Zooming In: Christian Union Transitions to Online Campus Ministry During COVID-19
In the blink of an eye, the collegiate academic year was relegated to online courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March. No campus life. No spring sports or activities. No May commencement.
In the midst of the chaos, Christian Union was among the many campus organizations that had to pivot quickly. Christian Union is a ministry that works on Ivy League campuses and at other elite colleges. It quickly transitioned to an online ministry—Bible courses, Leadership Lecture Series, and mentoring sessions were hosted online via Zoom and other portals. Ministry fellows were there to provide continuity by shepherding students and offering counsel to those grieving over what was lost.
While the new season of ministry definitely has its challenges, it has also presented some silver-lined blessings, according to Tucker Else, Christian Union’s ministry director at the University of Pennsylvania.
“We have settled into a sense of normalcy, but we definitely miss meeting in person,” he said. “And there are the big existential challenges: When will this end? Will life ever go back to being normal? Will students be able to return in the fall? How does this affect internships/jobs?”
When Penn’s on-campus semester was cancelled during Spring Break, students with Christian Union Martus began gathering online. Bible courses were connected, and a Leadership Lecture Series (LLS) was organized. The ministry’s Seeking God Lifestyle team hosted a 24-hour prayer session, which continued weekly.
“Our students have prayed, corporately, in a way that we’ve never prayed before. It has been a concerted season of prayer,” Else said.
The ministry director also noted the resiliency of students and how COVID-19 has brought a renewed sense of awe and repentance in the things of God.
“Students (and all of us, really) have been forced to acknowledge that razor thin veneer of thinking we are in control,” Else said. “When we were reminded in March that there is much completely out of our control, it forced us all to our knees in repentance: for taking God for granted, for our hubris and pride, and it has forced everyone to consider transcendent things rather than just the rote ‘get good grades, get a good internship, get a return offer, make a living, and live happily ever after.’ We know that the materialistic way of life is not God’s way, but it is the air we breathe, and God, in His grace, has stripped away many of the idols that we trust in.”
Chitra Kovoor, a Christian Union ministry fellow at Yale, said students have expressed a wide range of emotions as they shelter in place, from fear, anxiety, anger, grief, loss, frustration, and impatience, to gratefulness for a time to rest, reevaluate priorities, and reach out to God.
“Facing an uncertain future is a big challenge that brings a great deal of stress,” Kovoor said. “However, I strongly sense that God is birthing something very precious during this transition. It is a sacred time offered to us to seek Him fervently and connect with each other in new ways. This waiting period has been a very sanctifying process. I am very encouraged by those who are allowing themselves to be pushed to seek after God even more in this alone time. One of my Bible courses has been regularly trying to memorize scripture and the books of the Bible together. Others are striving to be witnesses for Christ in their homes, some reaching out to their non-Christian friends to share the hope one has in Jesus in the midst of this pandemic.”
Garrett Brown, ministry director for Caritas, Christian Union’s ministry to students at Stanford University, noted the pastoral challenge of leading students through “a fairly catastrophic change of rhythms and freedoms.” He called the initial transition to virtual ministry “quite jarring,” but found the students to be hopeful, engaged, and still very hard working.
“Our students are incredibly adaptive, and they have the advantage of being digital natives—they were born into an online world,” Brown said.
Justin Woyak, a Christian Union ministry fellow at Stanford, praised the hospitality of Caritas’ students who opened up their homes to internationals during the shelter in place time. Woyak said leading a Bible course over Zoom has its drawbacks, but also a few positive features.
“It’s challenging to not be face-to-face over a meal or cup of coffee, one-on-one or together as a Bible course,” he said. “The kind of deepening of friendship that can happen in those settings doesn’t easily transfer to Zoom. However, the listening element is almost enhanced when your only means of communication is your voice (over the phone) or your facial expressions (over Zoom). Additionally, the Bible course comes to them, there is no travel time/distance, and there are fewer extracurricular activities vying for students’ attention.”
Christian Union faculty at Stanford and other universities called “online fatigue” a real challenge.
“Virtual community is not the same as face-to-face connection, especially when you’re dealing with college students who are on Zoom all day because of classes,” said Yolanda Solomon, a ministry fellow at Columbia. “Zoom fatigue is a real thing.”
Solomon lauded a core group of Columbia students with Christian Union Illumina who have shown leadership during a difficult season.
“They have responded by leaning into community and coming up with creative ways for students to connect ‘virtually,’ spiritually and socially, with 24-hour prayer nights, a Holy Week fast, testimony nights, and video game and bingo nights.”
Another highlight at Illumina was an online Leadership Lecture Series that featured Dr. Jo Vitale, dean of students at the Ravi Zacharias Institute. Vitale—who spoke on the topic “Is God Sexist?”—dealt with the misperception of the Bible being misogynistic and addressed so-called “problematic” passages in the Bible.
At Princeton University, Christian Union Nova, in addition to hosting virtual Bible courses and its weekly Leadership Lecture Series, recently presented a training seminar for its evangelism team on a Saturday.
“The Gospel is still going forth,” said Ministry Fellow Jayne Babij.
Darren Saint-Ulysse, an intern with Nova, is “encouraged by the way God is using this season.” He has been impressed with how students are serving in community, and even noted how incoming freshmen have joined some online meetings.
“Though we may be far away, God is still at work, still doing amazing things at Princeton,” said Nova Ministry Director Christopher Heslep. “He is preparing our students for the time when they come back—that we could continue to build his family here.”
Likewise, despite great challenges and uncertainty, the faculty of Christian Union Universities is exhorting students to seek God fervently and trust Him for the future.
In a video devotional based on John 21, Brown talked to Stanford students about how Jesus challenged Peter to shepherd His flock when He met with His disciples on the shore of Galilee. “It’s a call to both intimacy and mission,” Brown said. “We are all in the midst of an uncertain, unique time. I believe that our call is the same: use this as a time to seek Him in deeper intimacy, and discover new ways to step out on mission.”