By Fred Koenig
When Joy and Elliot Gonzalez came to Liberty UMC as youth directors a few years ago, their job description included one line about young adult ministry.
When they turned their attention to that area, they found an opportunity to start from scratch.
“We found two 19-year-olds, and we started meeting in our home,” Elliot said.
Over the course of a year, that group grew to about a dozen. During that time, they explored what other college-age ministries were going on in Liberty, and found this to be a real void, even though there is a large population of college students at William Jewell, Maplewood and the University of Missouri Kansas City in Liberty.
Last Thanksgiving, the growing group was looking for a place to have a Thanksgiving dinner for college students. They were connected to Charles Small, who offered to let them use some commercial space on the town square, above a Mexican restaurant. After Thanksgiving, the Gonzalez’s wrote him a thank you note, telling him how 50 students came together there for Thanksgiving. Then Small requested a meeting.
“He gave us the keys, and asked us to do something spectacular here,” Gonzalez said. Small is letting them use the space for free, charging nothing for rent or utilities.
The group had been meeting on Wednesday nights, and had stalled out at about 15. Since moving into the new space, the group grew to 25 to 35 on a typical Wednesday night. They’ve also started meeting on Monday nights, with attendance ranging from 15 to 30.
When they say night, they mean night. The gathering starts at 9 p.m. and officially runs until 10:30 p.m., but many stay later.
“We usually still have a lot of people here at 11 p.m., sometimes midnight,” Elliot said. “When they leave here, they go to I-Hop or Steak and Shake.”
They typically run a theme or series, with opening talks, but much of the gathering is small group discussion with a lot of interaction.
“We have participants from all sorts of faith traditions, and atheists and agnostics, who say they appreciate the discussion and being able to ask questions,” Elliot said.
Providing that place to wrestle with questions is a large part of the appeal, and the purpose, of the ministry.
“We want to provide an open space for people to wrestle with doubt and gain a deeper, more grounded faith,” Joy said. “It’s good to know why you believe what you believe.”
On the worship side of things, Elliot describes the music at C2 as being a bit more folksy than the music they do at the youth gatherings. The worship space is small, and works well with the group at its current size. “When we have 15 people singing, it feels like 50, and 50 feels like hundreds,” Elliot said.
The artwork and décor at the gathering place is kept neutral so that people who may not feel comfortable in church can feel comfortable there. At first C2 didn’t mention their Methodist connection, but now they are upfront about it, beginning every gathering by acknowledging their connection to Liberty United Methodist Church, and expressing how John Wesley encouraged critical thinking, and had a “think and let think” posture.
Some of the college students who started coming to C2 are now also attending Liberty UMC. Some are even considering their own call to ministry. Joy and Elliot are also working on developing mentors in the Liberty UMC congregation, with the mentoring going both ways.
“We see making this connection as an opportunity for some reverse mentoring as well,” Joy said. “We want these young adults to be able to share their own perspectives on faith, and how they were formed.” They are planning on having some open invitation nights, in which a young adult panel speaks and takes questions from older adults.
When Joy was a college student in Springfield, she quickly became involved in a local congregation that took a real interest in reaching out to young adults, and her experience in that local church was a significant part of her college experience. “At the heart of our ministry is connecting these college students and young adults to the local church and the larger Christian community,” Joy said.
That connection is beginning to form in tangible ways. This summer at Liberty UMC three of the leaders of the Vacation Bible School program were young adults from C2.
As the Gonzalez’s make future plans, one thing they keep in mind in sustainability. “We want this ministry to continue whether or not we are here leading it,” Elliot said.