new members for Westminster or any other church in town,” he said. “It’s about reaching out and being in ministry with folks who have a spirituality that may not be formed very well, as Christians, and who may have absolutely no interest in any sort of institutional attachment.”

Liu says goals and benchmarks for the ministry are still in development and she hopes as the staff is hired and prepares to launch the effort they will take shape. She’s unsure if the ministry will aspire to numeric goals or participation measures other than to act as an incubator and learning lab for new models of ministry.

“This is an experiment, not a church plant,” Liu said. “Think of it like a flash mob. We want to be open to God’s Spirit doing new things that are outside the traditional church structure. This effort is not about creating a pipeline to local churches. It is about facilitating spaces that nurture young adults in their spiritual journey and empowering them to serve God in transformative ways.”

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