Recharging for Ministry: Students Bring Energy to Church in Decline
Opening up an old sexton house* for college student housing has utterly transformed life at Second Reformed Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The move paired the church's abundance of facilities with two things it needed: people and energy.
"They had the desire to reach out, but they didn't have the energy or the people to do it," says pastor Doug Shepler. The congregation is aging, with 45 to 50 people at worship on Sundays. "They were on the typical path of 'Should we close up shop?' We had facilities but not enough people, so when we put the facilities together with students to do the work, it just ignited."
How it works
Seven students from Rutgers University--whose campus surrounds the church--and from Middlesex Community College live in Second Reformed's Trinity House. (Trinity House is also home to Rutgers Protestant Campus Ministry.) The church charges them rent, but residents earn $10 toward their rent for each hour of service to the congregation. Even with the area's high rent prices, this makes costs more affordable than what the university charges.
"They're involved in staffing the three major new ministries that have been born over the past three years: a temporary winter men's shelter, a once-a-quarter family shelter that we host in the building, and the food pantry store that is open three nights a week," Shepler says. "They basically staff the overnight hours and the late hours, because that's when they're awake." The students also help with Second Reformed's youth ministry, do cleaning and maintenance, and open or lock up the church buildings as needed. They also plan to launch a thrift shop this fall in the church's old furnace room as well as an art gallery/coffee house and weekly movie nights, since there are no theaters close by.
Bringing about revitalization
Putting the students and facilities together, Shepler says, "helped our folks to become much more excited about being here and wanting to be part of the congregation. They really are beginning to have a sense of pride in that they're contributing to the community again.
"I think it means a lot to them. I have 80-year-old women making meals for the family shelter, and literally being thrilled that they can do something called ministry."
Shepler says many in the congregation treat the college students as if they were grandchildren. "They take them under their wing, they dote on them, they go to coffee hour together, and of course the college kids love it.
A new understanding of church
"The congregation always saw church as what they came to on Sunday morning instead of what they were reaching out and doing in the community. Now Sunday morning's just a small piece of what their church life is all about." Shepler says these days, there's something going on at the church every day of the week--everything from volleyball to the food pantry. On Sunday, four congregations meet in the facility.
The church is no longer thinking about shutting down, he adds. "Right now our numbers are not growing, but you could not find a more alive small congregation in central New Jersey."
*Housing for a building maintenance overseer
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