Picture yourself in a cramped dorm room, a floor lamp casting shadows onto the Dave Matthews Band and Michigan hockey team posters stuck to the wall. From down the hall, the occasional eruption of yells and laughter slips out from the crack under the door to a room of boys beginning their night of partying. Now imagine five girls sitting in the dark room around a bowl of raw brownie batter, each huddled over her own copy of the Holy Bible. It is 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, and while most students are holed up in the stacks, sprawled on their couch watching TV or getting ready for a night at The Necto, these five girls, along with hundreds of others in different rooms all around Ann Arbor, will spend the next two hours sharing their stories of how Jesus has touched their lives in the past seven days. Tonight is the weekly meeting of their Life Group, which is one of the many services offered by New Life Church.
New Life: Church for the Next Generation was officially recognized as a church six years ago, when Steve Hayes became the first full-time pastor. Since then, “God has done amazing things through NLC,” its website says.
In less than a decade, the Church has gone from nothing to being a staple in hundreds of lives through the use pop music, hip language and the creation of a social community founded on strict adherence to the Bible.
“Ever since I first attended, I knew it was going to be the church,” said Rebekah Milian, a Kinesiology junior who joined New Life in her first week at the University. Milian grew up as a pastor’s daughter, so finding a church at school was very important to her.
The Sunday church services – which start promptly at 10:01 a.m. and 12:01 p.m. – have grown from just 60 people to 500 regulars; the Life Group attendance has gone from 20 to 250 students. According to its website, “More than 40 students receive Christ each year, with another 80 people receiving Christ through NLC mission trips.”
The seeds of New Life took root not in the older, more conservative population often associated with practicing Christians, but instead among students at the University. It is the younger generation’s dedication to New Life that enabled it to become a part of the Ann Arbor community and to grow into what has become one of the best-attended churches in the city.
A new form of praise
New Life differs from traditional churches, a fact that is obvious from the moment a New Life member into the congregation hall – also know as Auditorium 3 of the Modern Language Building. The MLB leads a double life. By week, it’s the unremarkable lecture hall that houses hundreds of LSA students and their professors. By weekend, it’s transformed: It’s chalk boards are hung with heavy curtains and its lecture stage is taken over by rock-band equipment – drum set, electric piano, amplifiers – and a single microphone. MLB 3 becomes the meeting place for New Life members to praise God.
For 30 minutes – half the service – the audience bobs, sways and in some cases head-bangs to catchy tunes laced with lyrics such as “Jesus, you are the savior of my soul,” or “You’re the only one I could live for.”
The audience – which fills the large auditorium and comprises mostly college students and 20-something couples with babies – can in some cases be found during the songs with their arms outstretched above them and their eyes tightly shut. It’s as if the music brings them closer to God, just as prayer does in a traditional service. Indeed the songs – whose lyrics are projected onto the same screen as a professor’s Power Point presentation – are the only chance the congregation has “to praise Him for everything,” said the lead singer, Karen Ostafinski, dressed in a vintage T-shirt and zip-up hoodie. She graduated from the University in 2003.
The half-hour of surprisingly well-performed music (tunes that incidentally are the type that stick in one’s head) is New Life’s alternative to depressing organ music and lengthy prayer, which often turns younger Christians off from conventional churches, said Sarah Keyes, a student a Eastern Michigan University who is thinking about joining New Life. The upbeat music gets people moving and involved, she said, and it helps them feel closer to God at the same time.
Milian said that the music is one of her favorite aspects of New Life, along with the sermons which are surprisi ngly accessible to students.
New Life Church does not stray from the strict teachings of the Bible in its sermons. However, the pastors cater their lectures – which are significantly shorter than one would expect, at just under 30 minutes – to the younger generation. In a recent Sunday morning program called “My Favorite Passage,” pastor Steve Hayes (who made his way onstage accompanied by a Bon Jovi song blasting over the loudspeaker) attempted to cement his favorite Bible passage (Romans 8:31) into the present. He told many stories from his own life (the first time a girl told him she loved him was in the 10th grade) and he drew parallels with today’s culture, comparing God’s love to the Powerball lottery.
His sermon demonstrated how New Life has managed to attract and maintain such a young crowd of followers: He brought the message of his favorite passage – that God is not judgmental – to within the reach of a student growing up in the 21st century.
“The sermons are all really relevant to college students. (The pastors) speak normally and do not talk down to Church-goers,” Milian said.
