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GCC Service-Learning Project Helps Church Connect to Rising Generation

Service-Learning Projects are a major means by which the Center for Rural Ministry works to strengthen the bonds between college, church, and community. Designed to channel in-class learning experiences and the class assignments of Grove City College students towards making real and tangible impact in local communities, these assignments span the whole semester and encapsulate sizeable teams of students.

This spring semester, Professor Shannon Barrios’s Research Methods class worked alongside Christ United Church in New Castle, PA to explore how this church might more effectively engage with rising generations.  Their streams of research included data analysis, interviews, and focus groups; as a result, their findings were extensive.  Christ United Church partnered with this student team in the hopes to discover how they, as a congregation, might better grow, support, and understand the needs of the rural areas surrounding them. This team of six students, thus, dove into uncovering what defines Gen Z and how the Church might engage and retain the rising generations.

Flowing from the research, the team discovered three key characteristics of Gen Z.  First, they established the life season currently defining Gen Z as “the stage of life that shapes how individuals pursue their identity, purpose, and meaning.” As a result of the big questions flowing out of this life stage, Gen Z is “drifting away from church because there are other activities more intriguing than growing spiritually.” However, even though they are immersed in activities and connections, this generation is distinctly lonely. This loneliness is deepened by the heavy usage of social media.

Opportunities for Connection

By uncovering these key qualities of Gen Z, the team highlight the valuable opportunity the Church is given to connect the longings of young people to the complete fulfillment one finds in Christ alone. Hungry to be fully known and yet fully loved, Gen Z is seeking connection.  Yet they aren’t finding this connection in a way that is wholly satisfying and are, as a result, a generation plagued by intense loneliness. Gen Z, however, doesn’t know that what they’re hungry for is Christ and a belonging found only in the family of Christ. More likely to be agnostic or atheistic, Gen Z is becoming increasingly disengaged with traditional religious values due to overall less religious exposure in comparison to the religious exposure of other, older generations.

The Lingering Impact of External Factors--Politics and COVID

Deepening political divides and the aftermath of the pandemic has further severed rising generations from involvement in the local Church. Accordingly, this statistical data was further supported by the team’s interview research.  Interviewing Guidance Counselor, Michelle Mcclelland, from a local middle school, the team brought their focus from an assessment of rising generations at a national level to an assessment of the rising generations in the backyard of Christ United Church.  Mcclelland shared that the young people populating the schools near Christ United Church desire to feel like they belong but suffer from an onslaught of mental health complications and a difficulty with forming in-person friendships due to an overdependence on technology.  Based on these key insights, the team cultivated suggestions and opportunities for how Christ United Church might engage with the young people in their surrounding area.

Potential Areas for Expanded Ministry

First, the team suggested that the church might create a detailed plan for teaching young people about resilience, balance, and wellness in the five domains of being: social, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Next, the team took an assessment of the children’s and youth programs, run by Anna Bupp, at Christ United Church. Impressed by Bupp’s vibrant passion to do ministry well and to reach more kids through carefully planned events, the team suggested ideas for various outreach events and activities and a means of gaging student responses to these programs. These responses would contribute to assessing how the youth programs are meeting the needs of the students and helping them to grow in their walk with Christ.  From these suggestions flowed the team’s three key recommendations for this local church. 

Christ United Church youth director, Anna Bupp (right) with fellow members of the CRM's youth ministry affinity group in April, 2024.

They posited that Christ United Church can increase meaningful engagement with rising generations through personalized outreach, inclusive groups, and interactions on local college campuses.  Through personalized outreach, middle-school, high-school, and college students alike feel seen and are, thus, given the framework by which they will be willing to become involved in the life of the local church. Subsequently, the team suggested that this church establish, as a means of an inclusive group, a mentor program by which a group of girls can be consistently and deeply discipled by Anna Bupp. 

Additionally, by fostering on campus interactions at local colleges (Grove City, Westminster, Slippery Rock), college students, who are hungry to become invested and to serve a local congregation, can be exposed to the needs and opportunities lying within the doors of nearby churches that they might not have heard of otherwise.  As the team shared, “one of our key findings is that youth have a desire to feel safe and seen.”  By mobilizing all congregant members to prioritize face-to-face, one-on-one interactions with younger generations for the purpose of extending love and care, rising generations receive the message that they are wanted and appreciated within the walls of the Church.

Pastor Jason Shepp (left) and youth director Anna Bupp (right) pose for a photo with the students after their presentation.

Final Reflections

Service-Learning Projects enhance the resources of the local church and deepen the meaning of the students’ work.  As team member Elise Sposato shared, “my favorite part of this project was the opportunity to get to know Christ United as well as their surrounding community on a deeper level. I also enjoyed seeing the progress of our research throughout the semester as it all connected and became our own.”

By carrying out rigorous academic work for the enrichment of the local church, students are exposed to the importance and value of offering up their giftings and capabilities to their church homes for the purpose of service. As students learn about the importance of steadfastly investing in a Church, the Church is given further means by which to thrive and expand their kingdom impact. With the Center for Rural Ministry as a bridge, students and churches are mutually and simultaneously further equipped for a life of ministry.

Emma Ruby, raised in central PA, is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior studying English, Christian Ministries, and Redemptive Entrepreneurship with the hope of spending a lifetime doing vocational ministry.