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What We are Learning about the Church from Calvin University Students

A panel of Calvin students with varying church and leadership church experiences will share how their participation in the local church has deepened their love for the Church as the body of Christ.

Joanna Wigboldy: Welcome to this webinar that we have titled “What We Are Learning about the Church from Calvin University Students.” My name is Joanna Wigboldy. I’m a program manager at the Worship Institute. I am on the Vital Worship Grants team, but I also lead a program called the Ministry Leadership Cohort.

The Ministry Leadership Cohort is for first- and second-year students at Calvin University. In the cohort, we explore how each student’s unique gifts and experiences intersect with the life of the church, regardless of what their vocational aspirations are. We have students from a wide variety of majors, of church backgrounds, with a wide variety of gifts. And we come together to build community, practice leadership, and love the church—through classes, through small groups, through church visits, and lots of other activities.

I’m delighted to be joined by these wonderful Calvin students today. Each of them has some association with the Ministry Leadership Cohort, but they also have a wide variety of other experiences that shape who they are and what they’ve brought to the cohort. And I want you to hear and see how we do that in the Ministry Leadership Cohort and at Calvin more broadly.

One of the hallmarks of the Ministry Leadership Cohort is that we learn from the unique way that God has made each one of us. And we bring that together in order to have a richer whole—so we do have a wide variety of students in the cohort. Let me briefly introduce these particular students, so you get a sense of that.

Rebekah Cross is a senior at Calvin. She is completing her Calvin journey. She’s a peer leader for the Ministry Leadership Cohort this year, and we’re excited to learn from her reflections on nearly four years at Calvin.

Sena Tadesse is a first-year student, so on the opposite end of the spectrum. She has been at Calvin for just a semester—and a semester in which she could not actually go to churches in person. And yet we are thrilled to hear the ways that the experiences of that single semester have already begun shaping her journey and experience with the church.

Kipp De Man and Fisher Pham are both sophomores in the Ministry Leadership Cohort. And what’s interesting about these two is that they have similar experiences on paper, and yet they have different personalities, different gifts, different backgrounds and so they what they’ve learned from those, what they bring to the whole from those different experiences enriches the whole as well. And so I wanted you to see what that looks like, how we all bring something different to the Ministry Leadership Cohort and then, of course, to the church—that we are richer in the church when we have lots of different gifts and experiences.

I’m going to let each of these students reintroduce themselves by sharing their church background and what they have been involved in during their time at Calvin, whether that’s on campus or off campus, that has shaped their understanding of church.

Fisher, I was hoping you would lead us off. Tell us about your church background and what you’ve been involved in that’s shaped your experience of the church and your understanding of the church.

Fisher Pham: I grew up in a Baptist church—very evangelical, contemporary worship. I went there all my life until last year. I didn’t really have any reason to leave the church besides the fact that there weren’t very many service opportunities. And I view service as a very integral part of being in the church, and I really wanted to find a church that had more opportunities to serve.

I really wanted to look for something specifically in musical worship, because that’s what I’m studying as part of my minor—my congregational ministry studies minor. So I was looking for an opportunity there, and through Calvin—through another Calvin student—I got connected with the church that I go to now, which is a small Orthodox Presbyterian church plant. It used to meet at the Prince Conference Center; now it meets off campus.

At the time that I started worshiping there, I wouldn’t have considered myself a Presbyterian. I was still kind of hanging on to the title of a Baptist. Over many conversations with my pastor, particularly about infant baptism, I’ve now kind of switched denominations officially and consider myself an Orthodox Presbyterian.

My experiences at Calvin have really enhanced my understanding of church in a lot of ways. Even though I’m a biochemistry major, so my primary studies aren’t really in that field, I am part of the Ministry Leadership Cohort and studying for a ministry minor. So I’ve had a lot of opportunities to, primarily, experience other types of worship that I didn’t even know about before coming here. Before I started attending Calvin, I barely knew anything about any other denomination. I didn’t even know that church government beyond the local church was a thing until starting classes here.

