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. "The financial future is very uncertain for doing campus ministry ecumenically," she said. The momentum has swung "very clearly" to the evangelical groups, something that puzzles Thompson-Travis. "I'm astounded by the significant amount of biblical literalism on a campus of this sort, with its emphasis on science and technology," she said. "The more uncertain our individual lives are and the more threatening our society seems to us, the more we turn to traditional texts. We seem to have reached back in time to what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents accepted as truth because they knew no better."
At Collegiate Methodist Church a banner at the front of the sanctuary reads: CUMC/WF Ministering to the Campus and Community Since 1916. The letters CUMC (Collegiate United Methodist Church) and WF (Wesley Foundation) are found throughout the church and on most church publications, signaling a close relationship between the two. Ever since Peter Cartwright visited Iowa in 1834 and prompted Methodist activists to construct the territory's first chapel, Methodism has played a major role in the state's history, politics and culture. The Methodists founded their own colleges throughout the state--Morningside in Sioux City, Cornell in Mount Vernon, Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant, and Simpson (named for abolitionist Bishop Matthew Simpson) in Indianola--and they established Wesley Foundations at the state schools: the University of Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State. Today the Methodist colleges, like religiously oriented colleges throughout the nation, have been largely secularized, and the Wesley Foundations are struggling.
George White, the congregation's senior minister, hints that the slash separating the letters CUMC from WF can seem like a large chasm; his associate, Jim Stiles, calls it a "healthy tension." White's mandate is to divide his time between the two, but he admits that his job often entails satisfying one or the other constituency. If he spends too much time attending to the needs of the membership, he is vulnerable to criticism for failing to reach out to the campus community. But reverse criticism is also possible, coupled with the all-too-predictable lament from church members that they disproportionately foot the bills for the church's programs, lights and utilities.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Sunday mornings at Collegiate Methodist belong to the church members, but it is well known that college students live in a different time zone from the rest of the world. Although some students attend (and even participate in) the Sunday morning services, the bulk of the worshipers are townspeople.
After opening sentences, greetings and a drama presentation by two university students, White stepped to the pulpit. Preaching from the "great cloud of witnesses" passage in Hebrews, he invoked the memory of former ministers--including G. Samuel Nichols, who served the congregation for a quarter century--and told his listeners that they were "part of a long relay.... We are always seeking to add new people," White declared, including "students who come in constant numbers every year." "We are called to prioritize," he went on, and to "keep on keeping on." We must "look to Jesus" but also recognize that the journey of faith is an uphill struggle. "That's kind of how it's been for mainline churches over the last 30 years," White acknowledged, but added, "The past cheers us on and encourages us in our faith."
At the Sunday school hour between the 8:30 and 11:00 services, adults gathered for a forum in the Pine Room, an attractive setting in the church basement. Eldon Hans, a retired professor from the university, talked about his recent visit to Belarus and showed slides. It was an informative exchange, with Hans discussing the transition to capitalism in Eastern Europe. "Do they have any plans to break up those collective farms?" someone asked. "How do they get, scientific information?" Hans, a veteran of the classroom, handled the questions expertly. There seemed to be no explicit (or even implicit) religious content to the discussion.
Elsewhere in the building there were classes for parents, young couples and a small gathering of university students. biblical studies class was poring over the Book of Proverbs, and children's Sunday school classes were conducted throughout the building. These classes attract young families from the community like Bill and Sue Cronin, who began attending Collegiate Methodist about two years ago after transferring from a more evangelical church. "There are good programs for the kids," explained Sue, a schoolteacher in Ames. She added that the family switched to Collegiate Methodist out of a general dissatisfaction with their evangelical church, which they found more and more confining and censorious. "I felt tolerance here," she said. "We're all God's people."
George White is a loquacious and genial man in his early 50s. He came to Collegiate Methodist after a four-year stint as superintendent in the Cedar Rapids district, where he started four new churches. Prior to that he served congregations in Mount Pleasant, near Iowa Wesleyan College, and in Coralville, near the University of Iowa, where the congregation grew considerably during his 12 years there.
Behind White's special passion for campus ministry is the fact that he himself is a graduate of Iowa State who had no religious background whatsoever before coming to college. He credits people associated with the Wesley Foundation at Collegiate Methodist for bringing him to the faith. Indeed, he became so devoted to Christianity that he frequently attended three churches on Sundays--Baptist, Presbyterian and Collegiate Methodist.
"Coming to college is one of those times when you reassess who you are and what's going on in your life," White reflected, speaking in his study between services. "It's one of those times of exceptional openness in responding to the gospel."
HE RECALLED the lines outside the church doors during his undergraduate years, 1958 to 1962. In the 1950s, he said, going to church was "the thing to do." He pointed out his study window and across the street to Friley Hall, once the largest dormitory in the world. Students in the 1950s did not have automobiles, so Collegiate Methodist reaped the benefits of proximity. Today the campus has sprawled far beyond the center of town. Students bring their cars to school, and the churches can no longer count on their regular church attendance.
But White rejected the notion that today's university students are less religious. "In many ways students are more conscious spiritually than they were in the 1950s," he insisted. "This church has continued to have a very significant impact on the lives of students," he added, "even though the numbers have diminished." White acknowledged, nevertheless, that "it takes a whale of a lot. more work today to reach the 50 people you had 30 years ago. Churches have to be more invitational."
