About 70 students at Loyola University in Chicago, Ill., gathered in the Information Commons building for a weekly Wednesday-night Agape worship service and Bible study.
Standing at their seats, they began the service with songs of praise. Joining together, they sang: “Holy, there is no one like you. There is none beside you. Open up my eyes in wonder. Show me who you are and fill me. . . .”
Throughout the room, some students raised and waved their hands, and a few put an arm around the person next to them. Clearly they were in the mood to sing and worship.
For 10 years, students have taken part in this midweek event, which is part of the Christian Reformed Church campus ministry at the 150-year-old Jesuit Catholic university on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. A partner of Resonate Global Mission, this is the only CRC campus ministry at a Catholic university.
As a result, said Tyler Ward, director of the ministry, some of the students who come to Agape are members of the CRC, but others are members of different Protestant denominations, while a few are Catholic or have no church affiliation at all.
Ward explained that through the Agape worship service, the campus church Ecclesia, and other aspects of the campus ministry, the main goal is to help students of whatever religious persuasion gain a sense of how the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives and why that can matter.
“We talk of how one of the fruits of the Spirit is faithfulness and how the Spirit helps you to slowly and carefully see something in you that you didn’t think was there,” he said.
In working with students, Ward said he sees amazing leaps of faith as they go deeper into their relationship with God — and that often touches and helps him in his own journey of faith.
Overall, the ministry offers students a place where, through worship, various events, and building friendships, they can find ways to deal with the challenges of college life, said Ward. He went on to note that our current lives are filled with complex cultural, social, and political realities, and these challenges can come at students from all directions at once.
After singing a few songs that night, students had a chance to go forward to the front of the room to offer brief testimonies about things they are dealing with and to ask for prayer. In this way the campus ministry hears about many matters, big and small, that it can seek to address and help students with.
One of the first students to speak was young woman who said: “Pray for me because lots of crazy stuff is going on between my stepdad and stepbrother.”
Another young woman gave praise for landing a job, but also mentioned, “When I am under stress, my immune system tanks and I get migraines.”
One student said: “I was so nervous coming here to college. Now I see this as my new home. Everyone has been so good to me.”
A fourth spoke of the need for her 97-year-old grandmother to move into a nursing home. “Please pray that it goes well,” she said.
Yet another student reported that a tornado touched down near her home. “No one was hurt, but pray for all the people affected by natural disasters, who are living outside with no home.”
Mike Moore, now serving as one of the pastors at Lawndale CRC in Chicago, founded the campus ministry at Loyola as a way to offer all students — including Protestants — a place to meet, pray, and worship. He also began outreach projects to help students see the importance of living out their faith in practical and helpful ways, especially among people in need.
When he started as a chaplain in 2009, there already was a weekly Wednesday-evening Bible study for Protestant students, but the leaders had graduated, and he slowly stepped in to gain the trust of participants and keep it going.
“When I came to Loyola, I was asking, ‘What does it mean to be church and community for students in a place like Chicago, where you have a bunch of cultures, and where, by and large, the values and practices look nothing like those of Jesus?’” said Moore.
The answer came in trying to carefully share the message of the gospel — Christ’s message of love and mercy — in a variety of ways in a place, because it was already Catholic, where most students aren’t shy about speaking of God.
“We know that a campus is a place where ideas are talked about and people’s values are developed,” said Moore. “What a formative time to find ways to reach young people and be part of shaping them for the church.”
After a number of students shared their testimonies at the Agape service, the worshipers formed into small groups to read and discuss Genesis 22:8-13, in which Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac.
While most of the groups left the large room to gather elsewhere, Tyler Ward stayed and led the study for nine students who sat around him in a circle of chairs. It was an opportunity to read and review the story and for students to share thoughts on what it means to them.
It was clear that the story touched a chord when Ward asked everyone to imagine being asked by God to sacrifice your son. Even though the story has a happy ending because God commands Abraham to put down the knife before using it on his son, some students wondered what kind of God would ask a father to do something like that.
“If a dad took you off to sacrifice you, I wonder what the conversation would be like with the mom afterwards when he told her all that had happened,” said a young woman.
Another student said it was stunning to think of what Abraham might have done. “A son can symbolize so much,” she said. “He can symbolize your wealth, and Abraham was putting all of that on the line. Think of it — Isaac would have disappeared from history, but Abraham was asked to do it for God.”
Ward told the students that it was important to realize that child sacrifice was fairly common at the time. This story shows how God went against that practice and that meanwhile Abraham came to realize that Isaac was truly God’s child, not just the son of he and his wife, Sarah.
“God was challenging Abraham to once again have faith, and he came to realize that God would provide in all situations and wouldn’t leave him stranded,” said Ward, who became director when Moore left the ministry about a year ago.
“At the end, we find God saying, ‘I’m not going to ask this thing of you that has been asked somewhere else,’” he said.
One student said it was difficult to imagine people these days having the kind of faith that Abraham showed. In today’s world, many nonbelievers have trouble with this story, seeing it as showing a brutal God instead of being a story about strong faith.
One student said the story made her think of how God shows us what is important. It made her consider the different paths you could take to success. Do you follow your heart, the urging coming from God that may seem to go against everything that others, including your parents, are telling you? she asked.
“What is success to parents and others these days . . . to strive toward material wealth and to get a good internship opportunity that would lead to success?” she asked.
Or, she added, “Do you have the faith to go ahead and find meaning in work you want to do instead of getting a job that would give you material things? I think this is something you have to give to God.”
Others spoke about obedience and how that is another thing missing today. People don’t want to listen to others, said a young man, but obedience like the kind shown by Abraham is important.
“For many of us, we have to try to put ourselves aside and work on our own time at our own pace to be obedient,” he said.
One girl said that being obedient to God can be a struggle when you see other students who drink and go to parties and get involved in having sex. Being part of the campus ministry, however, gives her an alternative space in which to discuss and live out Christian values.
Ward wrapped the Bible study up by asking students if they wanted to share any prayer requests. One student asked for prayer, speaking of how her mother at home had started drinking heavily and her father was having a hard time coping.
A few others offered things that were on their minds, just as students had done during the time for testimonies.
Then Ward bowed his head and, serving among a group of young people who he said often teach him as much as he tries to teach them, began to pray.
And there at Agape — named with a Greek word that means “unconditional love” — Ward touched on the importance of love, the love that God showed Abraham, the love that God shows all people, including the students on that campus:
“Lord, show us your love. Be with us all as we live and grow together and come to know you better. . . . Amen.”