So whether it was doing church visits with the cohort or studying various liturgies in my Music and Worship class or even attending last year’s Worship Symposium, my experiences at Calvin have really broadened my knowledge of other denominational worship practices.

And I could go into a dozen different ways about how that broadening has affected my understanding of the church, but that’s really the biggest way that Calvin has—that my experiences at Calvin have shaped me, is just by that broadening of my experiences.

Joanna Wigboldy: Great. Thank you. As a leader of the Ministry Leadership Cohort, that’s one of my main goals in that first semester, is to broaden people’s experiences.

Kipp, can you share what your church background has been like and then your experience at Calvin?

Kipp De Man: My story is much like Fisher’s. Before I delve into the specifics of the context and the denomination, I think it’s important to say that I grew up homeschooled. I was homeschooled all the way up until college. And what that meant for me is that I didn’t have social groups that weren’t church related. I didn’t have extracurriculars that weren’t with my Christian friends or at the church I went to. And so there was really no division between my social and my religious identity.

And I think that that’s important to say because I, much like Fisher, went to the same church for the first 17 years of my life. And it was a church that was really focused on internal discipleship, and that was great for me because I had lots of extra time and, like I said, not a lot of extracurriculars.

So we were super invested in this Baptist megachurch for decades, my family and I were. And then a couple years ago, we had sort of a social and ideological fallout with the church and had to transition out of it. And frankly it’s been sort of the defining experience of my life, I think, just because I didn’t have an identity that wasn’t rooted in that church. And I didn’t know what to believe when I wasn’t in that church. I didn’t know who my friends were when I wasn’t in that church.

So we transitioned out of that big, Baptist, rich megachurch into this tiny little 250-person OPC in a poor part of Grand Rapids. We really couldn’t have chosen something more different than our previous experience, and I think that that gave us an opportunity to sort of rest and also reexamine the church as a whole, and understanding that it is diverse and it’s different. And much like Fisher said, I think that has been the more defining thing that I’ve learned—both in my time at Calvin and in that transition out, is embracing the diversity within the church and the multiple different ways of doing it.

In addition to that church switch, I think that this pandemic and not really being physically in a church should go on the list of things that sort of define my church background—and having to sort of sit back and really think about what it means to be in a church when we aren’t physically together.

As far as things at Calvin that I’ve been involved in that have shaved my experience, the Ministry Leadership Cohort has been huge, just as I’ve gotten to know a lot of people, a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of diversity of opinion. And sometimes that’s challenging, but I think it’s been a really great challenge for me to see the different ways that people come at doing this whole church thing. And I’ve really appreciated that.

In addition, I am a Barnabas. So I’m a Bible study leader in the dorms, and I’ve appreciated that for similar reasons—just seeing the different themes or verses or ideas that stick out to people in Scripture as we sort of digest it together.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thanks. Sena, tell us about your experience.

Sena Tadesse: Mine has been a little different because up until I was 13 or 14 years old, I was raised in Ethiopia, and so the church establishment and everything about it was quite different than what you would see in the United States. I went to a church called Ethiopian Evangelical Mekane Yesus, which is—basically, you can compare it with a Lutheran church here. But doctrinally, it was quite different. So when I moved to the United States, I went to a church called Discovery. It’s in Cutlerville. I was there for about two years and then I moved to LaGrave, where I’m a member of right now. Both of them are CRC.

During my time there, the things that I was involved in basically involved children’s ministry and worship, which also kind of paved a way for me to be involved at my school, Calvin Christian High School, to lead worship there as well.

When I moved to college, my expectations were—if it was a normal year—to be involved as much on the music aspect of it, but the fact that I was in Ministry Leadership Cohort kind of changed a lot of my perspective on that too. I was able to become more intentional about the time that I seek God during my day. As a biochem student who—I came in deciding to be a biochem (major)—but there wasn’t really much time for me to think of my relationship with God as much intentionally.

