May 1, 2017

Experimental Religion

There’s more than one formula for success.

Wilona Karimabadi

While a good part of the United States experiences the highs and lows of seasonal weather, southern California has always been known as a mecca for nearly year-round warm temperatures, sunny skies, and a relaxed vibe. This is certainly a draw for students from around the world who attend Loma Linda University (LLU).

But they don’t come just for its 45-minute proximity to the beach. It is, after all, a world-renowned health sciences university and medical center that happens to be very important to the overall mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. It’s also a major employer for southern California’s Inland Empire—to scores of Adventists and non-Adventists alike. As such, it’s a special place with a huge potential for witness. And that is not lost on the spiritual leaders who minister to it.

With LLU’s students and employees coming from an immense diversity of ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds, how do you create one single, homogenous, familiar spiritual home for all?

You don’t.


Prak-sis: practice, as distinguished from theory; application or use, as of knowledge or skills. A set of examples for practice.1

Tyler Stewart ministers to young adults for the Loma Linda University church. If you are a student or working in the medical center, you see the church, or will pass it, in your daily crisscrossing of the campus. That makes it ideal for Stewart’s mission to young adult students and working professionals who spend time on this campus.

As part of a campus-wide renovation effort, a courtyard—just adjacent to the entrance to the church, and a short walk from the medical center and its parking garages—now provides a special opportunity for the community Stewart seeks to engage. There is patio furniture, tables, and a classroom with a garage door that opens up on nice days to create a more open space. “The idea was just that when I step outside of my church office, I like to be within arm’s reach of the varied population and demographic that I’m responsible for ministering to on this campus,” says Stewart.

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An open, inviting space provides the best backdrop for well-attended Praxis gatherings.

Stewart’s young adult ministry has also taken advantage of a new and innovative way to open itself to the university community. Loma Linda’s Boba Tea House (boba are tapioca balls included in iced fruit-flavored teas that one slurps through a large straw) was invited to set up a little shop in the courtyard. During the week, as students and professionals pass through, they can pick up a refreshing drink, relax in the space, and get acquainted with the church in the most informal way.

“It was the opportunity for ministry to happen here, and for the entire church to feel more welcoming,” says Stewart. “I think some students used to walk by the church and they didn’t even know much about it. ‘Is that a place I’m allowed to be? Is the church kind of off limits?’ And now, by adding this and putting signage out there, it’s spreading the word. I get to be up at chapel and let them know about what’s happening [here], and they go, ‘Oh. This space is for us!’ ”

And that is key for what the space is used for come Sabbath. A key piece of Stewart’s ministry is Praxis. When he first came to University church, the church ran a young adult service called ReLive, which took the second service of the three offered every Sabbath morning. Sensing a need for a new and different missional community, Stewart and a few leaders began meeting on the rooftop of the parking garage adjacent to the church on Friday evenings for dialogue, sundown singing, and worship. “We began discussing the felt needs of our spiritual experience, being on this campus and as young professionals. What are we missing? What are we craving?” says Stewart. It started with personal invites and word of mouth to the rooftop gathering.

The crux of Praxis, which now meets in the courtyard area of the church, is this: “The impetus behind the gathering of our community has always been ‘How are we coming together to push ourselves to say we’re not just navel-gazing over our theology or theorizing about how practical Christianity should look?’ ” says Stewart. “But how are we pushing ourselves and providing accountability to put into practice what we talk about, speak about, hear preaching about, sing about—all that kind of stuff. This is what drives our community.”

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Service is a prime component of the Praxis Ministry.

Praxis gathers more than 100 LLU young adults on Friday night to welcome in the Sabbath in a way that is very accepting and open for people who may not even know what the Sabbath is. That’s how the weekday tea shop/courtyard helps. After being in that space informally during the week, anyone interested would be comfortable with an invitation from a fellow student or peer to come back on Friday night to discuss faith, culture, careers, spirituality, etc.

But it’s not over on Friday night. “Scripture is usually a part of Friday nights,” says Stewart. “But we never assume that everyone coming is Adventist, let alone Christian. So we want to keep it open-ended enough for it to be engaging and to empower people to dialog.” Then there is Sabbath morning Praxis Bible study. Friday nights involve the introduction of a topic that attendees are encouraged to dialog about and share thoughts on. Then it goes further.

