The house resembles a giant dorm room, or a clean frat house minus the alcohol. Framed snapshots cover the walls. T-shirts from various work trips are also pinned up. In the back, one room holds a Ping-Pong table and the end of the hallway contains an air hockey table. In another room, a Nintendo Wii.
Television monitors are for those unable to sit close enough to the stage.
Candles round out the mood. And, the students’ environmental awareness comes through with a can set up for recycling.
Four out of five freshmen said that religion or spirituality is a key part of their lives, according to a 2004 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey. In the never-ending reach for college students, the College House — operated jointly by St. Luke United Methodist Church and the Wesley Foundation — is one way that Columbus-area churches and campus ministries are getting creative.
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“They love it because it’s their place,” said the Rev. Jimmy McIlrath, the St. Luke minister of evangelism who also directs the college ministry. “They identify worship with the College House.”
About 300 Columbus State University students live downtown, with about 500 passing through to take classes. Another 6,200 undergrads come through the gates of main campus on University Avenue. About 9,000 combined students matriculate annually at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, Troy State University/Phenix City and Columbus Technical College.Reaching out, connecting
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The same: Many of these students are away from home for the first time — exploring newfound independence, finding or discarding or altering entire belief systems.
The change: Communications. A recent visit to the CSU main campus found students hanging out between classes on their cell phones, text-messaging or typing on their laptops in the Davidson Student Center. The many religious groups available to them seem to go with the flow.
“An old dog can learn new tricks,” said Tony Gray, for the past 13 1 /2 years the director of the Baptist Collegiate Ministries — formerly the Baptist Student Union. “But I prefer personal contact — a phone call or in person.”
Since he began his work here, Gray said the number of students who had jobs was maybe 20 percent or 30 percent. Now it’s the majority. So texting is a necessity.
“They have to work because of increases in cost all the way around,” he said. “Comparably, they get a good (education), but it’s expensive, period.”
Connecting comes mostly the first three years. By their senior year, students are disengaging more as they prepare for the “real world,” Gray said. “We barely see them their senior year.”
The BCM on University Avenue offers programming almost every night. Big nights are Thursdays and Sundays, with worship and Bible study. Mondays are outreach to students at the Davidson Center, which comes with free food.
“It’s about inviting and building relationships,” Gray said. “We’re trying to change the ‘Y’all come’ mentality” to reaching out to the students where they congregate.
McIlrath of St. Luke said the student leaders stay connected with others mostly through Facebook.
“E-mail for them is outdated,” said McIlrath, who uses it himself for mass announcements but also knows how to text.
“I’ve sent out six or seven (texts) today,” he said on a recent afternoon in his church office. One said, ‘Y’all did a great job in worship.’ I like it for the encouragement part of it.”
The purpose of the St. Luke college ministry, overall, is “to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said. Though most of the students are from Columbus State, a few are from Columbus Technical College and CVCC — as well as some recent grads. “The goal is to hook them as freshmen and try to build the base.”
The College House and its various activities was a hook in CSU’s favor for sophomore Amanda Auchenpaugh. While still in high school in the Atlanta area, Auchenpaugh, now 19, visited CSU friends who attended services at the house.
“That confirmed it,” she said. Now she’s an intern in the college ministry and helps in set-up and clean-up and organizing trips during school breaks.
“The biggest thing is having a good set of Christian friends,” she said. “It’s really hard to find Christian friends in college. There’s a lot of partying, and if you don’t have friends, you will get involved with the partying just to have something to do.”
The College House has proven convenient, as many students don’t have cars or don’t want to waste gas on traveling just a few blocks to the house. McIlrath said the Wesley Foundation would like to have a presence on the main campus but for now it’s concentrated downtown.
The College House is open Sunday nights for a meal, followed by worship and a message by McIlrath. Thursdays are free lunch days from noon to 1 p.m. There’s a ministry-sponsored Frisbee game at Lakebottom Park on Friday afternoons. Additional Bible studies are also available.
McIlrath, a former youth minister at another church, said comparatively the college students have their own life. Like Gray said, many work.
“These students have such a stressful life, with work and classes and relationships,” McIlrath said.
Sophomore Joseph Vonier of CSU is one of those. Recently married, he’s taking a full load and is the youth minister at Pine Mountain United Methodist Church. He’s also the vice president on the leadership team of Baptist Collegiate Ministries. “I’ve always found the BCM is a safe haven,” said Vonier, who’s from Cordele and is a transfer from Andrew College in Cuthbert. “When you come here you’re treated like family, and it’s OK to be you.” An English lit major, Vonier plans to go to a United Methodist seminary after college.
Leaving an impact
Derek Roberts is in an unique position as the director of Cougars for Christ, which is sponsored by Rose Hill Church of Christ. A 2007 CSU graduate and 2002 graduate of Columbus High, he’s been heavily involved in “C4C” since he transferred to the school in ’04. He became the C4C director in 2006, after a man named Fred Liggin got it started.
“College students are so often sold short by our culture and American society. The Bible teaches that people will know Christians by their love, and I began to wonder what that would look like if a group of young Christians embraced this ideal and made it work on a secular college campus,” Roberts said. “What kind of impact could they have on their community? How could they truly make the world a better place? What would it look like if we took Jesus’ calling seriously? . . . My hope is that we can help each person who comes our way to find value in who they are, strengthen their faith and experience their own God-given purpose to become all that He created them to be.”
Cougars for Christ, though sponsored by one congregation, aims to be non-denominational in its approach. It has a weekly campus gathering called Common Ground, which is “a place for anyone who is interested in exploring issues of faith. We are a place for all Christians and seekers,” said Roberts, whose wife Kristen helps in the ministry. “Cougars” students also volunteer weekly at Damascus Way Women and Children’s shelter. And they reach out to the area’s homeless population.
Becky Matthews, Ph.D., is the CSU faculty adviser to Westminster Fellowship, a college ministry sponsored by the Presbyterian Church (USA). The fellowship emphasizes service; as the ministry serves the students, they are expected to give back to the community, she said. For example, last Sunday the group led worship at Rutledge State Prison on Schatulga Road. They also assist in the Valley Interfaith Promise, an interdenominational sheltering program for homeless families. Westminster and First Presbyterian Church, where Matthews is a member, operate Westminster Abbey, a storefront on First Avenue. Like the College House a block away, it’s a place for relaxed interaction.
Like most of the ministries, food is involved. On Wednesday nights, college students can share a meal with First Presbyterian members at the weekly family night supper. The church is also about to start a class called “Faith and Film,” geared to this demographic. On Sunday nights, there’s a Bible study at the Abbey. First Presbyterian member Mark Montgomery teaches these classes.
“It’s such an important age in terms of faith development,” he said. “They are asking incredible questions about God.”