So when I joined the Ministry Leadership Cohort, it kind of led me into this broader, like Fisher and Kipp said, understanding of—oh, worship can be like multiple different things. It doesn’t have to be where I am gathered with other people who have the same intentions as I have. My studies could be, basically, that worship as well.

Joanna Wigboldy: Can you tell us a little bit, Sena, about other informal or formal worship experiences you’ve engaged with at Calvin?

Sena Tadesse: Yes. It was mainly Bible studies on my floor and sometimes chapel, like watching in between my classes. And the other thing is my friends and I started this worship group. It’s not really a worship group, but we would meet once a week, and we would talk about—well, one person would play the guitar, and so we said, Why don’t we start a worship night once a week so we can gather together and sing together?

And so we started this Friday nights, to just come together either in the basement of a dorm or at the dock in the Calvin eco-preserve. And we would just sing together for an hour or an hour and a half, and that would be the perfect way to spend and kind of meet God, in that sense.

Joanna Wigboldy: I appreciate the initiative that’s demonstrated there. We’re not able to gather in in our churches, but we’re still finding—you’re still finding—ways to create community around worship.

All right, Rebekah. As the person with the most experience, let’s hear from you.

Rebekah Cross: I think the common theme throughout ours is the exposure to the diversity of the church. For me, I’m a PK, so that’s a pastor’s kid. My dad is the pastor of my home church, Northside Community Church in Harare, Zimbabwe. And so I’ve only ever attended that church,

for the most part—other than when my dad got a week off and we would visit another church. But this was our community, this was our support system. This church, as Kipp mentioned, really was my identity and all that I knew church to be.

And then coming to Calvin, at the beginning of the semester we have this event called Cokes and Clubs, where all the local churches come and set up these booths. And so me and my roommate walked around to these tables and just collected a wad of brochures to churches that we either really liked the people we connected with or were just curious about. And I spent my entire freshman year visiting a different church almost every Sunday, and it just blew my mind at just how different worship, church, could be and could look.

I think that’s really the summary of that entry point into church—was just discovering the differences. And then having to step back and think about what I wanted in a church was a really hard thing to do, because at the beginning, I was looking for the church that looked exactly like my church back home, and no church looked like my church back home.

But I was beginning to learn other things, and then also developing my own theological background and understanding that informed the way that I was moving into these church spaces, moving into chapel spaces, Bible study spaces.

And so those deeper conversations continued to frame it and continue to shape me even to this day, as we encounter changes through the pandemic: What does it mean to attend church or not to attend church, as it has been for the past semester. So yeah, that exposure and exploration of church has been big.

Joanna Wigboldy: Good, thank you. I’m just going to reiterate that we’ve heard that, for most students, they’ve been at the same church for their whole lives when they come to Calvin. And what we do—particularly in the cohort, but this happens pretty naturally outside of that too—is students discover that there are lots of different ways to be the church, and there’s no one right way. And that’s, as Rebekah said, kind of mind-blowing and beautiful but also very disorienting.

One of the things we do in the cohort is we try to facilitate that disorientation a little bit, in saying like, “Okay, so”—I’m going to pick on you a little bit here, Kipp—“Kipp came with a difficult experience of church.” But not a lot of students do, and so it was actually really important for students to hear that from Kipp because they can come with this really rosy, like, “the church can do no wrong” kind of feeling.

But we’ve tried to introduce, like, the church can be a source of pain. It’s made of human beings and human beings are fallen, and so what do we do with that? And then we explore all these different ways, all these different good ways that we can be the church. And it’s a very rich and life-giving experience.

Another thing I’m hearing is that you don’t want to be passive consumers. You’re all interested in being involved. It’s not about performance, it’s not about the best music, it’s about, What can I bring?

