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    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Chi Alpha Poised to Expand Campus Ministry

By John W. Kennedy
Sept. 26, 2010

Seven young men gathered in San Antonio in 1977 to plot the future philosophy of ministry for Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God outreach on mainstream college campuses.

While Chi Alpha has been around for more than half a century, that gathering 33 years ago proved to be a pivotal point in the growth of the organization, which has the goal of reconciling students to Christ and equipping them through prayer, worship, fellowship, discipleship and mission to transform the university, the marketplace and the world.

The growth has been especially impressive in the past decade. Today there are chartered Chi Alpha groups meeting on 279 campuses, compared to 206 in 2000. Affiliated staff now total 613, nearly double the 321 from 10 years ago. In that span, the average group meeting size has increased to 57 from 35.

All of the San Antonio Seven still are involved in missions or pastoral ministry. Two of those men are in organizational leadership roles with Chi Alpha. Dennis Gaylor is the national director, and Harv Herman is national director of missionary training. Another of the seven, Brady Bobbink, has served at Western Washington University for 35 years, the longest tenure ever on one campus by a Chi Alpha leader.

The first national director was appointed in 1963, and four more followed in the next 15 years. Gaylor, 61, has given continuity and development to the post, which he has held since 1978. Gaylor believes the ministry really took off in 1986 when it was moved from the National Youth Department and began to be recognized on university campuses as part of Assemblies of God U.S. Missions.

“The biggest change is we’re more organized and strategic now,” Gaylor says. “Earlier there was no system in place for becoming a recognized campus missionary.”

“The whole movement had incredibly young leadership,” recalls Herman, author of Discipleship by Design: The Discipling of Christian University Students. “We had no way to raise money.”

Herman earned $50 a week when he pioneered the Chi Alpha group at the University of Iowa in 1975. His wife, Sally, a nurse, provided the primary income for the family.

Now, Chi Alpha leaders itinerate, as other missionaries do. An average of 60 percent of their budgets comes from friends, as opposed to traditional missionaries whose support stems largely from churches.

“This allows them to fulfill their calling and to be compensated properly,” Gaylor says.

For his first dozen years as national director, Gaylor had no staff. Today there are five, including Herman, who is based in Charlottesville, Va. Gaylor is swift to decline taking credit for Chi Alpha’s growth, saying the implementation of decentralized organization and field-level leadership — eight area directors and resource personnel — has enabled campus leaders to stay resourced and in touch with the vision of the ministry.

“This has significantly pushed the Chi Alpha program forward,” says Herman, 59.

Having well-trained campus personnel in place is the key to growth because that makes it easier to mentor future leaders, Gaylor says.

“The face of Chi Alpha is many faces,” Gaylor says. “There are a lot of talented people out there serving on campuses.”

Most leaders have been raised up as students through a local Chi Alpha group, are called into campus ministry, and attend Reach the University training. This preparation is complemented by a yearlong internship, Campus Missionary in Training, where they earn ministerial credentials. Fifty new Chi Alphans earn ministerial credentials annually.

The first official Chi Alpha group formed in 1953 in Springfield, Mo., at what is now Missouri State University. As originally conceived, the group served as a way to safeguard the faith of Assemblies of God youth on secular campuses. By the time he left as national director in 1968, Rick Howard suggested the then-radical idea of reconstituting Chi Alpha’s mission to reach out to not just AG college students, but to the whole campus community.

In some contexts, Chi Alpha is starting campus churches. Two-thirds of students going to Chi Alpha meetings these days have no connection with an AG church background, and thus won’t gravitate to an established local congregation. Some students have no transportation and are reluctant to attend a church elsewhere.

Besides the traditional large-residence campuses and college towns with state universities where Chi Alpha is well established, Gaylor is eyeing urban multi-university environments and community colleges as logical expansion locations for Chi Alpha. Thousands of students are concentrated on elite urban campuses, and a large number live near community colleges.

“It’s very expensive for our campus missionaries to live and minister in the urban setting, but we must establish a presence on these prestigious, world-influencing campuses,” Gaylor says. “Also, the community colleges offer incredible potential for ministering to students. If we could mobilize in areas where there are community colleges, we could double in size.”

Meanwhile, Gaylor is excited at the opportunity Chi Alpha has to reach some of the 843,000 international students and scholars studying on U.S. campuses. Overall, one out of five Chi Alpha participants is from overseas.

“The cream of the crop among international students are in the United States,” Gaylor says. “If we build friendships and share the gospel with them, they will change the world.”

Chi Alpha hopes to have 1,200 leaders on 500 campuses ministering to 50,000 students by 2015.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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