Churchgoing: Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, Iowa

By Balmer, Randall | The Christian Century, May 11, 1994 | Go to article overview

Churchgoing: Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, Iowa


Balmer, Randall, The Christian Century


TWO LARGE stained-glass windows frame the Gothic-style sanctuary of Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, Iowa, just across the street from Iowa State University. The window in the east transept shows Jesus confounding the learned scholars in the temple; the west window offers a more traditional Methodist scene: Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

These windows illustrate well the twin fulcrums of intellect and piety. Especially in the 20th century the church has faced the challenge of finding a balance between head and heart. Collegiate Methodist, drawing on the Wesleyan tradition and situated in a university community, in many ways embodies the struggle to provide a faith that touches both the mind and the affections.

In 1950 Collegiate Methodist Church was apparently adept at carrying off that balancing act. The Century's 1951 profile of the church told of long queues outside Collegiate Methodist Church on Sunday mornings. "The gothic building was already full of worshipers attending the early services," the story began. "This new throng was waiting to enter and take their places." The line of congregants, three and four abreast, wound from the door to Lincoln Way, the main thoroughfare in Ames, past a restaurant and filling station and onto a second block. The queue would have been longer, the article noted, had not many of the university students been out of town for a football game.

There are few experiences more delightful than a football weekend in Ames, with the autumn leaves of gold, scarlet and sienna flickering in the breeze beneath a blue sky. But on this 1993 Sunday morning, as the sun bathed the sanctuary, it was clear that the church no longer lives according to the rhythms of the academic calendar.

Campus life was different in 1950. The university then known as Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts was a land-grant college with 10,000 students and about 1,000 faculty and staff. Today more than 25,000 students are enrolled at ISU, which is known for agriculture, engineering, science and technology and for its veterinary school; faculty and staff number about 6,000. In 1950 one-fourth of the school's students listed "Methodist" as their denomination of preference, and approximately one in ten members of the college community attended Collegiate Methodist Church; in the 1990s the ratio is one in 100.

The students of the 1990s no longer gravitate toward mainline churches or organizations. Student religious affiliations (or lack of same) reflect the decline of denominational consciousness in the larger culture, the proliferation of parachurch organizations, and the rise and popularity of evangelical groups. The three most popular religious groups on campus are Campus Crusade for Christ, Great Commission, and Salt Company, which is sponsored by the Southern Baptists.

Beverly Thompson-Travis, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, is the interim campus minister for the United Christian Campus Ministries, an ecumenical initiative sponsored by the Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians and First Baptist Church. (Collegiate Methodist has always maintained a separate campus ministry in Ames.) After 20 months on the job Thompson-Travis was not sanguine about the future of ecumenical campus ministry. As mainline denominations have slashed their budgets on a national level, she explained, the burden for financial support has fallen on local congregations, many of which are more interested in reasserting their own identity than in supporting ecumenical activities. "There is a kind of ecumenical retrenchment going on," she said. "Churches are saying, |We need to take care of our own first.'" Thompson-Travis noted that the ecumenical chaplaincies at Northern Iowa University in Cedar Falls and Drake University in Des Moines have both closed in recent years.

THOMPSON-TRAVIS sighed when I asked about the ministry in Ames. …

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