So riffing off that a little bit, how do you understand your role as a college student in the church? What uniquely do you have to bring, and what uniquely does the church have to offer you? Kipp, could you go first this time?

Kipp De Man: Like you said, I sort of have a difficult background with the church, a complicated relationship with it. And so I think that, for me, a lot of coming to understand my role in the church is learning to love it again. Learning to want to be a part of it again. Where, sort of the problem with having eyes is that you can’t unsee things. So then you leave this church experience that’s painful, and all the things about it that are painful are super obvious to you, and then you go to other churches and you see the same things.

So there was definitely a sense of dislocation from the church for a while, and I didn’t know if I could fully throw my weight behind it and be like, Yeah, I’m a Christian. And even for a while, I think—and I’m still working through a lot of this, frankly, is sometimes feeling like I have to make a distinction between being Christian and being a Jesus follower. And I don’t love that, and I’m trying to resist it.

But I think that trying—you know, for a while I did what I think a lot of people would do, and I just sort of tried to distance myself a little bit from the church, tried to get some space. And I think that that is a necessary part of the process, but I think that the more that I step back and the more I tried to ask questions of truth—so like, instead of thinking through what I’ve been taught, what do I know to be true? What does the Bible actually tell me about what it means to be Christian? The more I realized that distancing myself from the problem isn’t really going to fix it, nor is it going to bring healing for me.

So it’s sort of been this strange wrestling with my desire for justice for the things that my family and I went through and having to just remember that vengeance is the Lord’s and if there is justice to be had, it will be his. But also remembering that the most important command is “love God and love others,” and that’s not something that we do effectively on our own, right? That’s not something that I can do in isolation.

And so, even though I have my misgivings about the church, I think it’s important for me to learn to love it again. Because God is going to use it, whether I agree with it or not. So yeah, I’m still—that’s a process, that’s not a landing place. I’m trying to learn to not love all of it, because there are things about it that absolutely should be rejected, but put my weight behind it again and love God and love others in it.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thank you. Sena, tell us a bit about how you see your role in the church as a college student.

Sena Tadesse: I think I was going to say something similar about it too. Most of the time, I think we struggle to identify what the church is apart from it being an institution. And so it’s really hard to see the people apart from the place. And so trying and learning to love it no matter the flaws, because it is made from broken people, so we cannot expect to have a perfect church.

And I think despite the flaws that we see and things that we might not always love about it, just loving others and intergenerationally connecting the church together is something that I am trying to find my role in. And so I think it takes an important decision, in a sense, to make that intentional—to connect the young with the middle aged and the older generation, all together.

And so as a college student, this is still something that I’m trying to figure out, because I haven’t gone to church in person in a really long time. And so, once I start being more involved in the church physically, I think integrating other parts of the community together and bringing it into the church, and taking that space of being the voice, will be something that I want to look into as well.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thank you. The Ministry Leadership Cohort, in the second half of their first semester, takes a class called Disciplines of the Local Church, where we really do focus on loving the church and recognizing its flaws. So I’m hearing that come out right now, which is a joy and—sad that we have to think about it that way, but also it helps us move forward in loving the church. And I’m happy to be hearing that.

Rebekah, how do you understand your role as a college student in the church?

Rebekah Cross: I think there definitely is that duality in being a college student of, we’re moving into this space—for me, I was new to the country, new to churches, and so having to re-find my place within that church and relearning how to exist in that community by seeking mentorship as I was encountering all these worldview changes and theological debates. So seeking that mentorship and support to wrestle through all those really hard things.

But then also this desire to be active in the community and playing a part of it, wanting to give to the church. Being a PK, I did—pastors kids, we get roped into everything, and so I was used to being a part of something. And I moved into a church where no one knew who I was or trusted me. And so learning how to then find my place in service, stepping up into children’s ministry, going to soup kitchens, things like that—I still wanted to play that active role, but it took time in order to build that community and that trust.

