Student-led night of worship sees record attendance
Community thrives without chapel service mandate--By Jonathon M. Seidl
When it comes to worship services, The King’s College borrows a philosophy from famed economist Milton Friedman: Students are “free to choose.”
Instead of the college organizing and requiring chapel gatherings, it relies on students to create voluntary worship events. The success of The Tent, a student-organized and student-led worship gathering on campus, shows this strategy is working.
The Tent (or Tent for short) started about three years ago when six students saw a need for non-institutionalized, student-led worship time. Tent was recognized as an official school club, given funding to buy equipment, and allowed a special room in the lower lobby of the school. It now meets every other Thursday and has a leadership team of four students overseeing everything from the budget to room setup. This year school and Tent leaders are seeing an unprecedented response and the group’s influence is spreading beyond the college.
“We do not believe in mandated spirituality,” said Assistant Dean of Students David Leedy. “We believe in student leadership. Students bring much more creative energy to things like The Tent or the Houses than school administration ever could. And we believe spiritual growth happens more in community than it does in events like chapel services.”
At this school year’s first gathering on September 11, over 100 students attended—a record according to Tent president Pennie Gelwicks, a junior from Indiana. “I was blown away,” Gelwicks said, while also explaning her desire for community. “Tent has never been like that during my time here at King’s.” An all-student band led worship before another student gave a message on forgiveness. At the end, he challenged attendees to break off into groups and forgive those they have harbored resentment towards. While some attendees were apprehensive at first, eventually most everyone participated.
Senior Ame Luere was one such person. “I thought it was weird at first,” she admitted. “But people were open and it made them aware of others they needed to forgive.”
Compared to years past, Luere said, this year Tent feels different: “It is uplifting and real.” She called the gathering “a place where we can love God together,” a description imbedded with the seeds of community Gelwicks is hoping to nurture. “It’s encouraging to see that the student body prioritizes worshiping God and they value fellowshipping with each other,” she added.
According to Gelwicks, others agree. “Many students have told me that God showed them something specific to their lives, that the music was great, that it was better than ever before. I think they are hungry for more,” she said.
Leedy thinks so too: “I think this is a reflection of a renewed hunger for God in our community.”
That night’s events, while strange to some, were familiar to Gelwicks and her team. A week earlier the group’s leadership team, musicians, and sound technicians retreated to the King’s cabin in upstate New York and spent time fostering community. They prayed together, sang together, and, just like during Tent, forgave one another. Because Gelwicks believes Tent plays a vital role in fostering Christ-centered community, she felt Tent members had to experience genuine community among themselves before they could challenge others to do so. It paid off.
Challenges still exist, however. Because King’s does not recruit students from a particular denomination, the student body is as diverse denominationally as the city is ethnically. Finding a worship style that pleases everyone is difficult, then. The response thus far shows Tent leaders may have found a way to do just that. Still, Gelwicks recognizes there’s an element of faith involved. “There’s no way to please everyone, unless, of course, God shows up. . . . He did just that [on September 11], and that was more than satisfying to those who were there.”
Gelwicks hopes that the first gathering’s events are the beginning of something greater. “I see the Tent as a rock thrown into a pond, creating wider and wider ripples,” she explained. “As our team seeks authentic community and Spirit-led worship, this overflows to the student body at large . . . eventually, the effect ripples out to the city.”
Such a dream may not be too far off. People from outside the school have already begun attending. Last year, a security guard from the Empire State Building showed up to investigate the music in the lower lobby. He started attending regularly and eventually joined a local church with a King’s staff member.
Examples such as those have Gelwicks excited: “Perhaps the Tent will turn out to be the epicenter of a movement of God in New York City—it’s mind-boggling and humbling to think about. I can only thank the Lord for the privilege to be involved.”
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