Campuswide Bible study builds community

Faculty, staff, students examine Philippians


Winter 2010

For Calvin associate chaplain Aaron Winkle, this fall’s campuswide Bible study on Philippians felt a little like flying a kite.

“You can build the kite and you can toss it into the air, but without the wind, it’s not going to work very well,” he said. “When we started dreaming about a Bible study for the whole campus, we knew we could get it started, but that others would make it fly.”

Winkle said he hoped the Philippians Bible study would help students, faculty and staff to start the year out right.

“There are lots of choices that face students, especially at the start of a new school year,” he said. “Giving our campus participants and leaders a chance to really spend time with God’s word presented people with a choice, and we hoped it was one they would take advantage of.”

Students, faculty and staff were encouraged to lead or join a group—and more than 1,200 did.

Calvin director of church and community relations Carol Rienstra led one study on campus for a mix of students, staff and faculty and another with Celebration Fellowship, a prison congregation at Ionia Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

She said that bridging a gap was one of her goals this fall.

“A lot of the men [at Ionia] have a perspective on Philippians that is kind of unique,” said Rienstra. “We met on Monday nights in the prison and then on Tuesday mornings, I led [the study] on campus. So I was able to bring the insights of both groups back and forth to each other.”

Rienstra’s two studies fit perfectly into what campus ministries had hoped would happen with the new effort.

“We have had Bible studies in the residence halls for years,” said Winkle. “But when we started thinking about this Bible study, we talked about what we could do to broaden the level of involvement. How could we get off-campus students involved? How could we get faculty and staff involved and maybe even make some of these studies intergenerational? To see that actually happening now, to see something like what Carol is doing, is really exciting.”

The Philippians studies have gone in some unexpected directions, said Bible study co-planner Calvin chaplain Mary Hulst.

“Early on, David Smith [a German professor] was involved in one of our focus groups, and he said: ‘What about a Bible study in German?’ And the light bulbs went on for us,” she said. “He e-mailed his colleagues in foreign languages and we ended up with Bible studies in Spanish and Korean and even Greek. So that was one good example of how the people who got involved took this small idea and made it even better.”

Those sorts of “affinity group” Bible studies—people who already share a common interest gathering around the study of Philippians—had been an unforeseen but appreciated outgrowth of the project for the folks in campus ministries. “We didn’t expect it, but it’s been great,” said Winkle of the coming together of people around such interests as athletics, theater, nursing, psychology and even yoga.

Other Philippians Bible studies took the concept and put their own twist on it, including one study led by former chaplain Dale Cooper, which, over the course of the semester, memorized the entire book of Philippians. Another led by the Meeter Center’s Paul Fields looked at John Calvin’s commentary on the book. 

For former Calvin dean and current biology professor Uko Zylstra, the entire effort was a fantastic opportunity to practice what he preaches.

“I think it is important to be able to relate to and mentor students outside of a classroom or lab context,” he said. Zylstra co-led a Bible study with his wife in his home. “It’s been my experience that students enjoy getting to know faculty in their home setting,” he said. “They get to engage with faculty in a more holistic manner.”

In fact, Zylstra’s words fit the No. 1 goal for the study as outlined by the campus ministries team some six months ago: to encourage students, faculty and staff to read and study the Bible in community.

“What Uko and so many others did is exactly what we had prayed would happen,” said Winkle. “It’s exciting to see what God might have in store for this campus as so many people come together to study His word.”