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Shall We Gather At The River?

As college students dive into worship, even nonbelievers connect with God.

Worship
  • Author: Erik Segalini
  • Credits: Photographs by Tom Mills
  • Published: January 1, 2000
  • Ministry: Campus Ministry, Keynote
  • Location: USA

A cold gust slices across the sprawling campus of North Dakota State University, but even the howling wind cannot keep the crowds from pouring into Bison Sports Arena. Many of the young people stacked on bleachers and lined up in chairs have traveled great distances. Some have driven as long as 10 hours for these 100 minutes. Images from a music video flash across a large screen, and the crowd sings along:

"I have been carried here to where the river flows, yeah
My heart is racing and my knees are weak
As I walk to the edge
I know there is no turning back"
[Dive, by Steven Curtis Chapman].

From far and wide, 1,500 college students have come to worship God at this Friday-night meeting called The River. Even nonbelievers attend. Its influence has spilled beyond the Red River Valley and revitalized Campus Crusade for Christ in the Upper Midwest, for students return to their campuses with a passion to tell others about their encounter with a holy God. And similar meetings are taking place in locations like Massachusetts, Oregon and Texas.

The monthly gatherings in Fargo, ND, started about three years ago. "Around the country, it seemed God was working in a unique way among college students in the area of worship," says Derrick Grow, the local director of Campus Crusade. He and his team wanted to unite students on campuses in Fargo and in Moorhead, MN. "We thought, what if we had a citywide meeting that was a worship meeting?"

To plan the first meeting, Derrick recruited several students who had attended a summer project with Keynote Communications, Campus Crusade's music ministry. Others were music majors. They decided to enfold a 20-minute talk into the meeting, reserving the rest for 15 student-led worship songs, and closing with time for social connection in a coffeehouse setting.

But organizers did not just want a Friday-night "hangout" for Christians. Derrick wanted to bring students to the Source of all, then send them back into a world dying of thirst. Therefore he and Linda Stone, then associate campus director, named the meeting "The River," after John 7:37-39, where Jesus invited His followers to drink from living waters. Derrick wanted this worship meeting to change lives.

With The River Band leading the way, anywhere from 1,000 to 1,600 students join in worship at the Bison Sports Arena. Students divide the cavernous auditorium with a curtain to attain a sense of closeness.

The numbers alone suggest success. That first night in the winter of 1997, 208 students came; last October, 1,500 showed up. One night last fall, 18 people indicated decisions to pray and become Christians.

The evangelistic success of The River comes as a surprise to many, since seeker-sensitive outreaches often cut worship to make non-Christians more comfortable. But The U.S. Center for World Mission challenged that idea in a 10-page article about these student-initiated worship movements. The writer quoted author and pastor John Piper, who said, "What all those seekers need, more than anything else, is to be blown away by the holiness of Almighty God. Then they would come back, they would come back!"

Tyson Johnson, a sixth-year senior at North Dakota State, is proof. Before The River, the concert-choir music major never attended Christian meetings. He had prayed a prayer of salvation in his freshman year when a student involved in Campus Crusade shared the gospel with him, but his spiritual life began and ended there. "I didn't think my relationship with God was that important," he says. "I was very wrong."

His friends invited him year after year to come to one of Campus Crusade's weekly meetings, but he stayed away until someone asked him to come to The River one year ago. "By my second River," he explains, "I was ready to say yes to God."

Then Tyson decided to attend the Minneapolis Christmas Conference, a three-night retreat sponsored by Campus Crusade that includes challenging speakers and an evangelistic outreach. Tyson loved it, and followed it up by a summer-long mission trip to Brazil with 23 other Campus Crusade staff members and students. Last fall he returned to North Dakota State and began co-leading a campus Bible study.

"God used The River and really changed who I was very quickly, in a very big way," he says. "I went from a person last year who wasn't involved in Christian fellowship at all to a person considering full-time Christian ministry."

Pastor Doug Anderson (kneeling)of Bethel Evangelical Free Church rallies prayer for students.

Those involved in The River attribute a great deal of the meeting's power to the prayer invested each month. Pastor Doug Anderson of Bethel Evangelical Free Church rallies his congregation to pray for the students, focusing on The River in particular. He believes that the college campus is "the greatest spiritual battleground in every nation."

Pastor Anderson gathers a group of 100 each month to pray at his church during The River, for a revival among the college-age Christians and for nonbelievers to be drawn to Christ. Others pray outside the building where the students meet and a few even walk around inside, praying.

KFNW 97.9 FM, a local Christian radio station, also joins in, broadcasting The River live. "We are trying to make sure that the room is reserved for college-age kids and not adults who are just curious," says station manager Gary Herr.

Community support has broadened the scope of The River. The evening is still run by Campus Crusade, but many other organizations participate, including Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Chi Alpha and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. For Derrick, that provided a chance for healing among the different groups. "I made an announcement proclaiming the end of competition between organizations, and then I confessed before the group that at times we oversold Campus Crusade and incited competition," says Derrick. "I affirmed the staff in other organizations and affirmed the student leaders.

"I think there is a greater zeal for evangelism among every organization [involved] because of The River," explains the 13-year Campus Crusade veteran. He's especially noticed a change within Campus Crusade's movement. "The most we ever sent on a spring-break project was 20 or 25, but we sent 52 [students from our region] last year." That increase meant twice as many students spent their spring break telling others about Jesus.

According to comment cards picked up after meetings, students have come from 71 different college campuses, as well as 47 different high schools. E-mail helps bridge the long distances between schools. Byron Snider, a junior studying business administration, maintains an e-mail list of 2,100 people (and counting). Twice a month, he sends out a one- or two-page message from Derrick challenging the students to practice the presence of God. "Don't let another day go by without taking a step or making a decision to be more a part of His Harvest," Derrick wrote in a recent River newsletter.

Derrick wants to make sure The River doesn't sprawl a mile wide and one inch deep. More than anything, he wants to remind each student of the words sung inside the arena that Friday night:

"There is a supernatural power
In this mighty river's flow
It can bring the dead to life
And it can fill an empty soul
And give a heart the only thing
Worth living and worth dying for."

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