Set high on a hill overlooking the Walnut River valley in Winfield, Kansas, Southwestern College looks much like any other small college or university with picturesque wooden sidewalks connecting buildings made of native limestone. But this United Methodist college — one of four in the Great Plains Conference — is doing more than just offering classes and awarding degrees. It’s forming disciples.
Southwestern is home to two different programs which engage in spiritual formation and help students become dedicated disciples, committed Christians and future church leaders. Worship Outreach, started in 1993, teaches students how to lead music in worship and develop their gifts as musicians. And Discipleship has grown from a DISCIPLE Bible Study group in 2001 to a 4-year program, with students moving through their college years together in covenant groups.
“If you want to grow in your faith, this is a great place to be,” says Discipleship director Molly Just, a provisional elder in the Great Plains Conference.
Just should know — she was a part of Discipleship during her years at Southwestern under then-director Ashlee Alley, who now acts as the Clergy Recruitment and Development Coordinator for the Great Plains.
Just frames the program’s core values as faith formation, holistic education, community, meaningful service, leadership, and fun. Commitment is another defining feature — students apply to be a part of the program and commit to small groups, Bible study, and mission work in community with one another. They don’t need to come in as experts in the Bible and Christian community, though.
“Discipleship is an open community where you can come and learn and grow in your own faith, and you can be from any walk of life,” says Tana Tyler, a junior in the program from Salina, Kansas. “Whether you’re wanting to become a pastor or you’ve only read one book of the Bible — you can still learn a lot and develop your faith.”
Each covenant group is made up of students in the same year in school, so students stay in the same covenant group all four years of college, forming strong bonds with one another and learning how to listen and learn from people with whom they may or may not share other interests and viewpoints.
“Community was important to me coming into college as a freshman, not knowing anyone,” said Daniel Reffner, a junior from Wichita, Kansas. “My covenant group gave me a community to be involved with, and as we moved along and have continued to grow together it has given me space for vulnerability.”
Each covenant group meets one evening per week in the home of an adult facilitator who acts as a guide and sounding board for the group. All students participating in Discipleship also meet one hour each week for a class led by Just on a variety of faith and discipleship topics. “We do something different every Monday, but it’s really centered around communal worship and prayer, and sometimes on a specific task, like time for committees to meet,” says Just.
Every year, each covenant group has a focus. First-year students still go through the Bible with DISCIPLE, while those in their second year focus on the practice of spiritual discernment with "The Good and Beautiful God," written by Great Plains author James Bryan Smith. In their third year, students practice Christian leadership and act as the “shepherd team” for the entire Discipleship program, setting the program’s mission for the year and filling the program’s administrative and leadership roles. Seniors focus on giving back to the community and learning how to communicate their theology.
“I’ve grown a lot through Discipleship,” Tyler says. “We go into the Bible pretty deeply for 18-year-olds our first year, and you start to grow and develop your theology. Here in my third year, after having spent two years gaining knowledge and talking with people and being in community and taking other classes for my Discipleship minor. I’m starting to be able to articulate my theology and faith.”
Reffner agrees. “It’s been a wonderful complement for my Religion & Philosophy major. I feel like I’ve gone so much deeper in my understanding of grace and how it applies to me, and what it means to have faith. I feel like I’ve learned what having faith actually means.”
Most people know that music can be a powerful way of connecting with God. But music requires musicians, and even good musicians require training to lead worship well. That’s where Worship Outreach seeks to step in and fill a gap.
As with Discipleship, students apply to be a part of Worship Outreach. Director of Worship Outreach Martin Rude looks for students who have been involved with music or praise bands in the past, who have musical, tech or video skills, and who are interested in learning.
Once a part of the class, students in Worship Outreach focus on three questions each year: Who is Jesus Christ, what did He come to do, and what difference does that make to me?
“There’s really a fourth question that comes out of that, too, which is what do you want to do to express and share that difference you feel?” adds Rude. “What is God doing in your life, and what is God calling you to step forward in in the near future, in three years, and beyond?”
