By Trey Taulbee
The Bridge started as an experiment – a new type of mission trip that partners University of Mobile students with church planters in a major metropolitan city in the United States. Like the new church plants it was designed to help, this week-long mission trip is challenging students to live out their faith among people from a variety of cultures and all walks of life.
The Bridge started in 2006 after a student approached Neal Ledbetter, director of Campus Life, with the idea of using spring break to help a church plant in Maryland. Ledbetter took the idea and pitched it to other students.
“We wanted to see if it would work,” Ledbetter says.
Although Campus Life trips scheduled during school breaks had previously been unsuccessful, students were excited about working with a church plant in a major city.
“We already had a weekend regional trip with Urban Plunge and international trips all over the world, and this filled a gap that we had not explored,” he says. “Instead of a traditional mission trip, we wanted to help a young church with whatever they needed.”
That spring, 30 UMobile students took their talents and gifts to Kent Island, MD, learning about church planting in an urban context. Since then, over 200 UMobile students have ministered and learned through The Bridge experience.
A Big World
According to Campus Life Coordinator for Campus Ministries Megan Hunter ‘10, The Bridge teaches students how to meld theory and application.
“The purpose is to take the knowledge they get in the classroom, and see it lived out with people that are practicing it every day,” she says. “Church planting is ‘let me come to you and let me reach you.’”
Hunter recalls her first Bridge experience in Boston as a student. “I learned everyone has to be the Church,” says Hunter. “You don’t have to have an established building and church staff to perform ministry tasks.”
Hunter’s passion for missions led to multiple trips all over the world with Campus Life and the School of Christian Ministries. After graduation, as an employee at her alma mater, she planned and implemented the same trips she traveled as a student. Currently, Hunter coordinates training, logistics, and ministry contacts for all Bridge trips, in addition to other local and international trips.
“From my experience in Boston, I understand the importance of mobilizing others for trips,” she says. “I get joy out of seeing a student go on a mission trip for the first time.”
Currently, multiple Bridge trips are offered during the year. Cities are determined by student feedback and ministry opportunity. Students on The Bridge have traveled to cities all over the United States, including Seattle, Portland, New York, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco.
While these cultural hubs provide an obvious experiential draw for students, there are deeper needs within these cities that challenge students to wrestle through their faith.
“We want to find cities that are appealing,” says Hunter. “But we also want to find the least-reached places and unreached people groups often found within these cities.”
For many students, this is a first-time experience in a large, multicultural city. Hunter believes this experience is valuable for growth and perspective.
“Students learn that everything isn’t about them and the world is much bigger,” she says. “It gives you more appreciation for your own city, and your need to minister in your city.”
One recent alumnus recognized this need and followed God’s call to the city.
Answering the Call
Jacob Fowler ’12 went on a Bridge trip in Spring 2011 and worked with Grace Toronto, a church plant in the heart of downtown Toronto. Fowler and his team performed much-needed ministry tasks and received personal investment from church leadership. Most importantly, Fowler recognized the intersection of his passion and God’s calling.
“Before going to Toronto I had heard people say, ‘If you reach the city, you can reach the world,’” says Fowler. “Once I was in Toronto, I saw this as a reality.”
Grace’s ministry approach was intriguing to Fowler. He says, “They weren’t seeking to simply bring people to a service, they wanted to go to the people – to be disciples where God had already placed them and to live for Christ in everyday life.”
This experience led Fowler to pursue church planting with Mosaic Church in Chicago, IL, immediately following his graduation. As associate pastor/church planter-in-residence, Fowler is preparing to establish another church within the Chicago community.
“I attribute much of where I am now to what God started in my heart through that trip,” says Fowler. “God showed me: plant a church in the city, plant a church for the world.”
Referring to each trip as “a spiritual formation opportunity,” Ledbetter seeks to challenge students in their faith – both internally and externally.
“We will continue to challenge students to not only see what they contribute, but also what they can learn,” he says. “Our students need to encounter people of different faiths in order to know how to share their own faith and communicate the Gospel.”
As UMobile presses forward into greater cultural engagement on the national scale, Ledbetter believes The Bridge will play a crucial role in preparing students for the future.
“Our students are going to graduate, and they’re going to work in those environments around people from all walks of life and faith,” he says. “The more that we can expose them to these environments, the more prepared they will be to engage the culture.”