It’s a bit like giving and receiving tension, I think, as a college student, where you’re learning, you’re learning, but also, I have something to share and give as well.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thank you. Fisher?

Fisher Pham: Broadly speaking, I don’t want to generalize completely, but college students are in a in a very unique phase of their life, where they’re not very experienced, they haven’t put on very many decades of church experience yet, but they’re also in a situation where they’re being constantly trained to absorb an overwhelming amount of information in a very small amount of time. Which is just prime conditions for learning.

So I do consider myself primarily a learner as a college student. And I don’t—again, for different college students this could vary by a lot; there could be situations where you’re doing a lot more teaching than others—but I think generally and especially for myself, I think that college is definitely a time for learning, both in academia and also in the church.

Personally, I also see myself … as a servant. I mean, that was the biggest reason why I left my previous church, was because I didn’t really have a place to serve. I didn’t have a place where my desires could meet the church’s needs in a way that I felt was right for me.

So, at the church that I’m at now, at the time when I first attended they didn’t have a pianist, so all their worship was either accompanied by a single violinist or completely acapella. So the very first Sunday that I visited there, I played for their worship, and I’ve been serving there every single Sunday since. And that’s a huge, huge part of my life. Both in church life and just life in general, service is incredibly important to me.

Those are how I see myself in this stage of life, and I don’t think either of those things will ever truly go away, but they might shift and morph over time.

Joanna Wigboldy: I love that, it’s like classic church plant: Welcome, we need you to do something. If you want a place to serve, go to a church plant.

I think what I heard overall, but especially from Rebekah, is when you—we’ve mentioned this a little bit already or alluded to it—that when you go to college, you really have to make your church life your own. You’ve sort of been able to ride on your parents’ coattails before that, but you have to own it. And I hear a lot of initiative-taking during a time of great transition, so that’s a—I’m proud of you for taking that initiative. But also recognizing, and maybe what we need others to hear, is college students are trying really hard. They’re taking initiative, so please be open to that if you’re at a church and you’re finding yourself welcoming college students in.

You all mentioned, in some form, learning. During this unique time, these four years when you’re a college student, you have a strong learning posture. And I think we could launch that into sort of a corollary question of … how do you see the role of other generations in the church? If you’re a learner and a servant, what is—is there a unique role that other generations have to play?

Sena, would you be willing to start us off?

Sena Tadesse: Of course, yes. One thing that I could have mentioned earlier, too, is hospitality and that sense of community should be a role that every generation within the church should take on, especially at this time, where it’s really hard for a lot of families to maintain that economical and a lot of other aspects.

But on top of that, I think, each generation also has their own kind of role within the church. One thing that I found is most of the time I’ve had people who have had more experiences than I have as mentors. And it’s helped my spiritual life a whole lot, because I would be trampled with questions sometimes, and I would just go and ask and just be myself, in that sense.

For the younger generation, I feel as though they kind of keep us responsible, like more so—we want to be role models for them when we see it from their perspective. So, for example, let’s say I have a five-year-old brother, and if I know that he’s watching my actions and my words every day, I am more so leaning towards, Oh, he’s going to see this and he’s probably going to do it again another time, so I have to watch my words and my actions in front of him.

In that same sense, I think, especially students that are in high school and middle school kind of keep us college students a little more on that responsible sense, then we can model for them what it could be like to be a Christian and to show that within our actions as well.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thanks for including both sides of that from your own location, generationally. Fisher, tell us about how you see other generations.

Fisher Pham: I really like what Sena said about hospitality. That’s something that’s been super prominent for me in my own church. Welcoming in someone for a homecooked meal is,

I think, one of the kindest things that you can do and one of the most welcoming things that you can do.

And I can only view the older generation from my own standpoint as a learner, so primarily I view them as teachers, though I’m sure the learning aspect never goes away, and I’d love to hear what the older generations think of themselves and see if … they primarily emphasize teaching or learning.

