Bringing liturgy to college

Sunday, August 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:13 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Dawn-Victoria Mitchell was in her next-to-last year of Methodist seminary when she found a new calling.

Mitchell missed the liturgy she had experienced at her Roman Catholic high school in Massachusetts. Neither Methodism nor Catholicism offered the spiritual fulfillment she sought.

So when a friend told her about the Episcopal Church, she was interested.

"It was like coming home," she said. "The Eucharist was central, and there was this incredible liturgy that I just felt nourishing me spiritually."

With college students back in Columbia, Mitchell will seek to share this liturgical experience as campus minister at Calvary Episcopal Church.

It could be a difficult task. A March study from the National Council of Churches reports that liturgical Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, have lost members between 1999 and 2003. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America released a statement recently saying its membership had dropped below 5 million in 2003.

Concerning student ministry, a 2001 nationwide study suggests that traditional Protestant denominations aren't as likely to attract young people as congregations with less focus on liturgy.

Nonetheless, leaders of campus-area Episcopalian and Lutheran churches believe they can thrive.

Students 'looking for relevancy'

Only 10 percent of self-described Episcopalians and 15 percent of self-described Lutherans are 18-29 years old, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, a telephone poll of more than 50,000 American households conducted in 2001 by the City University of New York.

At the same time, the study suggested, non-denominational or less liturgical churches are growing. Thirty-five percent of people describing themselves simply as Christian, 24 percent of Pentecostal respondents and 19 percent saying they are evangelical or "born again" are 18-29, the study reported.

Students might believe traditional denominations are less relevant to their daily lives than other congregations, said Beth Greimann, campus minister for Campus Lutheran Church.

"I think that, when young people get to make their own choices, they're looking for relevancy," she said. "If a person is growing up in a church that they don't feel ministers to them, they'll look for something else."

Brian Belter, president of the UM Lutheran fraternity Beta Sigma Psi, said the contemporary atmosphere of non-denominational congregations could be a factor in those churches' growth.

"It's maybe newer, or a little refreshing, to some people," he said. "It's not as strict in the orthodox doctrine or method for the service. In our fast age, in modern society, that can be very appealing, especially to a younger crowd."

Making church 'a community'

Traditional Protestant denominations must serve the needs of younger parishioners in order to keep them in the pews, Greimann said.

"They need to be about doing whatever it takes to help their young people stay where they're at and not go looking elsewhere," she said.

Belter, 21, said all churches can be relevant to students by focusing on the needs of college-age parishioners.

"With the hardships that come with being this age, you can find a lot of help in the church," he said. "I don't think a lot of kids my age or younger understand that the church has that to offer. They think that it's just about the rules, kneeling, standing, sitting. They need to understand that it's a fellowship, a community, a family atmosphere."

Emphasizing campus ministry has proven successful at Calvary, Mitchell said.

When she arrived at Calvary four years ago, she said, there was no established student fellowship. After forming a group and beginning a Sunday afternoon Eucharist that is liturgical but less formal, she said, Calvary has increased its student attendance. Whereas she said only students were "barely visible" four years ago, today, she estimates that 20 to 30 students attend.

By actively pursuing student ministry, Belter said he believes the traditional Protestant church can thrive alongside less liturgical congregations.

"It's been around since the 1500s," he said. "It's going to continue."

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