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Young Pastors "On Fire" for the Lord

Young Bethel graduates are serving the church in unique ways with a focus on reaching new people and bringing them the Word.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

November 28, 2018 | 4:15 p.m.

Young Pastors “On Fire” for the Lord

Bethel graduates are equipped to forge forward to lead ministries in new ways and with new focuses.

“This is a generation on fire,” Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker says. “And I am thrilled, and that is why I continue to sit in this chair—because I see them alive.”

Bunker is passionate about the way Bethel University continues to train men and women to serve the church with their unique gifts, whether those students emerge from the College of Arts & Science, College of Adult & Professional Studies, or Bethel Seminary—or a combination of the three. 

But that is contrary to reports of young adults leaving the church. Yet Bunker sees a different story emerging from Bethel. She sees graduates equipped to forge forward to lead ministries in new ways and with new focuses. “They’re not all walking away from Jesus,” Campus Pastor Laurel Bunker says. “In fact, they are stepping into amazing roles in the church that are transforming the church and taking it by storm.”

She commends the youngest generation of Millennials and Gen Zs for being unafraid to minister across racial barriers, in urban cities, or to addicts. She praised Bethel graduates as working to hold a biblical worldview while addressing cultural issues.

“This generation of young people is moving past divisions, whether it’s in their own families or whether it’s in the churches they’ve come out of, or whether it’s in the churches that they serve. They’re saying, ‘Enough. We’ve got a world of brokenness, and Jesus is soon to return. Let’s find common ground, common ground that loves and honors Jesus and Christ alone.’”

Here’s how just a few men and woman are serving in the church:

Young Pastors “On Fire” for the Lord

Stephanie O’Brien ’05, S’12

Stephanie O’Brien ’05, S’12 views Mill City Church in Northeast Minneapolis as a vessel for mission and service. “I think my passion for the church began when I realized, I think that the church is one of God’s chosen vehicles for that mission,” she says. “The church is not the mission; the mission is God’s mission to restore all things, and the church is one of the main ways God does that through his people.”

She and fellow Bethel alumnus Michael Binder launched Mill City Church 10 years ago to focus on loving the community of Northeast Minneapolis in the name of Jesus. Meeting for services at the Sheridan School, opened up the church to service opportunities.

They formed a relationship with the school, and officials approached them with a chance to help. With many of the school’s students on free and reduced lunch, educators found students stealing food from the school, other kids, or from the trash on Fridays due to food insecurity on weekends. “That was heart-breaking to us, and we knew we had to do something,” O’Brien says.

The church started a backpack program to give students food for the weekends and address their food anxiety. Eventually, they helped other churches start similar partnerships, and the effort grew into a nonprofit, The Sheridan Story. Today, The Sheridan Story helps churches carry out that mission in more than 85 schools with leadership from Executive Director Rob Williams ’07.

The church faces other challenges in Northeast Minneapolis, which O’Brien describes as the post-Christian epicenter of the Twin Cities—meaning she doesn’t assume her neighbors are Christians. Many come from a background in the church, which makes it challenging because they’ve heard the gospel but don’t follow it.

To reach people in new ways, O’Brien trains her congregation to share their personal stories. “Bethel taught me how to have critical thinking and to think well about things and to approach different issues that the world is facing thoughtfully,” she says.

Her congregation is dedicated to service, and she equips them to serve. “When people come to me with ideas that they think the leaders should do, I’m the kind of pastor that tells people ‘Why don’t you think you should do it? Just go for it!’” she says. Some people do homeless ministry, others focus on human trafficking issues in Minneapolis, some minister to strippers, others focus on racial justice, and some reach out to the arts community.

Mill City’s mission to love a neighborhood in the name of Jesus will expand in 2019, as two Mill City associate pastors, Christian Ann and JD Larson '09, S'13, S'15, plan to plant a church in partnership with Mill City in another Twin Cities neighborhood.

O’Brien also co-hosts the podcast “Lead Stories,” which provides leadership coaching, and discussions for people to lead in kingdom-themed ways, and she is writing a book about doubt and faith. “I hope that this book is going to help the church and that’s why I’m doing it,” she says. “If I didn’t think it was going to help the church than I wouldn’t do it because that’s my calling in life.”