But from my own perspective, I view them as teachers, having a lot more experience than we do and being able to counsel us on different situations in our own life that they might have gone through before. You know, advising us not to do certain things or kind of just watching us fail and being there for us when we do. So I view them as mentors and teachers.

For the younger generation—and this has been a very prominent point of learning for myself as I kind of learn more about the practice of infant baptism and the beauty of it and just kind of realizing that children are an essential part of the church and they’re baptized into the church. And I view them primarily as reminders of God’s covenant faithfulness—that he is faithful to us throughout our whole lives and that he will never stop providing for us.

And like Sena said, a point of responsibility to guide them and teach them and strive so that they may not have a day in their life where they didn’t know Christ as their Lord and savior.

Joanna Wigboldy: Rebekah, tell us about how you see the role of other generations in the church.

Rebekah Cross: I think it is so important to have that spectrum, even if as a college kid the only place I see families is church. But I think in terms of the growth of the church, I think it’s so important as often the younger children are disruptors, they provide the simplicity and the joy within worship spaces that I think can sometimes break the rigidity that can exist as we get into our traditions, our ways.

But the older generation is needed in order to provide that guidance, that structure in which to approach those spaces. And so I think every generation is kind of feeding off their own. For me as a college student, the retired folk is a generation I’m extremely grateful for, because they will often take me to Meijer to do groceries or cook meals. They really are able to invest in people.

But then being able to have mentors from all walks of life, whether they’re entering the workforce, leaving that workforce, help in spiritual development is such a blessing. And so I think all of them kind of feed into each other and allow the growth, is the biggest thing for me as a challenge, and support each other in that.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thanks for highlighting that interdependence that’s present in many ways, not just intergenerationally. Kipp, how do you understand the role of other generations in the church?

Kipp De Man: My idea of it is pretty similar to a lot of what’s been said before about mentorship. I think ideally there wouldn’t be—it wouldn’t feel like there’s a significant difference between generations and how they participate in the church. I think that our practices have to adapt over time—like the specifics of how we go about working in a community, or sometimes the specifics of how we worship, sometimes those do have to change. But I think ideally, between generations a certain posture would be maintained, a certain way of approaching the gospel and thinking about it. You know, sometimes the specifics change, but the heart and the intention is still the same.

So I think mentorship is really—should really be the only difference, in my mind. Obviously, older people are going to mentor younger people, and that’s just how it’s going to go. But we all sort of work together, even across those generations, with a common heart.

Joanna Wigboldy: I appreciate the way you talked about it as a posture of mentorship. And what I’m hearing is mentorship occurs among—older people mentor younger people and, of course, the learning goes both ways. But that everybody has a role to play in terms of serving the church and leading in the church. So when you say that’s the only difference—is mentorship—I think what you’re saying, then, is that everybody has a role to play otherwise.

Let me just reiterate: food. At CICW, we believe good things happen over food. There’s these theological overtones of the feast and Lord’s Supper, but we know that food just facilitates community. So if you want to be in community with college students, feed them. Plus, it’s fun.

All right, I would like to hear from you—I think, maybe the key question is why. Why is it important to you to be connected to the institution of church, to a distinct worshiping community? Why is that important to you?

Kipp, can I go back to you, even though you just wrapped up?

Kipp De Man: I think, in many ways, that the big why question is what I’ve been asking for the last few years. Why should this thing that has caused me this much pain or has put me through this—why should I continue to be a part of it? Or what good is it serving? And things like that.

And I don’t know—there’s not like a straightforward answer to that question as much as I think it is a command to be a part of church. Like I said, I do see it as part of loving God and loving others, but I also think about the whole way that the New Testament is structured—is that it’s embodied, right? Jesus has a physical ministry that is about feeding people, that is about healing people, that is about being with people. Even with sinners or even with the most unqualified or lowly of people.

