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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    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: Multiplying Leaders

By John W. Kennedy
Sept. 29, 2013


Largest Chi Alpha group grows by commissioning leaders to plant elsewhere

The more leaders Eli Gautreaux trains, the more they leave to plant student ministries on other campuses.

While a strategy of raising up leaders, teaching them, and sending them out to start new Chi Alpha ministries may seem counterproductive, it has led to unprecedented growth for Gautreaux’s home base in Huntsville, Texas.

Seven years ago, the Chi Alpha group at Sam Houston State University had 400 weekly attendees. Now 1,000 students consistently come to meetings. Even more — 1,300 — are actively involved in small groups where discipleship takes place.

This kind of growth and discipleship focus reflects the ministry values of Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God ministry to secular college and university campuses. Today is Chi Alpha Campus Ministries Day in the AG.

The large numbers at SHSU are the result of a sense of community flowing from one-on-one relationships. Typically fliers around the picturesque tree-lined campus are not what attract attendees; instead, students come because another student has befriended them.

“We don’t think we’re the best orators or musicians,” says Gautreaux, who is fond of using the collective “we” when talking of his ministry teams who have served with him during 21 years as Chi Alpha director at SHSU. “Kids come because they have experienced the Lord in a small group.”

The SHSU Chi Alpha is the largest student group, religious or otherwise, on the 18,000-student campus. Attendees outnumber all sorority and fraternity memberships combined.

For full-scale gatherings, Chi Alpha now meets at First Assembly of God in Huntsville because no building on campus can accommodate such a sizable gathering. Services on Thursday night fill the main floor and balcony to overflowing, and chairs must be added at the back of the sanctuary.

The huge crowd shows up even though the church is a mile and a half from campus. It’s not easy to walk or bike there across Huntsville’s rolling hills.

At first glance, the physically imposing Gautreaux may not seem like a guy who connects with so many young collegians. But he wins over many with his strong personality, intense vision, and transparency.

Eli and Mary Gautreaux met as college athletes in Stockton, Calif. — the statuesque Mary on the swimming team and the muscular Eli on a water polo scholarship. When Eli committed his life to Christ in 1990, he experienced a radical change in priorities. A native of Houston, he relinquished his scholarship and returned to Texas, enrolling at SHSU for his junior year.

Eighteen months later, Joe Barnes, then pastor of Huntsville First AG, asked Gautreaux to revitalize the dormant Chi Alpha group on campus. Despite his perceived lack of spiritual training, Gautreaux accepted the challenge, and has duplicated that pattern ever since.

“When a big brother or big sister leaves, it’s up to the younger ones to step into their spots and replicate their ministry,” Gautreaux says.

Not that ministry leaders don’t have any guidance. Twenty leaders a year serve full-time SHSU Chi Alpha internships that focus on discipleship training and character development. The Gautreauxs, who are backed by half-a-dozen full-time staff members, mentor a team model of ministry designed to invest in relationships.

“We don’t see students so much as sheep, but as potential shepherds,” Gautreaux says. “Christ’s plan was to entrust His followers with responsibility.”

The 200 small group leaders, who gather every Wednesday night for training, are expected to recruit their own attendees.

“The Lord has given us wonderful people who work so hard,” Gautreaux says. “A number of people have been with us for 10 years or more.”

Yet the Gautreauxs have trained leaders who have departed to pioneer Chi Alpha groups on 10 other campuses. Nearly all interns who have graduated — 92 out of 101 — are now in full-time ministry. That’s more than any other Chi Alpha in the nation has produced.

Many young people catch the vision for ministry by taking overseas trips to such locales as Spain, Greece and two dozen other nations in conjunction with Assemblies of God World Missions. More than 1,000 students have gone on these outreaches, and some have become full-time missionaries.

“Somehow God has made this place kind of a missions base,” says Jason Bell, who has been in charge of small groups since 2000.

Gautreaux, who readily admits to making plenty of mistakes in the early going, has no qualms about empowering young people.

“Anytime I see alumni from the first seven years I was here, I apologize because I was so green,” Gautreaux says. “But Mary and I had to lead even though we weren’t ready. A lot of churches wait until someone is ‘mature.’ If there is something of Jesus in your heart, it makes you grow up.”

Around the same time Eli converted to Christianity, Mary recommitted her life to Jesus and also transferred to SHSU. The couple wed during their senior year. Eli graduated with a business degree; Mary, with an elementary education diploma. She now home-schools the couple’s two teenage daughters.

