By Woody Woodrick
At least one of Dr. Lovett Weems’ “10 Provocative Questions” presented at the 2008 Annual Conference proved to be just that for a group of Mississippi pastors.
The question: Can the church change to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people?
A group of young pastors took that question to heart and spent the summer discussing it. The result has been a weekly worship service designed for college students and young adults. The group calls itself Wesley Connection.
“We had had the benefit of hearing Dr. Weems share his provocative questions. We felt like Wesley Connection was one way of reaching more people, more younger people and more diverse people,” said the Rev. Emily Sanford, an associate at Galloway Memorial United Methodist Church.
Sanford, the Rev. Ricky James and the Rev. Lisa Garvin, who was campus chaplain at Millsaps College at the time, began meeting to explore ways to be in ministry to students who attend Jackson-area colleges that don’t have active Wesley Foundation groups.
“We noticed that lot of our young clergy came from strong campus ministry backgrounds,” James said. “They were very involved in Wesley Foundation or a similar ministry. There are a lot of people active in high school youth groups at campuses like Belhaven and Millsaps. We were missing a lot of people coming to the Jackson area.”
The group came to include the Rev. Stephen Cook, pastor at Jackson Central UMC and campus minister at Jackson State University, and the Rev. Loye Ashton, a United Methodist pastor who teaches religion at Tougaloo College.
Plans were made to hold a regular worship service, and Jackson St. Luke UMC in the Fondren neighborhood agreed to let the group meet in its building. Other area churches have provided coffee, food and financial support.
Sanford said the organizers were intentional in seeking diversity of gender, race and age. The group meets on Monday nights. Attendance varies, based on events and schedules of the colleges involved.
Katie Sorey of Brandon said the diversity of students is one of the things she likes about the service. A sophomore at Millsaps, she said she became aware of Wesley Connection through her church, Galloway.
“I like to have another way to fellowship with others and grow closer to God,” she said. “You can’t get enough of that in college.”
Sorey said she has enjoyed the variety of speakers. James, an associate at Jackson Christ UMC, said they’ve drawn speakers from Jackson churches and had students speak, too. Sorey said the speakers have inspired her to visit more churches in the area.
Jeffrey Jue, 29, has been a member at Christ UMC since 1991. He said likes coming to the service because it offers “something different.”
“Because of my work, I’ve not been able to do a Bible study in a while,” he said. “This opportunity came up and I said why not.”
Jue said the fellowship has been a strong selling point for him.
Sorey and Jue said they believe efforts like Wesley Connection are an important step toward attracting young adults, a group the United Methodist Church has sought for several years. “We need to find a way to bridge the gap from college to the work force,” he said. “People in their 20s have a lot of similarities.”
Sorey said when churches “show they are willing to reach out, students more likely will come.”
The final Wesley Connection service of the fall semester was held Dec. 8. James said the organizers will meet during the holiday break to assess where they are.
“We have to remind ourselves that new ministries take a while to grow and develop,” James said. “A lot of our students are young, freshmen and sophomores. Juniors and seniors have found a rhythm and it’s hard to add something to plate. Those who have just graduated are still finding their place in life.”
“When we say ‘student,’ sometimes we just think of young people,” Cook said. “We had one student in his 50s. As we get more students participating and more young professionals involved, they will come and share their voice.”
James said the group has a vision for Wesley Connection.
“We hope that we have a group that continues to reflect the diversity of our church and young adults and college people in the Jackson area,” he said. “We hope students will take a more active role in missions and outreach so that students are inviting other students to be part of it and being the main people involved in bringing new people to the group.
“We also want to be involved missionally in the community; that what we do in worship pushes us into the community.”