When we read Paul’s letters to specific churches, he’s not talking to a you; he’s talking to a you all. There’s an embodiment to church that I think is undeniable. The gospel will be embodied, and I think even when we look back on the Old Testament, one of the most repeated phrases in the prophets is talking about the way that Israel treated the orphan and the widow and the foreigner.

And that is not something that happens in sort of a lofty, abstract theology that’s about doctrine. That’s something that happens in feet washing, in breaking of bread, and things like that. And so

I think it’s unavoidable, when I look at Scripture, to not see that the church has to be a part of Christianity. Like I said, I think sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve had to make a distinction between being a Jesus follower and being a Christian, but to be a Jesus follower, it means to be in a church, it means to be in a community.

I don’t think that that means that I totally agree with everything. I don’t think that that’s the point—that I would totally agree with everything. But I think that—once again, I think about Jesus eating with sinners, with tax collectors and prostitutes, with Samaritan women at wells and things like that, and it’s not about the perfection of people. It’s not about the overall moral goodness of people. He showed up anyway.

So, why church? Because I don’t see a way to be a Jesus follower without being in the church. I also recognize that I think that going back and fully investing in a church is going to be an important part of me actually leaving behind some of the pain that I’ve felt. It’s going to sort of be a final—maybe not a final, but a necessary—part of me leaving some of my past behind and actually forgiving people and healing and things like that.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thanks. You just named a whole bunch of things that the church is good for … that makes the church the church. Forgiving, eating together, justice. And that’s beautiful. And we do it wrong sometimes—more than sometimes—and yet, Jesus pulls us back and says, Let me teach you how to do this right.

Sena, why is it important to you to be part of the church?

Sena Tadesse: I think I’m going to circle back to what we’ve been learning in Ministry Leadership Cohort last semester. We talked about how the small church, which is the local church, fits into the perspective of the global church. And so I think being a part of church on a smaller level kind of connects us to people who are across borders, people who are made in the image of God, and they are all brothers and sisters and in the image of God.

We are able to connect with that, in a sense. For example, my DCM class is learning about refugees at the moment. And so the welcoming part, even historically, when you see it: church started welcoming other people who are helpless. And so before it was taken into nondenominational NGOs and everything else, it initiated within the church. And so that welcoming and hospitality aspect of church is what kind of draws me in.

At the same time, my other point is that it is a grounding space. The church, it kind of lets us be gathered in one place, but at the same time to be able to fulfill what Jesus Christ calls us to do: to go into the world and proclaim the name of Christ. I think at the back of my head always, I know that there is a place where I can be. This is where I can find God and to be able to spread that into the rest of the world as well.

And then there is the community aspect of it too. It’s not just like a social club; it is more than that, because we’re all gathered in the name of Christ and we’re able to fulfill those callings when we are together as well.

Joanna Wigboldy: Amen. Rebekah, tell us about “Why church?” for you.

Rebekah Cross: I think the thread of community is really the foundation for me, especially being international and moving to this—literally, my life up and lifted to come to college. And so, finding a church was a grounding space for me, because there were people that just loved you and I didn’t necessarily have to do much or prove myself in any sense.

So there was a lot of comfort in that, and then these individuals would follow up with you in the week—how can we be praying for you? And just to know that there’s people out there, supporting you on your journey, has been really foundational. And so that fellowship, that community, has meant everything to me, and I think really helped me find my place here in America and in Grand Rapids as we kind of lean into that.

But then also looking for the ways in which my faith—what my role was. And so paying attention to how I was integrated into the church, kind of reflected on what the future may look like, as I was wrestling through the hardships of the church. And so I was paying attention to the institution on the global scale, the leadership, a little bit more than I think I did growing up. It was more looking at those nuances in structure, rather than faith development. So it was kind of a bit of both.

Joanna Wigboldy: I heard the phrase “grounding space” from both Sena and Rebekah, and that’s just really interesting. I’m just going to let that sit for a moment while we hear from Fisher.