In April 2002, New Life Church and Great Commission Ministries, the parent organization of New Life, bought the old Delta Zeta sorority house on Washtenaw Avenue. Despite initial resistance from the Ann Arbor Planning Commission, they have transformed it into their headquarters, and, according to Milian and the website, construction is soon to be under way to build an auditorium in the acre of land behind it. When construction is complete, the Washtenaw auditorium will take over the role that MLB3 now occupies as the congregation hall.
A close-knit community
New Life Church also seems to have recognized the overwhelming desire that students – especially those at such a large and impersonal university as this one – have searched for a deeper meaning to life than partying or getting straight As. It is more than just the rock band and the donuts available after Sunday’s service that have amassed such a following for New Life. The Church fosters a sense of community that is hard to come by for students who don’t have their teammates or cast members to count as a community. Indeed, spending even one morning surrounded by New Life Christians is almost enough to convince an atheist to sign up.
The environment is as close to being judgment-free as can exist on a college campus. And for practicing Christians, many of which have grown up feeling ostracized because of their religiousness, New Life is very appealing, and extremely hard to resist.
The Church organizes weekend-long retreats once a semester that Milian said are crucial to maintaining the community feel. “They make the Church seem smaller; it makes it easier to enjoy the community” when people are together for an entire weekend, she said.
The sense of belonging that New Life Church members cherish not only exists between members. “God is real and he cares about people; he cares about you, so we do too,” the website says. For a Christian, there is no greater comfort than God’s acceptance.
Yet New Life Church must work hard lest it lose its followers to the many temptations that come packaged with a college education. Joel VanderSchel, a deacon with New Life Church, said that he and the pastors “try to be as relevant as we can to college students, to offer to them somewhere to turn with real-life issues.”
The Life Groups, another service offered by the church, are another way that community is stressed.
The Groups, which are held quietly each week all over campus, are examples of both the Church’s attempt to connect with the younger generation and the younger generation’s reciprocated commitment to New Life. Organized exclusively by student leaders (who go through a training process with New Life Church leaders), the groups have one main purpose, according to the website: to create and strengthen authentic relationships between fellow Christians. Or, put another way, the Life Groups “do life together.”
Each week, a pastor from the Church sends an e-mail to the various leaders, after which the group members meet to discuss their lives in terms of Jesus and the Bible.
One Thursday night, the theme was the “team,” and the accompanying passage from the Bible was Acts 13: 1-3. What is most remarkable about the Bible study groups is the intentional effort bringing the Scripture up to date, pulling it to within the reach of typical students who spend their days hearing slang and curse words, not formal, ancient English.
Acts 13:1-3 is the story of Barnabus, an early evangelist and associate of Paul, who was pulled from his home to the task of spreading the Word to as many Gentiles as he could. To put the brief passage in context Thursday night, the group leader simply said, “Barnabus was chillin’ there for a while, then he went out and did stuff.”
Surprisingly enough, all of the girls seemed to know exactly what was going on in the story, even with this rather unhelpful synopsis. This is not a meaningless point; it shows that New Life members, at the same time as being typical college students, are devout Christians with a deep understanding of scripture.
The casual language that Life Groups use in their discussions in no way proves that New Life Church takes its study of the Bible any less seriously than other churches that stick to formal English.
Keyes explained one reason why she thinks New Life has been such a success. If students are forced to treat the Bible as a formal text, they are likely to become frustrated with the distance between them and the language, thus them and the Bible, and finally them and God.
That New Life is still thriving, she said, is a testament to the success of its strategy of encouraging Life Group leaders to bring the Biblical stories down to a college student’s level.
Life Groups are more significant than learning about Barnabus. Before delving into the Bible, the Life Group went through a set of motions that embody the real purpose of the Life Groups, and even more so, New Life Church. Going around in a circle, each member briefly spoke about her week. Each of the five girls, without exception, declared that she had had a “rough week,” and that she was ready for a break from school.
It was an opportunity for them to vent about their week, just as a group of friends would get together for dinner to complain about how many midterms they had. In this case, though, the get together had a theme: Jesus.
New Life Church’s growth can also be attributed to its policy when it comes to evangelism. “Aggressively and creatively sharing the Good News wherever we can, wherever we go, whenever it is possible,” is one of the church’s core beliefs listed on their website.
Milian said that her main focus is on her relationship with God and that she would never push her religion on someone.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is her attitude, no matter what their beliefs are. If people are curious about her church, she said, they will ask.