Dr. Jason Santos was preaching one Sunday at New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, and his message stuck with Tawnee Hunter that morning. The former Associate Pastor at New Wilmington PC challenged the congregation to reach out to its next-door neighbor – Westminster College.
“What he said to our church was, ‘We support a lot of missions overseas and global missions, and that is really good,’” Tawnee said, recalling Jason’s sermon. “But he said, ‘Be mindful that there’s a mission right across the street.’ That really stuck with me.”
Those words helped motivate Tawnee and her husband Dave to become actively involved in New Wilmington’s evolving campus ministry. The couple has taken an active role in the church’s new Friday Night Alternative, a coffee-house-style program that was designed to provide the Westminster students a Christian place to gather, do homework and listen to college artists perform their music. It’s just part of a college ministry at New Wilmington that also includes a family-student “adoption” program and Sunday morning Sunday School classes.
Located in an overflow room to the sanctuary at New Wilmington, Friday Night Alternative was started in the fall of 2014 as a short-term get-away for the students at Westminster, which is a Presbyterian-affiliated school.
“We’ve been using musicians – guitar players, singers – from the college,” Dave explained. “They (the students) come over on Friday nights, and we bring snacks and brownies. They come over and play some games, and it’s worked out pretty well.”
By providing such an area, New Wilmington is hoping to fill a void. It’s believed that college students who don’t connect with a church during their first semester in college normally never will.
“We’re hoping that the college students, because the church is practically on campus, will own the space,” David said. “My daughter who went to school there said a lot of the students have never been in a church, so they don’t feel comfortable in that space. We want them to hear the Gospel if they haven’t or if they are seekers and don’t really have an act of faith, we want them to see that the church is a place where they can find that. In order for them to find that they need to feel comfortable just walking in and knowing that there’s a space where they’re OK.”
Friday Night Alternative was made possible in part due to a $3,500 grant New Wilmington PC received from the Synod of the Trinity. (To learn more about the Synod’s congregationally-connected college ministry grants, click here.) The money helped buy tables for the room, which also includes a small refrigerator and a coffee machine for the students to use. The room can be used any time the church is open, but on Friday nights there are dedicated activities for that space.
“They use it as a place to get away,” Dave said. “During mid-terms and finals, the libraries are full and the dorms are loud, so the church is a quiet place for them to come and study.”
During finals week, the church extends the hours of the program to allow students to come in throughout the day to study for their tests. Since the college chaplain, the Rev. Jim Mohr, attends New Wilmington PC, he has been able to get the word out about the activities at the church.
“It has been a joy for me to work with the Hunters as they develop our ministry to college students at Westminster College in New Wilmington,” Jim said.
The Hunters originally became invested in the college ministry program at New Wilmington when their son and daughter attended Westminster about six years ago. The program began with some picnics in people’s homes and monthly dinners after church. It evolved into a group that met at an area coffee house and transformed into that coffee house being housed at New Wilmington PC.
While Friday Night Alternative usually draws between 10-20 students, the Sunday morning Sunday School classes only generate interest from 6-10 people on a given Sunday, “but we’re pretty impressed they show up at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning,” Dave admitted.
“Part of our goal is just to make our church open so that kids can say, ‘This church is for me,’” Tawnee added. “‘I can pass through, I can stay a while, I can bring a friend.’ When we invite people to the coffee house we say, ‘Bring a friend; come and go as you please.’ College kids don’t want to feel like they are hooked or have to stay. I think our goal is to have our church be an open place where kids can come and gather, feel safe and maybe feel God’s presence as well.”
Future plans for the newly-renovated space dedicated to Friday Night Alternative, which is open to students of any denomination, include making it a room that would house a contemporary service for the college students. That idea came from their former Associate Pastor Jason, who is now the Associate for College Ministries at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The college ministry at New Wilmington PC is named UKIRK, which is the brand name for the network of college ministries across the denomination for the PCUSA.
“Jason had told us that going across the denomination in different surveys that they’ve taken of college students, particularly Presbyterian students, the one theme that he’s seeing is that students want communion, they want to have a youth group,” Dave said. “So we’re thinking, without conflicting with anything that the chapel is doing, of ways to offer specialized worship services at special times for students. We’re really trying to provide different avenues so that they can at least walk through the doors of the church.”
Over the summer months when there are less students on campus, Friday Night Alternative is not running, but with the amount of international students that are still in the area at that time, it could provide for a future outreach at New Wilmington PC. It’s one goal that the Hunters have for the future.
“We’d like to integrate students more into the life of the church,” Dave said. “The students used to sometimes huddle together in one or two pews, but what we’re seeing now is students sitting with families and other individuals from the church. My vision would be to look out into the church and not see college students sitting together but to see college students sitting together with friends and families in the church that they’re connected with.”