Two years ago when Brianna DeWitt first heard about Encounter Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Mich., she was working at a local ice cream shop, trying to keep up with college tuition payments.
One hundred of Encounter’s 270 attendees are students from various colleges in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area.
Now DeWitt, 22, sits on the leadership team of the church plant where 100 of 270 attendees are college students.
Pastor Dirk VanEyk said that the two-year-old church attracts most of its students from Calvin College but also draws from nearby Kuyper College, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College, and Davenport University.
Part of the church’s strategy is giving out care boxes to students and hosting a “Dinner with the Fam” ministry in which older members invite college students over for lunch. “The truth is that we’ve seen little to no fruit from all these labors,” admitted VanEyk. “These ministries are failing. The care boxes don’t bring in anyone new. Students see right through the giveaways.”
VanEyk, DeWitt, and other attendees instead point to the opportunities students have to get involved as reasons for success.
“Instead of just creating things to try to get college students to show up on Sunday mornings, it’s becoming a place for students to connect and get involved with the community,” said DeWitt, now a Kuyper College grad.
Students are involved on worship teams, as nursery volunteers, in small groups, and in fellowship. Amy Schepers, a current Calvin student and member of a worship team, agreed. “Some churches don’t really utilize the college students that attend because they’re only there temporarily or nine months out of the year,” she said.
Shane Brandsen, another Calvin student involved in worship, focused on becoming invested at the church. “College students want to make church more than just a place where you show up on Sunday morning,” he said. It’s not just what can Encounter do for me, but how can I be invested in this church?”
VanEyk also credits word of mouth for bringing college students in. “If someone’s going to come to church, it’s probably going to be because somebody else invited them,” he said. It’s not like an advertisement or a flyer, but person to person.”