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A New Mode of Ministry

Chi Alpha finds a more receptive audience in shifting gears amid COVID-19.

Senior Director E. Scott Martin says four years ago, the leaders of Chi Alpha and other U.S. campus ministries received a prophetic word: The greatest student awakening in history is about to unfold.

Past awakenings in America began with courageous university students. Martin notes that this time the Holy Spirit revealed that the awakening would be marked with discipleship and covering.

Then, COVID-19 hit.

“All of a sudden, everything we were doing got shut down,” Martin says. “Campuses closed. It changed the dynamic literally overnight.”

The basic question shifted, as within a week everybody everywhere had to learn the concepts of “shelter in place” and “social distancing.” How can effective campus ministry be accomplished without in-person contact?

That question hit home for Martin. His wife, Crystal, who is cross-cultural missions director for national Chi Alpha, and Taylor Albertini, who is Chi Alpha cross-cultural missions and field administrative coordinator, were on a ministry trip in Israel when coronavirus ramped up its global spread. The two flew home immediately to Springfield, Missouri, where they self-quarantined for 14 days. None of them, it turned out, had the coronavirus.

Martin cites a Chi Alpha student leader at the University of Virginia who, months ago, had invited her sorority sisters to join her small Bible group. No one expressed interest. After COVID-19 broke out, she reached out again. Seven are now in her Bible study via Zoom, a video conferencing platform used for online meetings.

Already Martin is seeing a more fruitful ministry field than pre-COVID-19.

“Crisis is the fodder for the fuel of awakening,” he says. “People who didn't know the Lord are beginning to search and hunger for something more.”

Martin sees this as an incredible moment for Chi Alpha to practice good citizenry while courageously reaching out to people in faith, “speaking the words of Jesus that can be transformative in these moments.”

That’s playing out in Chi Alpha chapters across the U.S. as the Holy Spirit reveals the way forward to staff and students. Chi Alpha is a department of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions.

At Stanford University, guiding Chi Alpha director Glen T. Davis has focused on a pair of New Testament verses. Colossians 2:5 speaks to the spiritual union among Christians that endures even in separation, while 2 John 12 addresses simple writing, the technology of the apostle Paul’s day, which helps those who are separated in body. “He recognized that something more happens face-to-face,” Davis says. “Technology can help, but it’s not a full replacement.”

Staff at Stanford Chi Alpha have written students snail-mail letters, an old-school method that meets heartfelt needs for interaction. Many in his chapter are using Zoom for meetings, though it’s a platform tailored for business discussion.

Real-time gatherings are a challenge for, say, a 6 p.m. event in California when it’s 3 a.m. in Cairo.

“But by using Church Online, we can stream the service as though live and designate somebody in their time zone to interact with them,” Davis says.

Acts 8:1-4 describes how Jesus’ apostles remained in Jerusalem, but laypeople dispersed everywhere.

“Those scattered preached wherever they went,” Davis notes. “Then revival happened in Samaria.” Distracted students who haven’t been interested in the gospel are now more open than even a month ago. They’re home, isolated, feeling grief and frustration.

“Scattered for a season, scattered for a reason,” Davis says. “If we’re mindful of what God is up to, then we can see great things happen in the world and our community.”

Sarah E. Malcolm, who with her husband, Rob, co-directs Chi Alpha at Yale University, says regular planned events, including small groups, are now online. Students send video clips of themselves answering questions to include in the Tuesday night live regular meetings.

Everyone in Yale Chi Alpha is doing a six-week Bible study through Matthew. The couple mailed care packages with Matthew journaling Bibles and Yale Chi Alpha coffee mugs to the 50 student regulars and the 20 on the margins. As Chi Alpha meetings every week always have included cookies, the Malcolms are planning to bake and mail cookies to students.

“We're trying to make a physical representation of our being together every month,” she says. “How does the Holy Spirit want us to be proactive and creative? We're not just trying to weather the storm.”

Colorado State University campus director Nate A. Banke says a Chi Alpha staffer is helping international students who can no longer access groceries from their homeland by holding Zoom “cooking shows” teaching how to prepare American dishes using what's now available to them. One student is mailing care packages to those who can't readily access food.

As students are facing lockdown boredom, Banke is encouraging small group leaders to connect to students they're ministering to three times a week through one-to-one texts and phone calls.

“We’re starting to see students respond who were either hard to pursue or were not engaged or didn't seem interested,” Banke says. “These moments have a way of helping us help students reprioritize. The Lord can use this coronavirus to wake up students from this lethargy, to take a look at their priorities and make a change for the Lord.”

Derek A. Britt, Chi Alpha campus director at Indiana University, notes that there never has been a time in history when people have been more prepared to stay in contact with each other. “That’s truer with college students,” he says. “What if we use this time to retreat spiritually with Jesus? How can we grow in disciplines of prayer, solitude, and meditation?”

School closed before typical Chi Alpha training for leaders to reach the campus next semester. Most leader training will be online, devised by the national Chi Alpha team over a 10-day period.

“We now have excellent, flexible trainings for years to come, and we have newly established methods to help students grow in the summers when we’re not around,” Britt says. “Before three weeks ago, these ideas weren’t even on our radar.”

Banke of Colorado State believes the relational nature of Chi Alpha is conducive to deepening relationships and walking students through this crisis.

“Chi Alpha really has the ability to make sure people we’re ministering to aren't lost in this season,” he says. “We have strong pre-established relationships.”

Photo: Indiana University Chi Alpha staff members hold an online planning session.

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.