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Big God on campus

University students majoring in prayer, evangelism

By Christina Quick

It’s 3 a.m. and a light is still glowing in a little clapboard house near the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Several students arrive and exchange greetings before shuffling into a small back room where a handful of others are already occupying the sparse furniture. They haven’t come for a party, a fraternity hazing or a bleary-eyed study session. These students are sacrificing sleep for the sole purpose of prayer.

They quickly get down to business, kneeling together on the frayed carpet to plead for God’s mercy and favor on their campus.

When the first shaft of sunlight penetrates the room three hours later, several students are still propped against the walls or sprawled on the floor. Their faces damp with tears, they persevere in their sacred mission to communicate with God and change their world.

Chi Alpha pastor Matt Carpenter, who serves the UCA campus along with his wife, Kiki, says these fervent prayers are being answered. Two years ago, Carpenter challenged students to seek God like never before. For more than five weeks they prayed 24 hours a day, with leaders and students taking long shifts in a room of the Chi Alpha house set aside for that purpose.

Carpenter has since seen an increase in the number of students committing their lives to Christ and sharing their faith with others. Attendance at Chi Alpha meetings has soared from 125 to as many as 450, with student-initiated ministries cropping up all over campus.

“This generation is desperate for purpose,” Carpenter says. “They’re in a place where they can and will make radical decisions for God.”

The pastor emphasizes that attendance numbers aren’t what motivate him; the focus of his ministry is changed lives.

A reason to live

Cale Mills was contemplating suicide when he first became involved in Chi Alpha almost two years ago. Secretly addicted to Internet pornography since junior high school, Mills had decided that taking his own life was the only way to escape the guilt and torment that hung over him like a dark cloud.

“By the world’s standards, I looked like somebody who had a great life,” says Mills, who plans to graduate this year with a degree in public relations. “But I hadn’t yet had a personal encounter with the Spirit of God.”

All of that changed one morning as he lay in bed in a state of deep depression. Desperate for relief, he literally rolled face-first onto the floor and asked God to show him that He is real.

“In that moment I felt such love that I knew He had been there all along,” Mills says. “I was also aware of my sin and I just kept telling God, ‘I’m sorry, I’m
sorry.’ ”

Today Mills is free from his former addiction. He serves as a student ministry leader and uses his creative talents to produce videos promoting Chi Alpha.

“At one time everything seemed meaningless,” he says. “Now God is at the base of my life, and the very core of me has changed.”

Dry bones

According to Carpenter, prayer has created an atmosphere in which people are being drawn to God. At weekly Chi Alpha meetings, students crowd the altars to seek forgiveness for sins and to experience God’s presence. Others, like Mills, are encountering Jesus in dorm rooms and student centers, classrooms and coffeehouses.

“God never desired to pour out His Spirit on meetings, but to pour out His Spirit on all flesh,” Carpenter says. “Even if we had 800 people meeting on Monday night, it would all be in vain if nothing was happening the rest of the week.”

In the Chi Alpha prayer room, where members have painted their favorite Bible verses on the walls, the pastor points to a reference from Ezekiel 37. He explains that just as the prophet spoke to dry bones and saw them spring to life, God is transforming lives in what some may consider an unlikely place: a secular university.

“A lot of Christians look at college campuses and just see dry bones,” Carpenter says. “I see God raising up an army.”

When Carpenter first suggested round-the-clock prayer meetings, students were skeptical. Final exams were a few weeks away, and some were worried that such a commitment might cut into their study time. Still, several agreed to give it a try.

Two years later, it’s evident students have caught the vision for prayer. On any given day, a student-led prayer meeting is likely to be in session. One group meets weekly to walk around the academic buildings late at night, praying as they go. Other prayer groups meet in dorms or around the fountain at lunchtime. A few students have even organized prayer walks on the campuses of nearby colleges.

“God is calling the church to pray again, and there is a generation rising up that knows how to pray God’s heart,” says Brenna Carter, a 19-year-old speech communications major. “There’s this hunger in all of us. We’re not satisfied with living a typical Christian life. We want to know God.”

Carter, who says she feels called into ministry, boldly shares her faith with those she meets. She recently brought a foreign exchange student to a Chi Alpha meeting and led her to Christ on the way home.

“God’s calling for me isn’t just for when I’m graduated,” she says. “God’s calling is now.”

Over the past three years, students have had opportunities to participate in missions trips to Morocco, Spain, Thailand and New Orleans.

Carpenter also encourages them to pursue evangelism within their own circles of influence. As a result, previously untapped areas of campus life are being reached.

One student organized a Christian group for students interested in learning and performing classical dance.

Chi Alpha member Ian Goodman, former captain of the university soccer team, started a Bible study last year with several non-Christian players. Eight players have started attending Chi Alpha meetings, and at least four have made commitments to Christ.

Goodman recently quit the soccer team to devote more time to his pre-med studies, a decision he made only after spending six hours in the prayer room. He still shows up each week for the team Bible study, however.

“The concept we have now of full-time ministry is being blown apart,” says Ryan Long, 20, whose father, Randy Long, is the senior pastor at The Church Alive (AG) in Conway. “If we’re breathing full time, we should be in ministry full time.”

Fatherless generation

Carpenter himself developed a passion for ministry while attending a state university. He was a junior engineering major at the University of Nebraska when he sensed God calling him to campus ministry. The next semester, he transferred to North Central University in Minneapolis to complete his education.

Carpenter says his troubled childhood helped prepare him for ministry to today’s college students, many of whom have had difficult family lives. He grew up in a non-Christian home with an alcoholic father who would sometimes get drunk and beat his mother. When he was 11, his parents separated. In his grief, he called out to God for help.

“I told God I needed more than I had,” Carpenter says. “Everything I’d known was falling apart. That’s the day Jesus became real to me.”

Since that time, Carpenter’s father has been delivered from alcoholism. Both parents have received Christ and their marriage has been restored.

Carpenter says one of his greatest challenges has been helping other young people who have not experienced a positive relationship with a father to accept God as their Father.

“This is a fatherless generation,” he says. “Even if they didn’t come from split homes, many of their fathers weren’t there for them. Satan has tried to destroy that image of father as a picture of God.”

Still growing

Once students discover who God is and how much He loves them, the response is often enthusiastic. Carpenter has performed baptisms at a local lake in the middle of winter because the new converts didn’t want to wait for warmer weather.

Discipleship takes place through small groups that meet throughout the week. Some of the groups focus on specific topics or Bible doctrines. Since many of the students are from non-Pentecostal backgrounds, the baptism in the Holy Spirit is a popular course of study.

Jody McCall, who plays keyboard for the Chi Alpha worship team, is one of several students who received the Baptism after attending one of these sessions.

“I had always heard that speaking in tongues was something weird,” she says. “God has blown that apart and changed my thinking. The Holy Spirit gives me words to speak when I have none and has opened up a way of communicating with God I didn’t have before.”

At least 18 students were filled with the Holy Spirit last semester alone.

The spiritual momentum taking place on the UCA campus is just the beginning of what God is doing across the nation, according to Carpenter.

“God is calling all of us to a higher level of commitment,” he says. “I feel like this is bigger than any college campus. God is making himself available to anyone who will respond.”

Christina Quick is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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