The spiritual journey of the Collegians who went off to worship and of the church that wanted them back

Ginger Ketting Weller

Energy and expectancy hummed in the air as hundreds of students streamed into Pacific Union College's Dauphinee Chapel one Sabbath morning in January 1992. A new phenomenon had electrified the campus; students were flocking to an alternative church service called Connections.

The students packing Dauphinee's pews contrasted sharply with sparse pre- Connections student attendance at Sabbath morning worship services. The college church staff had tried different methods to encourage student attendance, but they hadn't worked. Louis Venden, then pastor of the PUC church, gave his blessing to Connections for the sake of student spiritual life, recalls PUC chaplain Mike Dunn. It was, of course, a painful decision for Venden, who essentially gave permission for 1,600 potential attendees to split off and meet elsewhere.

Invented by a group of college students, Connections was born of a desire to reach young adults in their own generational language, creating a relevant culture that would highly involve them in worship. The students did extensive preparation for the new worship service option, conducting surveys among their peers and researching concepts of worship. Their weekly approach, based on the results of their surveys, was simple: plenty of energetic singing accompanied by a band, a short student-made video addressing the subject for the week, and a talk by a student, faculty member, or guest speaker on a topic of spiritual relevance to college students. The service might also include drama and special music, and would be followed by fellowship and refreshments in the foyer.

Connections "began with great fanfare," remembers John McVay, current chair of the PUC Religion Department [now president of Walla Walla University] and a member of the original Connections team. The theme of the first service was cliques: what they are, how they make you feel, and why God wants each of you in His clique. Over succeeding months the Connections audience climbed to 500, then to 700 students and community people. The word went out that if you wanted a seat at Connections, you'd better come early. And people did. Still there was often standing room only.

Back at the main sanctuary attendance numbers looked bleak, recalls Aileen Bauer, then head elder of the PUC church. Venden had since joined the faculty in the Religion Department, and McVay had been asked to be head pastor of the college church. Most of the students attended Connections, leaving the sanctuary pews emptier than ever. Many felt that the life of the church had been drained away.

McVay, who was preaching every third week at Connections, came to be dissatisfied with the student/community division in worship on campus. On the one hand, his vision for the PUC church was that it focus on reaching the surrounding communities of the Napa Valley, particularly young adults. On the other hand, a major sector of young adults was pursuing a thriving but separate worship experience. Furthermore, the two worship service options were drifting further and further apart in terms of style and audience.

At Connections students could experiment freely with worship and address issues of relevance to themselves. But they were not making contact with older and younger Adventists within the church at large. McVay found himself concerned about the lack of crossgenerational connections, not only for the sake of the students, but for the sake of the younger and older church members in the community.

So he began asking some difficult questions: Does a separate church service that is focused inward toward the needs of the congregation reflect our mission as Christians? Are we giving students an experience that will equip them for the future? What happens when they leave PUC and face their church family in the real world, with crossgenerational relationships? How can we equip them for their future role within the Seventh-day Adventist church at large?

McVay brought these questions and concerns to the Connections committee in the spring of 1993. The students wrestled with the issues raised and eventually voted to recombine with the main PUC church service beginning that fall. A new service, Crossways, emerged from the discussions. It would still be planned by a committee composed of students and community young adults.

The theme of the first service was "Change," befitting the challenging and difficult task ahead. McVay and Dunn remember the difficulties of putting into practice a concept that "looked good on paper." The student planning committee now had to consider the worship needs and preferences of a much wider age group, in many cases limiting their creative freedom. The transition was unexpectedly painful for many involved. "Both emotionally challenging and extremely fulfulling," says McVay of his own spiritual experience during that period.

Dunn uses the metaphor of a surgery that precedes healing. Students missed the freedom of Connections, while some older members in the church were uncomfortable with the new and experimental changes being brought into the traditional second worship service.

McVay notes that the most vocal critics were often not members of the PUC church. Some detractors, he says, came to understand that the worship service was focused on winning their children and grandchildren to the Lord and became quite supportive. Many members who preferred a more traditional worship format told McVay, "It's so good to have the students back worshipping with us; we can deal with the different style of music."

The topic of change for the first Crossways service may have been a harbinger of sorts. That school year brought many changes for the PUC church. An unexpected deadline called away McVay midyear to fmish his graduate studies. With McVay's departure, the Crossways committee re-evaluated how the service was going. The students again elected to stay with the main church.

In the autumn of 1994 the new pastor, Ray Mitchell, joined the PUC church, inheriting the Crossways format. Saying he is "completely committed" to Crossways, Mitchell cites as strong points the student-invented format and the commitment to meeting the needs of the whole community while focusing on young adults. For example, the Crossways committee keeps in mind a visual format to meet the needs of the current college generation. "There is no need to pander to a video mind set," says Mitchell. "However, there are ways to present linear, logical thought and still maintain interest." The idea, he says, is to meet students where they are and then challenge them to grow.

Addressing the criticism that an entertainment mind-set guides the planning process, Mitchell says, "I've never heard the students talk that way. They have no interest in entertainment and find it a hideous thought. They pray and struggle with these things. We constantly try to remind everyone that God is our audience, and we are the participants. We are here to meet God."

Mitchell tells of walking into the choir room after Crossways one Sabbath and finding a former student there in tears because of the impact the service had just had on her. "I'd forgotten how close to God I felt in worship service," she said. "The church I'm in now is spiritually dead. I miss this." Another former student who had previously criticized Crossways for not being "intellectual enough" later came back to say that he hadn't realized the spiritual richness at PUC until he had gone, says Mitchell. He said that his local church was unwilling to grow and move, so he had been attending a Baptist church, where his needs were being met.

All is not perfect with the Crossways format, notes Mitchell. From week to week students are innovating and adjusting. "I see two generations meeting," says sophomore Darren Hagen. "To students, Crossways sometimes seems too tame when compared to Connections, and the older generation often sees Crossways as pushing the edge too much. But I think we have so much to gain by going back and forth, finding a balance."

And though unpredictable, the journey continues. Malcolm Maxwell, president of PUC, says that he has been delighted with the direction the college church has taken. Worship must be interesting and beneficial so that students "choose to worship," says Maxwell. Surveys of students leaving PUC indicate a high level of joy and interest in church.

One Sabbath earlier this school year, the students chose to have an alternative service outdoors in the college amphitheater. Pastor Mitchell spoke in the main sanctuary to a diminished congregation. As he was walking out, Mitchell was besieged by little knots of people waiting to accost him. "Pastor," they said, "the students haven't gone again, have they? If you have any influence with them, bring them back. Church was dead without them today. We missed them."

Crossways. . . Two Years Later (Spring 1998)

Crossways still continues as an experimental program which has now evolved to include four teams of students, each with a faculty sponsor. In consultation with the pastoral staff, each team plans one Sabbath service every month. The interests and work of each group is diverse so that the nature of the 11:20 worship service varies considerably from week to week.

Using drama, video, and special theme services, such as one which focused recently on Memorial Day, as well as more traditional services, each team tries to create a program which will appeal to the several interests of those who worship. The choices of music, an aspect of the service that has been most troubling to some, range from contemporary to classical to eclectic mixes of both.

Use of music department groups, which was minimal at first, has increased recently as some Crossways programs have used a more traditional format. An earlier church service which includes organ music and hymn singing is also provided.

Ginger Ketting Weller


Ginger Ketting, now Academic Vice President at Walla Walla University, was associate professor in education at Pacific Union College and a regular attendee at the Crossways Service at the time the original article was printed in Adventist Review, 20 February 1997, and the update was printed in the IAMA's magazine Notes in the spring of 1998.