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Congregational and Ministry Studies: How any Academic Major Can Bless the Church

Calvin College’s new Congregational and Ministry Studies department helps students explore how their gifts and interests intersect with the work of the church in serving God’s kingdom.

There’s a line in a Gungor song that really spoke to Kelly Larsen when the band played at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“‘Song for my Family’ is kind of a depressing look at the church, but one line really gripped me. ‘His bride is still alive’ is repeated over and over in the chorus. It’s a beautiful image, from the Bible, of Christ as the bridegroom and the church as an unfaithful bride. It makes me tear up,” Larsen says.

The song expresses a confusion shared by many young Christians. Larsen cares a lot about experiencing Christian community. The Calvin College international relations major has studied and served in Bosnia, Romania, and Vietnam. And, to quote Gungor, she’s been in congregations where it seems people are hiding in their pews “while the world bleeds.” Like many in her generation, Larsen wonders how to connect in and through a church that’s doing God’s work in the world.

“A lot of these things I’d been thinking about already, but CMS gave me the words to express them. It helped me realize there are deep theological underpinnings for why I’m uncomfortable with some churches,” Larsen says.

CMS stands for Congregational and Ministry Studies, a department Calvin launched in 2009. CMS is growing by word of mouth. It attracts art, business, engineering, religion, and social work majors who want to explore how their gifts and interests intersect with the church.

Church or community?

Many young Christians identify more with Young Life or Youth for Christ than with a local church. They come to college wondering what makes for Christian community and whether it’s the same as church. Daniel Camacho, a philosophy and religion double major, says CMS helped him answer those questions.

“Abraham Kuyper made a distinction between church as organism and church as institute. The church as institute is believers who are gathered in worship to receive the sacraments and be accountable to each other by church discipline. The church as organism is when believers go out to try to give witness to the Christian faith beyond the institutional church,” Camacho explains.

“The Christian church and its worship are always supposed to be the animating force for Christian community. Christian communities cannot exist completely cut off from the institutional church. The biggest thing I learned in my CMS intro course was to look at church as a primary community that informs me about my primary identity as a son of God and a Christian,” he adds.

Camacho says CMS has given him memorable stories of church worship: “Liturgical practices help me learn what it means to be human, to exist with my neighbor. They enrich my imagination for Christ-like living.” He learned how worship and Martin Luther King’s sermons shaped the civil rights movement—toward an end goal of a “beloved community” where all are reconciled. Camacho describes how Irish Catholics were able to forgive the priests who abused them after the archbishop of Ireland washed their feet in a liturgy of lament and repentance.

Living a liturgy

Kelly Larsen says that CMS helped her fall in love with the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). This love began when her intro CMS class read Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh’s book about Chile under Pinochet’s military regime. She learned that Chilean torturers and their victims often attended the same Catholic masses. Bishops began denying the Eucharist to known torturers.

“They realized that torture and disappearance of people was essentially a broken Eucharist, and the only possible solution to this disembodiment was the embodiment of the Eucharist. For them, taking communion together became a healing ritual of ‘this is the body together.’ It was a counter-ritual to the ritual of torture,” she says.

Larsen learned to apply the word liturgy not only to church worship but also to daily life practices. “A lot of what we engage in as a culture is essentially liturgical because it’s formative. My habits of how I eat and where I shop and whether I drive or take the bus are formative practices,” she says.

That same semester, she studied what Paul says in 1 Corinthians about unity in Christ’s body. Paul reprimands the rich for “not discerning the body.” Meanwhile Larsen’s developmental psychology class discussed whether children should be allowed to take communion in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. If ‘discerning the body’ is mainly about personal relationship with God, then little children might not have the maturity to discern right from wrong and truly repent.

“But maybe the Eucharist isn’t just a vertical relationship that makes me think of Jesus’ personal sacrifice for my sins, though that’s definitely a part. Maybe discerning the body is also realizing that if I am not taking communion in a way that’s appropriate to my neighbors—whether that’s because of class distinctions, like in the Corinthian church, or because horrible things are breaking people apart from each other, like in the church in Chile—then either of those is a broken liturgy.

“The Eucharist is a Holy Spirit-filled counterpoint. The more we partake, the more we become what we are called to be. By taking bread and wine and repeating words and practicing those things, we slowly become transformed,” Larsen says.

Experiencing koinonia

Christians often use koinonia, a word with Greek roots, to describe deep fellowship among people who share the bread and wine or juice of communion. Through their CMS courses and internships, Larsen and Camacho have discovered that true koinonia is not always comfortable. Larsen attends a church where, a few years ago, she “wouldn’t have chosen to go.” But, because she believes the body of Christ should welcome all people and depend on the Holy Spirit in worship, she worships in a church “where you can show up if you’re homeless.” Each worship service includes an extended koinonia time. “In most churches, you do a simple handshake and stay safe in your pew. Here, especially in summer, people are sweaty, because we dance when we worship. With all the koinonia hugging, your hair will get messed up. You’ll smell like each other’s sweat. It’s uncomfortable yet friendly and beautiful,” Larsen says. Camacho feels called to pastoral ministry but hasn’t yet discerned which denomination or tradition to join. “I’m trying to think beyond myself and where I feel comfortable or what I like. I’m thinking about how to enter an existing corner of God’s holy catholic body where I can be of most service,” he says.

Looking at Church with New Eyes

Young adults who feel invisible in church find that Congregational and Ministry Studies courses give them reasons to ask questions in churches. Students in CMS 151 Church and Society do a semester-long research project in a church of their choice. They present their findings in a public poster session that identifies the church by denomination, not name.

Kelly Larsen did her church study at a nondenominational megachurch known for its teaching pastors, career and college ministry, and discipleship opportunities. The class made her notice new things.

Pulling into this church parking lot, you observe demographics by the sort of cars there are, how clean they are, how big they are, how people dress. I started to realize that this wasn’t a place where someone who is poor or homeless or black or lesbian would feel comfortable. If you would have asked church members, they’d have said, ‘Of course, people are welcome in our fellowship.’ But people from lower income brackets would never attend, partially because it’s in a wealthy suburb and you can’t get there by public transportation. The way we orient our practices and worship spaces sends a lot of unconscious messages,” Larsen concludes.

Some students from metro Grand Rapids studied the churches they’ve grown up in. “I got more interested in helping my church do what it’s supposed to do—be a welcoming church for everyone,” Bea Williamson says.
Forrest Schellenberg researched how his church understands and implements its “ideology of missions. I learned about all the ways the church supports missions and missionaries. This church maintains strong interaction between congregants and missionaries.”

Several students found a new church home in the congregation they studied, such as Andrew Gelderloos. His dorm has a partnership with a multicultural church that hosts an afterschool reading program. Tutoring there made Gelderloos curious about the relationship between the church’s outreach ministries and ministries geared to members’ spiritual maturity. He was impressed to find that these ministries were interdependent. He also noted that the church struggles “to replenish itself” as aging members slow down and young families move away.

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Start A Discussion

  • In what ways does your congregation help young people understand why you do certain things in worship and how those practices should shape they way they live out God’s good news?
  • Kelly Larsen and Daniel Camacho grew up in small congregations with strong intergenerational relationships and opportunities for all ages to use their gifts. Both were asked to preach as teens. What relationships do you see between congregation size and opportunities for youth to get involved in church leadership?
  • Look at who plans and leads worship or serves on committees, the church board, education, or outreach in your church. How many are single or younger than 30? If the demographics of your congregational leaders doesn’t match the demographics of who attends, why not?