Decorah, Iowa, a town of roughly 8,000 people, is in no shortage of churches. By my count, there are at least 12. Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal, Covenant, Non-denominational, and more–a great variety is represented in such a small area. Suppose each one has two weekly Sunday services, and a few with Lenten vespers services in between. Now add in mid-day chapel on campus, three times a week. Then consider options for bible studies, small groups, mission trips and outreach teams, each with their own councils and leadership meetings. In total, these ministries should be enough to satisfy any spiritual appetite. Surely there is no immediate need for more Christian activities in Decorah. Nevertheless, each Sunday night at 9 p.m., a community of Luther students emerge from their 11th-hour cramming and gather for one more service: Focus.
Focus is an interdenominational worship service, led by and for Luther students. With a congregation of more than 120 people, it is arguably the most well-attended weekly event on campus (not counting chicken nugget day in the caf). Each Sunday includes songs, a drama, prayer, reflection time and a teaching by a campus pastor, faculty, staff or a Luther senior. Behind the scenes are students who devote hours of their week to plan the service, rehearse the songs, write the skits, pray for the congregation and heat up the pre-service hot cocoa.
At surface level, Focus is just one service among many like it. In light of the multitude of other churches in town, many may wonder what sets Focus apart. Why is it necessary for Luther, as a college of the church, to lend a time and space for a student-led worship service?
For some, it's the welcoming community. Ryan Schnaith, Luther class of 2018, appreciates Focus for being a place for students of all different faith backgrounds. He says, "The focus service is a place free of judgment– full of kindness, respect and acceptance." Despite these differences, it takes only a quick glance around the room to see people laughing together, crying together, and praying with one another. Jared Barnes, Luther class of 2018, agrees, saying that "anyone can come to Focus as they are, although many people, including myself, leave changed for the better."
For others, it's the emphasis on students. As a congregation of 20-somethings, we are each at a pivotal point between adolescence and adulthood, making decisions that seemingly will determine the rest of our lives. The messages given at Focus are written distinctly for us–not for the unwaveringly faithful, but for the confused, the weary and the fearful.
We encourage speakers to draw from their own background, whether that be from an academic discourse or a personal experience. Professor of Music Carol Hester, described the second chapter of Hebrews as if it were a piece of music, noting its "key" and its "crescendo." Senior elementary education major, Rachel Fyfe, used her knowledge of children's literature to parallel the faithfulness of God with Dr. Seuss' book, "Horton Hears a Who." Just last Sunday, President Carlson drew on her expertise of modern American short stories, using "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor to remind us that the grace of God should shock and transform us. This great range of topics and perspectives makes the messages of Focus relatable to everyone, whether they are choosing a major or searching for a post-college career.
Even more, students come to Focus simply seeking a resting place. Carla Hoppe, Luther class of 2018, describes Focus as a place where stress finds support–"where we can get away from the difficulties of college life and fix our eyes on what really matters." Ellen Schmidt, Luther class of 2018, says that she leaves each service "feeling centered and refreshed, ready for the rest of the week."
In addition to the many great Christian communities, I believe that Decorah does have a place for Focus, and that our small student-led service is a key part of Luther's identity as a college of the church. Such a service, promoting faith, fellowship and stewardship, truly embodies the Luther College mission statement. We "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good." We are "rooted in an understanding of grace and freedom that emboldens us in worship, study, and service to seek truth, examine our faith, and care for all God's people." We are transformed by our community to pursue lives "of faith and learning."
A college experience is not complete with academics alone. From my first to my senior year, I have been challenged and changed by my learning in the classroom, but also by my Focus family. No other activity is so intentionally centered on community and personal growth, and no textbook could so boldly move me to act as I believe Christ would. As I begin to seek out my place after Luther, I have become more and more aware of how precious Sunday nights are to me, and how lucky I am to belong at a college of the church.
Emily Holm is a senior at Luther College, where she studies religion, and is minoring in mathematics and computer science. She enjoys playing guitar for Luther's student-led worship service-Focus, her work-study position in Web Content, and the leisure reading stacks in Preus Library. If you get the opportunity to meet Emily, ask her about her summer as a Peace Scholar in Norway.