To help guide that discernment process, Rude sits down with each student every semester to help them outline a personal plan for their growth as musicians and disciples.
“They can decide that that means improving in one instrument, learning another instrument, learning how to produce, shoot video, or run the sound board,” says Rude.
And while it seems as if musicianship would be the primary focus in a class like this, Rude says that Worship Outreach is roughly 80 percent Philosophy & Religion and only 20 percent Performing Arts.
“I’ve learned a lot about music and sound equipment, but the most valuable things I’ve learned in Worship Outreach have to do with the attitude of worship leading,” says Lindsey Graber, a senior from Wichita. “Not only have I been challenged to be a stronger musician, but I have also been challenged to develop a stronger relationship with the Lord. I am aware that I am sustained as a worship leader through my deep and intimate connection to God.”
The class uses Constance Cherry’s book “The Worship Architect,” which covers worship liturgy, definitions of worship, styles of worship, music licensing, and all different elements of being on a church staff.
Students in Worship Outreach put these musical and theological skills into practice by diving into bands that practice and perform together. The two groups rehearse weekly, and at least one Sunday each month the bands travel to area churches to lead worship music. The bands also lead music for Southwestern’s weekly Wednesday chapel service and, alongside church music professionals, lead the Amp It Up camp for high school students in May each year.
In addition to learning and playing existing praise and worship songs and hymns, students are also encouraged to stretch their abilities to create songs of their own. About once a year, all students in Worship Outreach collaborate to produce a music video for one of their new songs. The group has even developed a significant following on YouTube because of self-produced songs and music videos.
Worship Outreach also has a strong focus on summer internships with churches and camps so that students can gain perspective and experience in real world settings. The goal is for students to explore different ministry settings to discover which they might be called into and find ways to bring their love of music into those settings.
In spite of their differing emphases, there are many elements Discipleship and Worship Outreach share. Students are graded on their participation and receive one hour of credit per semester for participating in the courses, but that’s not their main attraction for those in the programs.
“The existence of Worship Outreach was a huge pull to Southwestern College for me,” says Graber. “It is rare to find another college that takes worship leadership so seriously. I knew that Southwestern College not only had a program I could plug into, but also people to challenge me and encourage me to grow my gifts.”
Both classes share a grant that has enabled them to incorporate formal mentoring relationships into their classes, as well.
“At least 15 students can be paired with an adult. People are really drawn to the mentoring program and it’s become a really strong part of Discipleship and Worship Outreach,” says Just. “To have someone who is a step ahead of you in life, who can help you see above the timberline a little bit has been so great for the students. We really do try to pair students with mentors who share their interests and are in a vocation that the student feels called into.”
Rude also tried to incorporate informal mentors into his program — often alumni of Worship Outreach who can give current students real-world perspective and insights — who occasionally teach classes or help place students in internship opportunities.
Most importantly though, both classes encourage students to think deeply about their faith and put it into practice in their lives, whether or not that means pursuing a call into ordained or other ministry. Although moving students into formal ministry isn’t their primary goal, the programs do have a strong record of students attending seminary and entering ministry after they leave Southwestern.
Just was one of several in her class who followed a path into formal ministry. “Out of a group of about 16 or so, three of us went to seminary after graduating and two more have done some other kind of church-related ministry,” says Just. “We have quite a few students now who are seriously exploring seminary after they graduate, and we’re excited!”
Regardless of whether or not the students pursue seminary or ordination, the directors of Discipleship and Worship Outreach make sure that students graduate with a solid understanding of the power that can come from being in Christian community.
Daniel Reffner thinks they’ve accomplished their goal with him.
“My time here given me a framework and a way to articulate what it’s like to do life with other Christians. It’s so rich and so deep, and I know I sure didn’t grasp that before I came to Southwestern.”
-- Britt Bradley, Institute for Discipleship, Southwestern College