Across Canada and the United States, Christian student groups on university and college campuses have historically operated from one generally-accepted model. Looking at The Navigators, Power to Change, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and Cru, this model usually consists of a weekly large group meeting designed to help students grow in their faith, Bible studies for interested students and miscellaneous events, ranging from fun games nights to community service opportunities and ever-popular retreats.
I first encountered the Navigators as a first-year student looking to become involved in a Christian community. During my first few visits, my introverted side found the weekly group gatherings overwhelming. You walked into the campus leader’s house and quickly found yourself surrounded by 40-50 of your fellow students. With conversations whirling around you and sound bouncing every which way, moving from one room to another felt like a game of human Tetris. But I kept showing up and gradually, as I met more people through Bible studies and other events, this loud and seemingly overwhelming event became a highlight of my week.
In my fourth and final year as a Carleton student, our campus leader Chris Barrett announced he was accepting an appointment to become the next President and National Director of the Navigators of Canada. With Chris now focusing on his new role of leading the national work, I could see a change coming to the Navigator group, but I wasn’t sure what it would look like.
When the 2014-15 school year began, the Carleton Navigators were being led by campus leader Brenda Wang, intern Bruce Narbaitz, an expanded student executive team and Chris, when he had the chance. The team decided to do a less intense continuation of the weekly large group gatherings called Sweet Treats & #RealTalk on a biweekly basis.
In the summer of 2015, the Carleton Navigators decided to go back to meeting weekly, but in a much different way than they had before. This ended up being a more decentralized approach called Community Groups. This past 2015-16 school year, they launched five of these groups, consisting of between eight and 15 students led by two to three leaders each.
The groups work through a four week rotation where they study a passage of scripture, pray and reflect on the passage, go out as a group into their community to act on what they learned from the passage and finally, come together for a large group dinner and discussion-type event at the Barrett house, like they had in years past.
When I first heard of this, I was skeptical and anxious about what it meant for the future of the group. I had heard of similar ventures in other ministries fizzling out, sometimes leading to a breakdown and dissolution of the group entirely. I did not want a similar fate to befall this group, one I had helped lead and still had strong ties to.
By the end of the year, however, I realized my fears had been misplaced. Sam Allison, a fourth-year student and one of the community group leaders, says while he misses the opportunity to meet with Navigator friends on a consistent basis, he’s come to realize these groups foster growth in a way the large gatherings couldn’t. “Community groups [are] where we get to meet in a smaller setting where people actually get to be heard every week and get to be identified. You can’t just be another face in the crowd, you are there. These [community] groups allow me to get to know them [the first-year students] on a deeper level and have conversations where I get to pass on the knowledge I’ve grown over these four years.”
This increased opportunity to grow relationships with others has allowed these leaders to intentionally act out the Navigator calling to develop spiritual generations of labourers who pass what they have learned on to others.
Bruce says the success of these community groups depended on the student leaders. In addition to the student executive team, Bible study leaders and student mentors, Brenda and Bruce needed to find 10-15 trustworthy students who could commit to leading the community groups. By the beginning of September, they had 14 student leaders signed up, ready to put what they had learned of spiritual generations into practice.
Janelle Taylor, a fourth-year student, says she met a first-year girl in the group she’s leading, with whom she has begun a mentoring relationship. They’ve started going for coffee where Janelle has been able to ask her questions both about where she is in life and how she can support her specifically and intentionally.
First-year student Joanna Wahl says Sydney, one of her group leaders, began running with her during the week. She says these times allow them to connect and share what’s going on in their lives. This emphasis on discipleship and spiritual generations Joanna has experienced is what she appreciates most about the Navigators. “They’re trying to teach you how to recreate this yourself; it’s not that it just stops with you. It’s about pouring into you so you can pour into others.”
Brenda says the goal of these groups is to provide students with a model they can reproduce after graduation. “The community group model, while it still has drawbacks, is transferable, and that was a big thing for me,” she says. “When students move after they graduate, wherever they land, all they need is a few friends and somewhere to meet and a desire to do so. They’re able to easily reproduce what we’re doing in community groups. To me that has a long impact and influence.”
At first, I was anxious this experiment would lead to the group’s dissolution. But, as ironic as it is, I had forgotten to factor God into this and had focused only on the human side of it. Seeing and hearing how this year played out showed me how God actively worked in this group. He raised up capable and strong leaders who could connect meaningfully with younger students and help them attain greater heights of faith. If giving these leaders the chance to do that required this kind of change, it was well worth it.