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Shawnee Park CRC integrates students into leadership

Shawnee Park CRC had almost no student involvement four years ago. Now, it is a thriving intergenerational community.

Shawnee Park CRC responds to gaping hole in young adult participation

A generation of young adults is leaving the church. Leaders at Shawnee Park CRC realized four years ago they needed to respond to this crisis, apparent within their own church. They have opened many ministry opportunities for students, even appointing a Calvin College student as elder of worship, and they now have 40 to 60 students attending each week.

Shawnee Park CRC has created an intergenerational community.

Shawnee Park CRC has created an intergenerational community. /Shawnee Park CRC

Four years ago, Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church did not have a single college student involved in its ministries. Now, on any given Sunday, 40 to 60 students attend the church. More than a dozen serve in ministries, and one student even serves as an elder.

Joel Altena, a Calvin College junior who grew up at Shawnee Park and was appointed elder of worship in June, explained that in the last four years the church's leaders became intentional about including the younger generation in their community. Altena reflected on the significance of this, citing the worship service as an example.

“When you worship plan with a 60-year-old and a 20-year-old, it’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

Nick Hopkins, who has worked at Shawnee Park three and a half years and now serves as pastor, arrived as the church began discussing the need to welcome the younger generation, confronting the cold reality of a gaping hole in the 17 to 30-year-old range.

“We concluded that we [were] missing a significant segment of the population, essentially our future,” Hopkins said.

Church members began to act on their new vision, providing a breakfast for college students each Sunday morning. But the church's outreach to students did not stop there. Altena said the church has developed many programs and opportunities in which students can take significant leadership roles.

“[We tell students] first that we have a place for them if they want to stay,” Altena said. “Second, we want to know what they are passionate about; and then third, if we have a place where they can invest in their passion, then we get them connected.”

For Calvin junior Phil Van Eck, this meant joining the worship team shortly after he began attending Shawnee Park.

“I attended Shawnee only once or twice before I was already given an opportunity to help out with worship,” Van Eck said. “I've been playing drums in the praise band regularly ever since.”

Shawnee Park’s leadership has also encouraged college students to start new programs at the church.

Alongside Van Eck and Calvin junior Joel Gustafson, Altena has started Team Boys, a fast-growing group of third grade through high school boys who come to be mentored in Christian discipleship.

Van Eck also started up a video productions team at Shawnee Park.

Altena said more than a dozen other Calvin students are actively involved in various ministries, including worship teams, student ministry and a respite ministry for children with special needs.

Hopkins reflected on the decision to appoint Altena as an elder of worship, a position previously reserved for the church’s pastor. He said he did not want to give students at Shawnee marginal leadership roles, and he felt that appointing a younger elder on council says to students, “We want to hear your voice.”

“This is an opportunity where we could bring someone in who is younger to serve in a position that works closely with the pastor,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said appointing student leaders in church is necessary in a time when large numbers of young people are leaving the church.

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center pole, one in five adults under the age of 30 raised in a faith tradition is now disconnected from any kind of organized religion.

Hopkins laments this exodus, but said he has felt called to action, appointing student leaders.

“If we want to do anything about that, shouldn’t we have those people around the table?” Hopkins asked.

Yet Hopkins acknowledged the call to leadership in a church is a two-way street. Altena and Hopkins both strongly encouraged students searching for a church community to simply find a church and love it.

“You’re not going to find the perfect church,” Altena said.

Hopkins said a little “church shopping,” as it is popularly termed, is not a bad thing, but he encouraged students to choose a church before church shopping becomes “church dating.”

“Find a church and stick with it,” Hopkins said.

Altena said it is hard to imagine where he would be had he not plunged into the community at Shawnee Park. Four years ago, he said he was not sure if he would stick with the church, yet now he sees how important his decision to pursue leadership at the church was.

“I had a lot of things I didn’t like about Shawnee,” Altena said. “Parts of it were super broken, but when you see the people involved and those who love the church, it opens your eyes.”


Note: This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Calvin College Chimes

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