Graduating Into Church at Pfeiffer
Many United Methodist congregations watch helplessly as their high school graduates fade from view, “graduating out of the church” as they leave high school behind, says Dana McKim, an ordained elder and pastor of The Village Church at Pfeiffer University.
“Local churches don’t know what to do with them,” McKim explains. “Sunday morning is not an optimal time for engagement of college students.”
Pondering an answer to this problem led McKim to The Village Church on the campus of Pfeiffer University, his alma mater.
“Here, we are graduating people into the church,” McKim says. “We do that by letting them take charge of it on their own.”
In 2007, the former Pfeiffer campus chapel in Misenheimer, N.C., population 700, became a full-fledged chartered congregation of The United Methodist Church. Five years later, McKim serves as its pastor while students and non-students combine to serve as The Village Church Council, its governing body.
Church attendance is never mandatory, but university officials keep open the option by reserving the 10 a.m. slot each Wednesday for worship. No classes, meetings, or other campus events take place during that time.
As a result, students find their way into the church and many go on to participate and lead. One recent Wednesday found more than 100 congregants – the majority students – singing along with a four-piece band as words to contemporary hymns flashed across a massive video screen overhead.
Diamond Pate, 21, a senior sitting near the front in the classical sanctuary, called her time at the university “the best four years of my life,” crediting Pfeiffer’s unique campus congregation for helping develop her faith and putting her on track for a life of Christian leadership.
“It’s all about servant leadership,” said Pate, a religion major from Las Vegas. “I would even say I’m learning more outside of class than in it, through service projects, mission trips, and other outreach.”
Offering a wide range of activities on and off campus, the university encourages students to look for opportunities to serve at home and abroad. McKim, who has done mission work in Guatemala for two decades, organizes a trip to that country every year at spring break.
Spiritual growth is not only about reaching out. It’s also developed from within.
Patty Meyers, the school’s Christian education coordinator, leads faculty and students in a small group prayer after Wednesday worship, focusing on missionaries the church helps sponsor in Guatemala, Africa and other places.
“God has done so much out of this small place,” Meyers concludes.
Pfeiffer has about 850 students enrolled on its main campus and another 1,200 who attend classes at satellite locations near Charlotte and Raleigh. Students come from 35 different countries and all parts of the United States.
Vera DeFusco, 20, of New Jersey, is a member of the competitive swim team at Pfeiffer. She said it was the combination of faith-based learning and the “small, family feeling” of its campus that led her to enroll.
Double-majoring in youth ministry and Christian missions, DeFusco is involved in the Peer Ministry Team and serves as a sports chaplain, supporting and praying for the university’s athletic teams. The program is one of many that are organized and run by students.
“We follow them; we don’t make them follow us,” says Sherri Barnes, associate director for church and university relations and associate pastor of The Village Church.
Some such programs last a year or two, others continue on indefinitely driven by the interest and participation of students, a feature of campus life at Pfeiffer that Barnes describes as “tradition interpreted through ever-changing lenses.”
“Flexibility is one of our guiding principles,” Barnes says.
While the campus church maintains a traditional order of worship, it allows plenty of room for students to be creative and spontaneous. Halloween Wednesday found the congregation attending a high-spirited “Zombie Chapel.” The following week, the All Saints Service was a serious, formal liturgy in memory of congregation members and associates who had died throughout the previous year.
McKim compares typical campus ministries to “silos” that operate separately from the rest of college life. At Pfeiffer, the church and the school are more integrated.
Wednesday mornings and Sunday evenings are established times for worship, but “church happens” in many other ways throughout the week, McKim points out.
“It happens in the gym with an inspiring speaker, or in a small group setting where students are getting together for Bible study,” he adds. “We really haven’t found another model for what is happening here.”
The overall trend in the church is one of an aging population. United Methodists tend to be older on average than the general U.S. population, and individuals under age 40 are increasingly under-represented.
While there are many theories that speculate about shrinking church membership rolls, McKim believes it doesn’t help that some universities — even Christian ones — focus on academic learning to the exclusion of spiritual development. That’s not happening at Pfeiffer.
“Here, you don’t have to check your faith at the door,” McKim says.
Melanie Overton, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s assistant general secretary for Schools, Colleges, and Universities, said spiritual development is a big part of attending any one of the 119 UM-related schools, colleges, universities or theological schools.
“Students attending United Methodist-related colleges and universities tell us that their schools are profoundly different from other types of higher education precisely for this reason: They are able to explore their faith as part and parcel of their academic pursuits rather than isolating one from the other,” Overton said.
McKim said allowing the student-led church to participate as an official congregation helps bring a sharper focus on the evolving needs and concerns of the younger generation. “We are a laboratory for the emergent church.”
*Elder is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C.