Fisher Pham: I think there’s a multitude of benefits that the church has for its people. Alongside all the pain that it can cause, I think there’s—even as an institution, the church can be a great thing for people. … Another point of commonality between Kipp and I is that I was also homeschooled up until college. That was my whole social outlet, and it was a great thing in a lot of ways. I still keep in touch with a lot of people from that church or from the community events that we would hold and stuff like that.

So there’s that. There’s financial support that it can offer to people in need. There’s this profound welcoming in of people who have been shut out. And all those things, maybe not across churches completely, but I think that’s an ideal function of the church.

But even then, I don’t think that’s what my answer to “Why church?” is. Because I don’t think that it’s about us or about what we can receive, but instead how we can share in that community and how we can contribute to it. And like Kipp said, it’s a biblical command. The act of corporate worship is seen throughout the Old Testament under the Mosaic covenant, it’s fulfilled in Christ as our eternal high priest, and it’s carried on throughout the New Testament in the early churches.

And I think that as you read the Scripture, corporate worship is a clear non-negotiable. And in the current online environment that we’re in, that’s a really—that makes a lot of really tough questions for people who can’t go to church in person or whose churches aren’t livestreaming. I know those are probably pretty rare nowadays, but—situations like that, where … it’s hard to participate in the body of Christ because of the global pandemic that’s going on. That’s a serious, serious issue and that brings up a lot of very, very hard questions.

But I think rejecting the church, for the sake of it being the church, otherwise—all online situations disregarded—I think … it kind of cuts against what being a Christian is. And I really think that the church is a very essential part of it. To have a relationship with Christ, you really need to have a relationship with his body and be a part of that.

So that’s what it comes down to for me, is that it’s inherent to my faith. It can’t be separated from being a Christian. It’s an integral part of it.

Joanna Wigboldy: Thank you. So one thing … I think you sort of allude to, Fisher, is, you said it’s not about us, it’s focused on God. It’s responding to God. Yet, you also refer to all these benefits to us, so there’s this overflow of what happens. It’s like, we obey God and we are church together, and yet we learn how to be good Jesus followers by being connected to the church. But that’s not our primary reason for going. It’s just a beautiful, complicated way that God uses the church, and I love it.

If I were to sum up what I’m hearing from you, is there’s a convictional aspect. Like, God has commanded us to be part of the church and I am convicted of that. And there’s also an experiential aspect of—and yet when I do follow that command, this is what I experience: I experience community, I experience the love of God, I experience the love of my neighbor, I experience a grounding space, I experience home.

And those things come together. Those things are best when they are together. If you’re just in it for the experience, as soon as the experience is tough, you just walk away. But if you’re convicted, it gives you this energy, this motivation to work it out.

But if you’re just in it for the conviction but there’s no experience, it’s back to that—one of you said something about rigidity. This wasn’t the context in which you’re using it, but there’s this sort of—there’s no life to it. So, conviction and experience go hand in hand here.

We’re coming to the end of our time. I’m wondering, Rebekah, Sena, Kipp, Fisher, if you have any last comments. Having heard from each other now, having articulated your understanding of church yourself, is there anything you want to leave us with?

All right, you’ve said your piece. I’m going wrap us up then, but flag me down if there is something that you want to say. I do want to express my profound gratitude to the four of you—Rebekah, Sena, Kipp, and Fisher. I am so grateful that you’ve been willing to be vulnerable with us here, that you’ve been willing to share your experience in service of God and the church.

I want to end by just reminding you of the Ministry Leadership Cohort that all these students are a part of. Students interview for a place in the cohort during their senior year of high school, and then the cohort is part of their transition into Calvin.

So if you know a high school sophomore or junior, at this point, who would be a good fit for the Ministry Leadership Cohort, please let us know by filling out a nomination form on the Ministry Leadership Cohort web page, which is dropped in the chat.

Thank you all for joining us. We hope that this has sparked good conversation and good insights for you about how your church can love and interact with college students. Go in peace.