White is prepared to make that effort. Collegiate Methodist, he pointed out, faces the same difficulties encountered by mainline Protestantism generally: declining membership, attendance and influence in the community. The church's story fits what some would regard as a pattern: the church lost both members and money in the 1960s when Wilbur Wilcox, pastor from 1960 to 1972, took a public stand against U.S. involvement in Vietnam; an associate minister refused to pay "war tax," further alienating some in the congregation.
White refuses to dwell on the past. In planning for the future he has mapped out two initiatives, one tactical and the other programmatic. He and a hundred volunteers mounted a telephone campaign inviting students and community members with no current church affiliation to receive information about Collegiate Methodist. Out of 21,000 calls the church gathered 2,400 names, which White hopes will assist the foundation in its evangelistic outreach.
The programmatic initiative involves the introduction of two new worship services. "God calls us to try new things," White preached that morning, noting a recent study indicating a 40 percent mortality rate for new church programs. "It takes a lot of persistence to find new ways to minister in our day." Care and Share, one of White's innovations, is an informal service offered on Saturday evenings in an attempt to foster a sense of community among college students. White was especially excited about Sights and Sounds, a Sunday evening presentation of Christian music videos that responds to the "Visual orientation" of the college generation.
"My sense of evangelism grows out of my own journey," White declared. "If someone had not shared the gospel with me, I wouldn't be here. So I do not take that for granted. I think that's one of the unique gifts I bring to the ministry."
Janet Stephenson volunteers as one of the adult advisers for the Wesley Foundation. The United Methodists, she said, are "fiercely committed to loving God with one's mind." Stephenson chairs the congregation's administrative council, but she has also been active in denominational affairs as secretary of the Iowa Methodist Conference. "My husband says I'm |paraclergy,'" she said with a chuckle. "I could be playing bridge or doing adult education, but this is far more important."
Stephenson also has a passion for education and campus ministry. For eight years she has been a member of the UMC's General Board of Higher Education and chair of the denomination's Committee on Education. Her charge, she says, is to maintain "a connection between the church and higher education." She noted, "Kids at this age are making such important decisions. If the church isn't there ..." Her voice trailed off. "The church just has to be here. We just have to keep working to make a difference."
The tone of her voice suggested frustration with some of the more evangelical campus ministries in Ames, many of which she regards as authoritarian and dogmatic. The Wesley Foundation, Stephenson insisted, is not authoritarian. Instead, the United Methodists seek to foster "a growing, vital kind of faith" that allows for questions and ambiguities. "That's much harder to package than the authoritarian way," she acknowledged. "We're comfortable with diversity."
That diversity, according to Stephenson, together with the intellectual excitement of the university community itself, constitutes the real attraction of Collegiate Methodist Church. Twelve students from around the world and from several different denominations live in the church's Koinonia House, just down the street. The majority of the Ames population, including the congregation, is related in some way to the university, said Stephenson. "It makes for an intellectually stimulating environment. There's always somebody here to talk about something interesting."
THE IOWA Methodist Conference contributes approximately $100,000 annually to the church's budget of just over a half million dollars, and Stephenson insists that the denomination "gets some good return on their money." Throughout its history more than 50 students associated with Collegiate Methodist have gone into some form of professional ministry. Several have become missionaries, and countless others, she said, have matured into active and dedicated lay members in churches throughout the country.
"We are basically a mission church," Stephenson said. "Our mission is the campus." Given the ever-changing tastes and demands of students, however, campus ministry requires flexibility. "We're still learning how to do campus
ministry," she said.
At 5:30 on Sunday evening about two dozen students gathered for a dinner of chicken, potatoes and jello salad in the Pine Room. Mark Perschnick, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, was one of the students who expressed appreciation for the Wesley Foundation. He comes from a Methodist background, and he responded to a brochure about Collegiate Methodist and immediately became involved. He cited the activities of the Wesley Foundation--the student-led worship services on Wednesday evenings; the Wesley Singers and Wesley Players, a drama troupe; the retreats and lock-ins--as an "extremely important" part of his college experience, "almost to the point where I forget to do homework," he said. "I know that God has shown his way to me, and I want to give back." Perschnick said that he had been introverted when he first joined the group. "Now they can't get me to shut up. We have some really great discussions."
After dinner about two dozen students moved to Wesley Hall for a hour or so of Christian music videos projected somewhat dimly onto a large screen. Students sat on folding chairs in a corner of the large room and took in song after song, from saccharine to hard rock. I talked with several students who had kind words for the church and its outreach to the campus. Kate Brown, an English major from Wilton, Iowa, had been drawn to Collegiate Methodist by a Wesley Players production of Godspell. Mike Selha, who graduated in 1993, entered the Wesley Foundation as a first-year student. He said that the church had been an important influence throughout his undergraduate education, although he expressed misgivings about what he perceived as a recent shift toward conservatism in the Wesley Foundation programs.
At 7:30 the music ceased and George White, dressed in a jogging suit, offered a brief prayer. As the students dispersed, White said he was pleased with the turnout and response that evening. "I think videos are the way to go."
Randall Balmer is associate professor of religion at Columbia University in New York. This is the ninth in a series of articles revisiting "great churches" of 1950.…
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Publication information: Article title: Churchgoing: Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, Iowa. Contributors: Balmer, Randall - Author. Magazine title: The Christian Century. Volume: 111. Issue: 16 Publication date: May 11, 1994. Page number: 492+. © 2009 The Christian Century Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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