Impact of students' faith felt in nearby churches

Lead Pastor Brian Kruckenberg preaches to a room filled with GCU students at New City Church.

Editor's note: Reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click hereAlso in this issue: Spiritual formation workshops provide faith tools Blessed to compete: Lopes integrate faith

Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU Magazine

Brian Kruckenberg preaches to a church filled with students, and the energy has renewed the faith of their elders.

“If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a hundred times or more. Older people come up to me after a service and say, ‘Oh, man. I’m so encouraged that young people are coming,’” said the Lead Pastor of Phoenix’s New City Church. “If you read the news, young people are walking away from the faith. They don’t want anything to do with the church.”

Like Kruckenberg, David Stockton of Living Streams Church spoke at Chapel this semester and can count on seeing large flocks of GCU students in his congregation.

Just a few miles north on Central Avenue, Living Streams Church Lead Pastor David Stockton also sees large sections of young people in the pews inspiring older members of the congregation.

“They love it,” he said. “They think it’s super encouraging, and it gives them a lot of hope. They watch the news. They hear the stories.”

But this story has a different headline.

Nearly all of the young people in those churches – in fact, large percentages of the entire congregations – are students at Grand Canyon University.

The continued growth of spiritual life on campus is being felt more than ever off campus, at churches all over the Valley. New City and Living Streams are just two examples.

No one forces students to get up early on Sunday morning and drive to church, just as attendance is voluntary for nearly everyone at weekday worship services on campus.

And there’s one other interesting twist to these off-campus expeditions: Students aren’t handed a list of recommended churches. They go where they go by word of mouth or simply because they want to join a roommate or friend.

But the point is, they go, and they are passionate about it. In today’s world, that is very big news. 

Worship Manager Jared Ulrich speaks to The Gathering on a Tuesday night during the spring semester.

Campus culture is built on spirituality

There are no church services on campus for a simple reason: University leaders want students to populate local churches. But the desire to find a church starts with the spirituality on campus, which has featured big crowds this year at the four major worship events.

Students' faith comes out in a variety of worship services on campus.

GCU Arena has been packed regularly for Chapel, a church-style service on Monday mornings that usually includes music by the all-student Worship team and a talk by a visiting pastor or missionary. Front-row seats are so prized, some students run in to claim them.

Students circle the ground-level stage for The Gathering on Tuesday evenings in Antelope Gymnasium, creating an intimate, college worship night setting that this spring has focused on the Gospel of Luke. Bibles are handed out to anyone who wants one.

Sanctuary, a quieter, more contemplative service, has found a monthly niche on Thursdays in Sunset Auditorium. Students are asked to enter in silence and are greeted by dimmed lights, soft music and a lectio divina style of teaching that featured the healings of Jesus in the fall and the Book of Psalms this semester. The final service of the spring, on April 14, will bridge the study of Luke from The Gathering and also feature a communion service.

The Prayer Chapel overflows on Monday afternoons for the spiritual formation workshops, which include an off-campus retreat once per semester and are designed for instruction and participation.

Dr. Tim Griffin, Vice President of Student Affairs, Dean of Students and University Pastor, marvels at the sights he sees regularly.

“We’re spoiled,” he said. “We don’t even know how good we have it here, to be around thousands of students who love and follow Jesus. We see them every Monday morning. We see it every Tuesday night. We see them all over campus.

Director of Spiritual Life Erik Nelsen sees a lot of value in students going off campus to churches.

“We get so used to seeing these great students following Jesus and encouraging each other and impacting the community on campus and off campus that we don’t realize how powerful that is when they go off campus to a local church and people witness them wanting to serve Jesus, wanting to be together in community at local fellowship.”

The church experience is different from what happens on campus, and that’s beneficial.

“One of the things that students will never get here that they can get at a local church is what I would call vertical integration,” Director of Spiritual Life Erik Nelsen said. “If you look around here, everyone’s your age. You don’t really see a lot of families and kids and babies. You don’t see people your parents’ age or grandparents’ age.

“When a student goes to a local church, they’re going to be around older, wiser people who can pour into them with more life experience, and yet our students can serve young students and be an example. You see the whole body of Christ that we can’t replicate at Chapel.”

Nelsen often is asked by new students and their parents, especially during Welcome Week, which churches would be best. His answer is consistent: GCU, which is nondenominational, does not promote one church over another.

Griffin wants it to be an organic experience that goes something like this: A student asks around in the residence hall and finds someone, maybe a resident assistant or someone in a life group, who has a car and goes to church.

The devotion of students was obvious right from the start of the 2021-22 academic year, during the Ignite ceremony.

“One of the things that we’ve really tried to do over the years is encourage those kinds of conversations, that kind of openness,” he said. “That’s part of college. You’ve got to step out of your comfort zone.”

Students have plenty of opportunities on campus to find a comfort zone for their faith. The goal is to provide the inspiration and tools to both learn and grow, which Worship Manager Jared Ulrich compares to digging instead of just raking.

“When you read the Bible, you’re just scratching the surface,” he said. “It’s good. It’s useful. But you’re just raking up the leaves and making it nice and neat. You’re getting a surface-level perspective on it.

“But studying the Bible is like you’re getting a shovel and digging and actually getting in deep. When you want to find those hidden gems, you can’t rake them, you’ve got to dig. And the further you dig, the more value you’re going to find. If you put in the work, it’s going to pay dividends.”

Those dividends are paid every day in GCU’s sense of community, and then the students take it to local churches and make deposits there. Everyone reaps the rewards.