“So we do a follow-up,” he adds. “We use the same topic for a discussion base, but say, ‘OK, for those of you who want to come back Saturday morning to look specifically at what Scripture says about, say, revenge or whatever we’re talking about, or to look to a specific passage on what Jesus had to say about this, that presents a great opportunity to tackle something from a biblical, verse-by-verse approach.” Praxis groups round out another component of the ministry, where individuals connect with others for daily/weekly interaction on varying topics, ideas, etc.

“With the younger generation, there’s this real sense that we need to actively engage, dialog, discuss, and not just plop down to listen to a 25-minute didactic teaching, get up, and leave,” says Stewart. “They want to be able to explore, interact, participate. So that became the core part of our identity and is kind of our calling card. The literal definition of praxis is practice over theory.”


Kuh-nek-shuh-ns: the act or state of connecting.2

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Connections hikers on a favorite outing—Oak Glen, California!

We felt a strong desire to reach out to young adults of various faiths, especially since, on this campus, the majority of students are of other faiths, even though this is an Adventist campus,” says Doug Plata, leader of the Connections ministry at LLU.

It’s true that LLU is filled with students from many faith backgrounds, even those who don’t subscribe to any at all. Thus Plata, who served as Student Association president during his time there, understood the unique spiritual needs and opportunities that presented themselves on campus. “We have people here from all over the world. In fact, we have people who come to our campus who are from countries where it’s illegal to send Christian missionaries there. Yet they send their sons and daughters here. It would be sort of sinful to not take advantage of that situation,” he says.

Connections as an outreach ministry goes about things in a practical and fun way, given the students it attempts to engage. While it started out traditionally with a vespers and Bible study model, it has evolved over time. One of the methods that has proved very effective with students is staging activities. “Because our mission is to reach out to friends of other faiths,” says Plata, “we have different sorts of levels of activity. Really easy entry activities, which include hikes.” Plata grew up in the area and professes to know the best hiking locations around. Especially for LLU’s many international students, the opportunity to see the best of southern California’s natural beauty with someone who knows where to find it is not one to pass up. These informal activities and fellowship opportunities naturally segue into places for witness.

“Basically, we were doing experimental religion, and when we found out what worked, we sort of doubled down on that. And our hikes are definitely that sort of thing. We have identified the 11 best hikes in the area, and we schedule these every two weeks,” says Plata. Additionally, there are also occasional Saturday night socials, trips to places such as the Getty Museum or Griffith Observatory, Fourth of July fireworks at the University of Redlands, and even a four-day spring break excursion through the Southwest. One favorite is a hike to nearby Oak Glen, which always includes a visit to LLU president Richard Hart’s home and his pet llamas!

The Sabbath hikes provide a springboard to Connections’ Friday night Bible studies, which have proved to be a great setting for giving interested students the opportunity to go deeper. Dinner is usually offered before the group transitions to a Bible study that is often young adult-led. “We do want to make these Bible studies a place where it’s not just Adventists talking to Adventists, but a place where all can feel comfortable,” says Plata. For non-Adventist students seeking to understand what Adventists are about through Connections activities, these studies can be a catalyst.

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Connections Bible Study is an integral part of the ministry.

Brittany Juergens, a recent graduate of the School of Nursing, wasn’t a church member when she started coming to Connections activities. But when she became intrigued enough to ask questions, Connections Bible study helped her delve into what the Word of God had to say, something she found herself deeply craving. “I really think Connections is a great ministry to reach out to different people of different faiths because I feel as though people from different faiths can appreciate Bible-based studies. You can prove things through the Bible and ask questions,” she says. Juergens was baptized a day after she graduated from nursing school.

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Nearby Mt. Rubidoux provides a great photo op.

While a relatively small ministry, Plata really believes in the mission of Connections and its potential. “I want to introduce people to Christ, share with them the beliefs for the end-times, and the truths the Lord has given to us,” says Plata. “This is very much experiential religion, and it is about asking, ‘Lord, how can we better reach students of various faiths?’ I’m open to where the Lord would lead us.”

  2. Ibid.

Ardent Californian Wilona Karimabadi is an assistant editor of Adventist Review. She is deeply involved in the young adult ministry of her local church, Southern Asian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.