Campus ministry thrives in pandemic


This article was first published in Faith & Leadership


When sanctuaries closed their doors in mid-March 2020 in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19, not everyone at The Center for Faith and Leadership,(link is external) a student ministry at the University of Mary Washington,(link is external) was ready to trade the communal worship experience for one delivered via Zoom. So a handful began gathering outdoors at the home of Gannon and Carey Sims, The Center’s co-directors, who live about a block from the small liberal arts campus.

Socially distanced on the couple’s back porch, they sang, testified and prayed for each other and their community. Rather than preach a sermon, the Simses led the group on a guided exploration of Scripture, one in which all present were encouraged to share the words or passages from the day’s reading that had moved them.

For Haley Randall, 24, who graduated from UMW last spring with a master’s in education, the participatory bent of those backyard gatherings was unlike any church service she’d ever attended.

“It was like the sermon was written right there in front of our eyes. Everyone had gotten something different from the scripture,” said Randall, a high school world history teacher in nearby Caroline County. “And everyone’s voice is valued. You are free to hear the voice of God as well, rather than listening to what God has said to somebody else.”

How does your organization cultivate the conditions for people to feel free to hear the voice of God?

Teaching young people how to develop healthy, supportive relationships with others while discerning God’s call is at the heart of everything the Simses have done since arriving at The Center nearly a decade ago.

Both Gannon and Carey are employed by the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV(link is external)), which owns the building -- a 4,800-square-foot home across the street from campus -- that houses The Center. But the Simses describe themselves as broadly ecumenical, and the word “Baptist” disappeared from the signage before the Simses arrived in 2011.

The Center functions as more of an interdenominational Christian space, attracting everyone from Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to those who grew up unchurched.

A year after the experiment began as a temporary approach to worship during the pandemic, the Simses’ backyard gathering has expanded to include two additional lay-led home churches -- with two more in the pipeline -- where participants are invited to divine the word of God through meditation, contemplation and debate.

It’s more akin to an immersive spiritual experience than a religious lesson delivered by a clergy member, said Randall, who now co-leads one of those home churches. And because each home church is kept to between 12 and 18 people, there’s a level of intimacy and warmth that can be hard to duplicate in a larger, more traditional congregation, she said.

How does your congregation take church home with them? How is church a home for them?

“The key thing is being able to have real connections with real people. It’s not like you can just enter and exit without talking to anybody,” she said. “Church can be so much more than just sitting in a pew on Sunday. You can take it home with you. It can be home.”


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