Young Pastors “On Fire” for the Lord

Rebecca Jacobson ’11, S’14

Rebecca Jacobson ’11, S’14 took her work from a decade in youth ministry to a new setting: the medical field. “It’s essentially like doing the same pastoral work, just now I’m in people’s breakrooms instead of a church,” she says.

Jacobson is a clinical mission integration specialist for Centura Health Systems. She is working to bring spiritual care—and Christian teachings—to clinic workers in Denver. Some clinics are more secular, but the system is looking to serve people—mind, body, and spirit—and has put a bigger emphasis on the spiritual aspect.

She serves 16 clinics now and works to develop relationships with employees. She checks in with people, builds relationships, and often meets with them outside the clinic. “It’s been really fun because it’s opened up a lot of doors for people who otherwise wouldn’t go to church,” she says.

She recently served a woman who endured family hardships like suicide, a sick father, an incarcerated fiancé, and more. She was against religion and had been hurt by the church, she later asked Jacobson to pray with her. “So in the middle of this hospital, we’re kind of overcoming some of those barriers that had been put there between her and God,” she says

Many of the clinic workers spend their days serving others, often in high-stress, high-stakes situations. Jacobson aims to provide spiritual care of some sort. With the grind and pressure of the medical field, Jacobson says it’s nice to support them and assist them with passing on spiritual care as well.

“So often our churches are full of people who already know Jesus and already are getting all of those needs met, and the people who truly need that connection are afraid to come to church, they’ve been hurt by the church, so the potential impact here was just really hard to pass up,” she says.

She also saw minister friends leave the church because of consumerism-like expectations where church-goers simply look for their needs to be met with dynamic worship and teaching and community, which often leads to shuffling people from church to church instead of reaching new people. “And most of the time those focuses are on people who are established Christians, and not on people who are needing to know Jesus or needing to find community.”

She wanted to reach people the church would have a hard time reaching. “I love being in a space that it’s not about keeping Christians happy, it’s about truly reaching people with the love of Jesus,” she says.

Jacobson’s communication degree has proven beneficial in providing her with the skills to reach people and communicate in a difficult setting. Her experience in the Seminary Youth Leadership program taught her about counseling, active listening, and other pastoral skills that translate to the church and to her new role.

As the ministry grows, she next hopes to form a spiritual ambassador program to serve as spiritual leaders in the clinics. 

“I hope to see this really take off and have a huge impact,” she says. “My ultimate desire is to be a bridge between these associates at work and engage in them in such a way that they’re connected to local faith communities and they’re growing in their walk with the lord.”

Pastor Chris Auer

Chris Auer ’17

Chris Auer ’17 isn’t taking the traditional route in planting Rise Up as a church, but his background fits his ministry. He earned an applied physics degree at Bethel and is in graduate school for mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota as he works toward a Master of Divinity from Bethel Seminary.

Blending engineering and ministry speaks to the core of Rise Up. The ministry for young professionals at Grace Outreach Church aims to prepare Christ-followers to serve in their unique fields. Currently, it mostly serves young adults ages 20-28 as they start diverse careers from law school to sports, and it seeks to inspire people to bring a spirit of ministry to whatever field they’re called to. “One of our core values with our group is just how do we use the gifts that God’s given us to impact whatever sphere God’s putting us in,” he says.

Auer, the youth pastor at Grace Outreach church, was inspired while at Bethel by the Great Commission to help young adults serve the church in their unique callings—to bring the Holy Spirit to cultural systems like education, arts and entertainment, media, government, families, and business. “I am passionate about training leaders to use their faith to impact the culture they are living in,” he says.

Now Auer is looking to work as an engineer for a few years while he continues to learn from church-planters. And he traces his lessons of leadership to Bethel. Auer gained leadership experience as a Welcome Week coordinator and Shift leader at Bethel, but he credits Campus Ministries staff showing him servant leadership. “Bethel really pushed the idea of leaders are people who serve,” he says.

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