New session gives students road map for faith

Spiritual Life director Erik Nelsen speaks to students during the Faith in Your First Year session in Sunset Auditorium.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Expect your faith to be tested, they were told.

Freshman Jace Neal attended the session only hours after arriving at GCU for the first time.

Move beyond “faith at home.”

It’s OK to have doubts. Just know how to deal with them.

But if incoming students at the first of four Faith in Your First Year sessions during Welcome Week needed an example of faith, all they had to do was talk to Jace Neal.

It was only his third day in Arizona and his first hours on the Grand Canyon University campus.

Like, ever.

He enrolled at GCU without having seen the place. He was trusting friends and video tours and what he heard about it from a worship leader at a Christian camp.

Oh, and one other thing: He’s from Spicer, Minnesota. That’s a long way to come on faith.

And yet …

“I already knew it was going to be the perfect place for me,” he said, “even though the weather is going to be a little different.”

Nelsen's goal is simple: Make faith a priority for students.

The population is different to the nth degree, too. Spicer is home to 1,167 people. The nearest big town, if you can call it that, is Willmar, which would fit comfortably on the 25,000-student GCU campus with room to spare. Now he’s in the middle of a metropolitan area that numbers almost 5 million.

“It’s a big culture shock. Willmar has 21,000, and that’s big for us,” he said. “It’s going to take some adjusting, but I’m meeting a lot of people, which is really cool.”

The Worship Arts major intends to meet a lot more with that chill attitude, starting with the students on the Worship team at Chapel when it begins Sept. 12. There was similar eagerness across Sunset Auditorium as Erik Nelsen, Director of Spiritual Life, shared the list of worship opportunities:

  • Chapel (11 a.m. Mondays, GCU Arena): Largest weekly student event.
  • Spiritual formation workshops (2:30 p.m. Mondays, Prayer Chapel): Provides practical tools to deepen faith.
  • The Gathering (7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Antelope Gymnasium): More of a college-style service, with a focus this fall on the Book of Exodus.
  • Sanctuary (7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Sunset Auditorium): A smaller, quieter, more contemplative setting.
  • Life groups: The floor of every residence hall provides another avenue for students to connect.
  • ALPHA groups: Designed to engage students in questions about worldview and God. For believers and nonbelievers.

Nelsen was thrilled by the turnout at the first two Faith in Your First Year sessions, especially considering it’s a new event and required a long walk across campus in the afternoon heat. Attendance was 65 the first day and 151 the second.

“These students wanted to make their faith their priority, which is what we hope for,” he said.

The session began with a prayer, of course.

A number of them came up afterward Tuesday and expressed their desire to be plugged into the campus faith community. That included the trio of Sarah Christensen, Ashlyn Janzen and Eliana Hall.  

“I really want to get plugged in with our life group and hopefully get a group to go to Chapel and other events,” said Christensen, who’s from Pittsburgh.

Said Janzen, from the area around San Luis Obispo, California, “What was really cool about this workshop, rather than just seeing that all these things are happening, is just that they’re prioritizing our individual walks with Jesus and our foundation. Addressing that there are going to be hard things and what to do about it was really helpful, and I feel a lot more hopeful going in.”

Hall, a Los Angeles native, probably spoke for a lot of students when she talked about “going to everything that I can and see where Jesus leads me.”

The Spiritual Life team, both employees and student leaders, is eager to assist Jesus in any way they can. Encanto Apartments resident director Matt Zielich, who has had several conversations with Nelsen about how to grow students’ faith,  was one of the speakers at the session and talked afterward about what he has seen.

“We’re learning as we come out of the COVID years,” Zielich said. “What are the new needs that need to be addressed? Because how things were done a few years ago are changing. There’s a new approach.

Encanto Apartments resident director Matt Zielich recognizes that students' faith was affected by the pandemic.

“We have a new group of students that have come in from different parts of the country who are at GCU because of closures in their own states. They’re also acclimating to a new community, and I think that that’s creating within each of the residence halls and the campus in general new questions.

“We’re trying to answer those and serve them well, recognizing that not everybody is a Christian here. If God has brought them here, what’s our obligation to serve them well and to walk them through faith, to model that?”

From the looks of it, the answer is simply to keep providing those tools. Neal, like a lot of students, has the foundation. He was part of the student leadership and the worship team at Willmar Assembly of God. He’s ready to apply that zeal in new ways in his new home away from home.

“There is a lot of opportunity to experience God through the three services they have throughout the week and through different community outreach,” he said. “I’m excited to see what it brings.”

Now that he’s actually here.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


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(Moses addressed Israel, reminding them of God's deliverance of them from Egypt, and His commands given to them:) "You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out (from bondage and delivered you.). The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear." (Deuteronomy 7:19)

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