October 2015 Feature: Taking it to the Streets

Story by Sam Belony/ Photos by Krystal Irrgang

Union administrators team with Pastor Tara VinCross to start the REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School, where young adults are not only staying in the church, they are transforming it—as well as the many lives they touch through boots-on-the-ground ministry.

The unprecedented venture was born like so many God-inspired projects—thoughts planted in the minds of those seeking to be used by the Lord in ministry. This particular idea started developing in 2010 when Tara VinCross, then pastor of Pennsylvania Conference’s Chestnut Hill church, wrote a ministry development plan as part of her doctorate in ministry. She hoped it would result in an urban evangelism school in Philadelphia.

Unbeknownst to her, Columbia Union Conference leaders had hatched a similar idea and were also planning to launch an evangelism school. Eventually, the plans coalesced. “After completing my doctoral program, I thought, ‘Well, that’s the only piece that hasn’t been completed,’” VinCross recalls. Then one day, the union called to discuss a collaboration, and together in 2013 they formed a task force.

After much prayer, planning and seeking the Lord’s guidance, the REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School opened June 7 this past summer in Philadelphia. Now its first group of diverse young adults is gaining boots-on-the-ground, immersive experience in urban ministry and earning usable university credits.

Restoration. Empowerment. Action. Community. Hope. These are the REACH Columbia Union Urban Evangelism School’s five core values. During the 12-month program, young adults aged 18 to 35 receive hands-on experience in the areas of discipleship, community development and various other aspects of evangelism. The school has a formal partnership with Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., where REACH students can earn up to 12 university credits for the classes.

REACH aims to imbue young people with the knowledge and experience they need to be effective, passionate, faithful leaders in their local churches. “My greatest desire is for young adults to experience transformation in their own lives, understand the gospel by experience, and learn how to be in a relationship with God and join Him in His work in the world,” says VinCross, who leads the program. By engaging students in canvassing, she hopes to teach them persistence, patience, professionalism, leadership and the skills to help others make godly decisions.

The program launched in June, when REACH students spent their first summer semester in the Columbus, Ohio, area doing evangelism work in partnership with Ohio Conference’s Eastwood church and Allegheny West Conference’s Central church. Dubbed “Mission Columbus,” students spent 10 weeks canvassing with local church members, knocking on more than 50,000 doors and distributing 6,978 books.

“The only way to have true success in reaching people is by drawing close to them and having a personal relationship,” says Justin Khoe, REACH evangelism coordinator. “In this program, [students] are going to get their hands dirty in the sense that they’re going to be out there doing the work rather than learning about how to do the work.” In the process, they reach people who would not be reached by other means of evangelism, and benefit local churches, conferences and the union.

Locating Young Evangelists

As of August, REACH had 13 students enrolled for the first school year, which runs June to May with the goal of increasing enrollment to 16. To land new students, REACH recruiters attend conference events where they set up booths and chat with potential students. They connect with young adults in public high schools, private academies and students at Seventh-day Adventist and public universities through social networking, speaking engagements, on-campus recruitment and one-on-one contacts.

With a fairly small staff of five, VinCross relies on her contacts throughout the Columbia Union to land new students. She receives a lot of support from pastors, youth directors and other conference leaders. She adds, “Because this is a union program, we’re relying heavily on the conferences to connect us with their constituencies.”

Acceptance into REACH requires students to be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma, and they must maintain a GPA of 2.8 or above to remain in the program. The application process is extensive. Wellness questions, self-evaluation, essay questions, two references and evaluation by the REACH advisory committee are required for admission.

A Boots-on-the-Ground Approach

There are 18 classes in the REACH curriculum, five of which offer three credits each, and cover a wide range of topics. “Jesus and the Gospels” offers an introductory study of the life and teachings of Christ through a close reading of the four canonical gospels and Ellen G. White’s The Desire of Ages. Other accredited courses include “Ministry in the City,” “Knowing and Sharing Christ” and “Theory & Practice of Urban Ministry.”

Non college-credited courses include “Adventist Beliefs,” which focuses on the centrality of Jesus in the Adventist Church; “Cycle of Transformational Evangelism,” which helps students understand biblical evangelism through the study of the agricultural cycle; “Communication, Relationship & Sexuality” and others.

Khoe promises that REACH students are not a bunch of textbook whiz kids who talk theories all day long. The school partners with churches in four of the Columbia Union’s eight conferences: Allegheny West, Ohio, Mountain View and Potomac.

“We try to make it a very hands-on curriculum,” Khoe adds. “It’s pretty much year-round laboring to make it a point that, whenever someone learns a concept in the classroom, they are also given the opportunity to apply it in the field, whether that’s through ministering by giving Bible study, by preaching, by reaching out to people in their homes or in a variety of different ways.”

Dave Weigley, Columbia Union Conference president, adds, “I believe this is a Godsend to have this school where young adults can experience sharing the gospel for two reasons: first, be drawn closer to Christ and, secondly, experience it where adults learn most effectively.”

A typical day at REACH includes, among other activities, meals, worship, two classes, Bible study, community service and urban evangelism. The professors are some of the most seasoned ministers in the church.

Changing the World

Jose Miguel Alvarado, from the New Jersey Conference, shares a warm smile while canvassing in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the REACH Columbia Union’s summer program.

Jose Miguel Alvarado, from the New Jersey Conference, shares a warm smile while canvassing in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the REACH Columbia Union’s summer program.

REACH leaders expect big things from students at the end of the program. Not only do they want to see the young adults impact their communities and transform lives for Christ, they expect to see changes in the students themselves.

VinCross expects students to transform into “young professionals who very much know who they are and are committed to Christ and to making a difference in their community.” And, she expects this to happen on an individual level. “It starts with one young adult having their heart and life changed by their own encounter with God—not just a fan for Jesus, where they come and sit and spectate every week, but someone who is a follower, who is completely committed,” she explains.

Khoe wants “to see youths that are more engaged in local churches, young adults that have a great understanding of the church’s purpose, especially in the times that we live in.” He adds, “I want to see a commitment to the mission of the church, being an active part of that, both at their local church and at their jobs.”

A mere few months into the program, VinCross is already seeing transformations in her students. “I’ve already seen really tremendous formation of their character development,” she says. “What I saw this summer, just the excitement on their faces. … They’ve been already … having encounters with God that are pretty amazing!”


Sam Belony writes from Philadelphia.