GCU student Sophia Thompson gets baptized following the service at New City Church.

Churches welcome influx of students

Kruckenberg had four demographic groups he wanted to reach when he opened New City just north of downtown Phoenix: minorities, artists, professionals and college students.

Kruckenberg saw a dramatic increase in GCU students at his church once he started preaching on campus.

At first, the last group was under-represented.

“Lord, you haven’t given us very many college students. Maybe that’s not what You have for us,” he prayed one day.

Then he spoke at The Gathering. He had coffee with Griffin, beginning a friendship that continues today. He was invited to speak at Chapel. Students liked him and wanted to hear him more.

Problem solved.

“I don’t know how much longer it was, but I’ve never thought that again,” he said. “The floodgates opened. I do think the word of mouth on the campus of GCU, in particular, has been how we’ve gotten the lion’s share of the students that attend here.”

Students fan out at churches all over the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Christ’s Church of the Valley is a popular landing spot and is on course, in plenty of time for the fall semester, to open its 13th campus in the Valley just a couple of blocks north of GCU on 35th Avenue. GCU students already have scouted the facility.

“Our heart every time we open a campus is 100% for the community, but we also know that GCU is part of that community,” said Ron Sanders, Pastor for the Maryvale site.

Other consistent destinations for GCU students are North Phoenix Baptist Church, not far from Living Streams; Christ Church Central Phoenix, right down the street from campus on Camelback Road; and Pella Communities in Glendale. But there are so many others.

Derrek Sterken (left) and Brielle DeLaHoussaye wound up at New City by word of mouth, not by direction from University leaders.

Senior Derrek Sterken wound up at New City in exactly the way campus leaders prefer: He went wherever other people in his peer group were going and found that he liked New City best. He’s part of that big group sitting together.

“It isn’t assigned that this section is for GCU students, but it just happens like that,” he said. “What I like a lot about GCU students is how outgoing they are. They’re just willing to make their presence known, and I think that helps a lot with people who aren’t as outgoing. We’ve had a lot of students come and say, ‘I just felt so seen here.’ I think that’s just the spirit of GCU.”

Likewise, sophomore Brielle DeLaHoussaye was going to another church when her roommates came back to the residence hall and excitedly told her about New City. She was hooked, especially when she heard Kruckenberg preach.

“He does the hard topics that nobody wants to talk about, but he always bases it on biblical standards,” she said. “He never puts his own opinion in. He doesn’t shy away from those topics, but he comes at it with such grace and love.”

Kruckenberg’s affinity for research and acumen for public speaking come from his background: He was an attorney before hearing God’s call.

“He’s a great Bible teacher, and he teaches in a way that college kids like,” Griffin said. “He’s got a little professor in him. That’s his legal background. He thinks deeply about things, and he’s a great communicator.”

DeLaHoussaye (left) says being at GCU has helped grow her faith.

The topics are down-to-earth, every-day and real. “That’s kind of how I teach,” he said. “Here it is. Here’s the reality.”

Up at Living Streams, Stockton has a similar approach, style and sense of humor. Like Kruckenberg, he was on the list of Chapel speakers for this semester. And he, too, is encouraged by what he sees in GCU students.

“They seem different than the millennial generation in some ways,” he said. “They really want sound biblical teaching, and they don’t trust the voices coming through media. The more we’ve gotten serious about the biblical perspective, the more we’ve done teaching, the more they’ve just been like, ‘Yeah, we love this.’”

GCU students are having a major impact at both churches. Living Streams Associate Pastor Ryan Romeo estimates that more than 150 Lopes have come through his internship program, and Sterken and DeLaHoussaye are two of the 13 interns this semester at New City – 12 of whom are from GCU.

But the churches also are having an impact on the students, and that starts with what happens on campus.

“GCU has really helped grow my faith,” said DeLaHoussaye, who didn’t have many Christian friends in high school. “Having people share their faith, it’s a whole different experience. It showed me a different type of love and who God actually is. GCU helped me form my own faith and establish my relationship with God.”

Students joyfully sing along with the Worship team during Chapel.

Campus growth has defied the skeptics

Years ago, long before the campus population increased dramatically, there was a theory that students’ spirituality would shrink as the University grew.

University Pastor Dr. Tim Griffin says faith and worship are "in the DNA of the institution."

The opposite has happened.

“GCU is a special place,” Kruckenberg said. “I don’t think there probably are a lot of campuses like GCU in the country, really, that have the size and the scope of what GCU has become. It has the athletics and the student life and the vibrant campus activities, but to me it doesn’t seem like the faith has been diluted. That’s never the impression I get when I’m there.”

Nor is it the impression of people who are on campus every day.

“It’s in the DNA of the institution,” Griffin said. “I think over the last 10 to 20 years in GCU’s metamorphosis, students came here and saw a great opportunity to be engaged, and because of that it has fostered this incredible community on campus. So when the weekend gets here, because there’s this value about going to church, they go and find churches.

“Now what I think has happened in the church community is GCU has become this huge conduit for college-age kids coming to Phoenix. As a result, some of the churches have said, ‘We’re going to open our doors to them. We’re going to respond in a positive way.’”

And once they do that, students start spreading the news.

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


Related content:

GCU Magazine: Worship Arts students filling needs in local churches

GCU Today: Students' passion for God flares in a rush at Ignite

GCU Today: Kruckenberg gets to the heart of a touchy subject

GCU Today: Stockton challenges Christians to be courageous

GCU Today: It's a new GCU ministry for Spiritual Life director


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