Students have lifted campus worship to new heights
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the February issue of GCU Magazine, an inside look at the unprecedented growth of the University in the last decade. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Rick Vacek
Spiritual Life leaders at Grand Canyon University faced an excruciating decision midway through the last decade. They had two voluntary worship services for students, Chapel on Monday mornings and The Gathering on Tuesday nights, but the latter wasn’t quite the gathering they wanted – especially toward the end of each semester.
“Chapel was fine, doing well, but it was like, ‘Do we need another one?’” said Jared Ulrich, Spiritual Life Worship Manager.
There was talk that, as GCU kept expanding at such a rapid pace, the spiritual growth and tightknit community feeling would fade. Would incoming students continue to be committed to worshipping God together? More to the point, would they continue to do so voluntarily?
But like so many of the other A-or-B decisions that marked the 2010s at GCU, everything just clicked. The Gathering lived on, and last fall it became so popular it had to be split into two sessions every Tuesday night. Meanwhile, more students than ever flock to GCU Arena for Chapel, which usually features a speaker from a local church. The all-student Worship team provides the music for both events.
Assistant Dean of Students Danielle Rinnier, who graduated from the University in 2007 and has been an employee ever since, said today’s GCU student “is more committed to following Jesus and hoping others do the same in serving and living out their faith than when I was here.”
“That doesn’t happen, normally, as colleges grow,” she added. “That part of their heritage usually fades into the background and goes away. It’s pretty significant that GCU is the opposite.”
How did this happen? People across campus point to God’s guiding hand, and the Spiritual Life staff extended that guidance by doing what has worked in so many other GCU settings: It let students own the experience but also trained them properly.
“It was more or less listening to students and allowing them to lead their peers in a way that they think would be powerful and effective, Ulrich said. “It’s harder to do that than just doing it yourself. If you want it done and done well, done with excellence, it takes a lot of time to pour into them.”
The intimate setting of The Gathering, in Antelope Gymnasium, is a plus.
“Kids just love it. It’s their thing,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, Pastor and Dean of Students. “I don’t know what turned it. I really don’t. All of a sudden, there was this new attitude.”
Maybe it’s because the spirituality on campus isn’t contained in the worship services. It’s everywhere.
It starts in the residence halls, where the life leaders – trained by the Spiritual Life team – organize and lead Bible studies.
“They’re not professionals. They’re not going to be as good as a 25-year, experienced pastor,” GCU President Brian Mueller said. “But it’s their fellow students. The caring is so genuine and authentic.”
It continues in academics, where instructors are empowered and, per the GCU leadership team’s directives, expected to share their faith.
“A lot of faculty come here having come out of industries or out of an educational experience on a secular campus, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can talk about God? Well, that’s a new day,’” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology. “The leadership has made that conversation possible.”
Faculty members receive further spiritual leadership training through the One Foundation program, which convenes monthly Lunch and Learns, each one led by a different college. The idea is for someone who teaches, say, mathematics to hear what’s working for a nursing instructor and then apply it in their own classroom.
Clearly, the sense of spiritual community is a big reason why students come to GCU. Their participation in Chapel and The Gathering has spoken volumes – and their singing last August at Ignite, the annual Welcome Week worship session for incoming students, was so moving, it moved Griffin to tears.
He thought back to the start of the decade, when Chapel attracted only a few hundred people to Ethington Theatre, then to the old North Gym. How could anyone have imagined the weekly scene these days in the Arena?
“Anybody who says they envisioned that, I don’t think they’re telling the truth because I was in all those conversations,” Griffin said. “But it came as the result of great students coming here. It wasn’t a mandatory responsibility as a student – I think it seeded a different mindset, a different perspective about that. They own it. They want it to be something different in their own life, so they come to give and contribute to the experience, and it’s remarkable.”
Late last semester, Ulrich was gratified when a student told him he attended The Gathering even though he was busy studying for finals. “I can’t miss this,” the student said.
There’s a reason for that, and you can’t miss it.
“I don’t know how many times I hear, ‘This is so cool that my classmates, my peers, people in the Worship Arts program, they’re the ones leading the worship,’” Ulrich said. “I think that means a lot to students. It’s created a lot of buzz and energy and buy-in.”
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].
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