Vanderbilt Wesley Fellowship: a New Kind of Community on Campus, and at West End UMC

Last fall, I bundled up and drove over to my alma mater, Vanderbilt University, for a fire pit party.  I serve on the Board of Directors of Vanderbilt Wesley Fellowship, the United Methodist campus ministry, and went to support this fellowship event on campus.  Students walking across The Commons paused for a moment to stand by the fire, drink some hot cocoa or to roast a s’more and hang out with the other students gathered.  It may sound simple, but this is one of many events reaching out to students on campus who would likely pass on attending church on Sunday. When Pew Research Center published their results in 2014 in the Religious Landscape Survey they discovered nearly one-in-three members of the Millennial generation (32%) has no religious affiliation.

There has been a lot of talk about how to reach out to those who do not identify as “religious” or would rather not wake up for church on Sunday.  I want to convey what is happening here at WEUMC to welcome and reach out to young people.  

Two years ago the TN Annual Conference approved a slightly different model for college ministry.  Rev. Nancy Parker is the Vandy Wesley pastor and director, and at the same time she is also the young adult minister at WEUMC (25% of her salary is funded by the WEUMC budget). The majority of her week is spent across the street at Vanderbilt University as a kind of missionary on campus, yet she has an office and a position on staff at West End that allows her to be anchored in a church.  Neethu Thampy, a senior at Vanderbilt University, shared the relationship between WEUMC and Vandy Wesley best during the mission moment in December.  Neethu explained, “West End UMC was so easy to get to sophomore year, and I felt so welcomed from my first service. Especially as I got really involved with the college lunch and fellowship, I yearned for such a community on campus. Soon after, I got the privilege to help Nancy revive the Wesley group on Vanderbilt’s campus, and it’s been such a joy to see it grow, knowing that other students could experience the same love of God, acceptance, and love I feel. Wesley encourages me to be myself, helps me feel grounded and supported, and helps me learn more about Scripture.”

Student leaders who attend West End join with other students at Vanderbilt to create a movement of love on Vanderbilt’s Campus. Their purpose is to be a community on a spiritual journey to have an impact on Vandy, Middle Tennessee, and beyond. They live out this purpose through a weekly gathering (a meal, fellowship, and study), along with several fellowship, spiritual growth, and service events throughout each semester.  For example, this semester Vandy Wesley and Vanderbilt’s Center for Leadership Development are co-facilitating group book discussion series on Brenè Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness.  Students will be talking about the “spiritual practice of belonging.” 

The partnership between West End UMC and Vandy Wesley is such a powerful example  of West End being the Loving Light of Christ: Connecting and Transforming.  There will be future opportunities for WEUMC members to connect with and nurture the Vandy Wesley ministry. Keep your eyes and ears open and know that Nancy and student leaders have planted seeds within our congregation and across West End Avenue. The harvest is just beginning!