SHSU is considered a “suitcase college,” where three-fourths of students leave campus Thursday nights to commute home to Houston 60 miles to the south where they have weekend jobs. Classes aren’t even held on Fridays. Comparatively few students have their parents pick up the tuition tab.

“Students at Sam Houston are fishermen, not rich young rulers like at some other schools,” Gautreaux says.

The soft-spoken Mary is small groups and discipleship leader for women. She teaches intern classes as well as leadership training. She also does crisis counseling.

“Mary has been a big part of shaping who I am,” says Faith Robinson, a staff member who has been in charge of the internship program since 2003. “In a godly way she provides a practical example of what life in ministry looks like.”

Robinson, who is of East Indian descent, says a student missions trip to the Netherlands served as the catalyst for her entry into full-time ministry. Interns make a one-year commitment after graduation. Some stay for a two-year missionary-in-training program.

“Our interns run so much of the week-to-week ministry,” Robinson, 31, says with a warm smile. “There are lots of structured layers, but at the end of the day it’s about discipleship and leading others to the Lord.”

Gautreaux credits Jason Bell with keeping the ministry on track. Bell got involved with Chi Alpha as a student in 1996. Bell offered to stay for a year after graduation as a missionary aid when the staff consisted only of Eli and Mary. Bell is effusive in praise of Gautreaux.

“From the start, Eli has believed God can change the world through Huntsville Chi Alpha,” says the wiry Bell, 36. “It’s the most exhilarating experience to see people’s lives transformed. It has a rippling effect.”

Jessica Barnett, 21, is a student small group leader entering her senior year. She transferred to SHSU from a junior college and immediately got plugged in to Chi Alpha and committed her life to Christ.

“These pastors have a way of explaining things,” says Barnett, who grew up in a home with an eclectic mix of non-Christian religions. She mentors 11 female students, not all of them Christians.

“We build community by sharing life together, not just in a once-a-week meeting,” Barnett says. “I have no ownership of these girls, but I have a responsibility to help them know Jesus.”

Barnett thanks Eli Stewart for helping her understand biblical concepts. Stewart, who dubs himself “Eli the Lesser” in deference to Gautreaux, leads worship and is a preaching pastor for Chi Alpha. Stewart had just shut down a construction company in Colorado when Gautreaux asked him to join the staff in 2005.

Stewart’s concern for the students is evident by the preparations he makes in serving brisket at a recent breakfast outreach. He stayed awake all night to keep feeding the smoker grill — which he built himself — at proper intervals. 

“One of my favorite things about Eli is that he lets people minister even if they are not fully mature,” says the 33-year-old Stewart, who radiates joy. “To try and fail is better than to not try.”

One of Stewart’s roles is to assess the areas individual interns need experience in and to fill the void.

“If all I do is what I’m good at, I won’t disciple a lot of people,” Stewart reasons.

Daniel Young, 25, is another leader preparing to pioneer a Chi Alpha ministry elsewhere next year. He commends Gautreaux for reaching out to potential enemies. For instance, Chi Alpha operates a ministry that provides a safe ride home to students who have been drinking in bars.

“There used to be tension with fraternities because we took their members, but now they’re grateful we’re doing this,” Young says. “Meeting people in their world makes you stand out.”

Four years ago, an exodus of Sam Houston Chi Alpha leaders left to pioneer other works at the University of Texas-San Antonio, Colorado State, and even in the Czech Republic. The San Antonio group already averages 400 students in weekly gatherings.

Now another batch of leaders is leaving, including Jordan Goodie with a team of six that includes his wife, Katie.

Goodie, a 26-year-old Houston native, has been on the Sam Houston Chi Alpha staff for two years. Although he became a history teacher after graduating from college, Goodie says on a missions trip to the Netherlands, AG missionary Steve Kramer prophesied that Goodie would go into ministry.

This fall, Goodie is heading off to plant a Chi Alpha group at West Virginia University in Morgantown. But Goodie knows he isn’t leaving SHSU in the lurch. He has been mentoring eight young men who in turn are giving spiritual oversight to other young men.

“I grew up in church, but I never saw people who really enjoyed Jesus intimately the way Eli and other leaders do,” Goodie says. “I’ve learned how to love Christ and to be patient and persevering with people, to love people who don’t ‘deserve’ to be loved — the way Christ loves us.”

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



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