“Closer to Jesus, closer together.” That’s the tagline for Awake and Alive ministries, a young adult ministry conducted via online Bible studies and in-person events for people between the ages of 18 and 25.
“We’re passionate about helping young adults grow closer to Jesus because if we grow closer to Jesus, by nature, we will grow closer together,” says Mike Westendorf, director of Awake and Alive. “We’re trying to teach people how to be closer to Jesus through God’s Word and then creating Christian community that is authentic and can be vulnerable, both online and in person.”
When Westendorf was working in the meteorology department at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, this lifelong WELS member became involved in the local campus ministry. But he noticed some gaps in that traditional campus ministry model: It excluded young people who didn’t go to college or live on a campus.
Westendorf set out to supplement WELS campus ministries in two ways: to reach young people who weren’t in college and to meet the spiritual needs of young people outside of the two-semester school year. He started with a Sunday evening event in June, July, August, and January. These four events targeted the times when campus ministries weren’t meeting. Since then, the model has evolved to a conference in January, a summer event with follow-up videos, and ongoing online Bible studies.
WELS Campus Ministry now recognizes the group and provides some funding as a small campus ministry. “Through their regular online gatherings, we’re promoting this as an online campus ministry,” says Daniel Lindner, Campus Ministry mission counselor. “This both supplements our other campus ministries and then serves those students away from their home congregation with no WELS/ELS congregation nearby.”
Awake and Alive’s online Bible study meets about every three weeks. Westendorf notes that through the online discourse, participants get to know one another; they develop a connection. So when they meet at the in-person conference, it’s more like a family reunion—except it’s the first time they’ve all met in person.
“I was so excited to be given the opportunity to show these young people that there are others out there like them. . . . There are people excited about Jesus in this age group,” says Jill Dunbar, co-director of Awake and Alive. “[Awake and Alive] is a place where the generations are brought together, and I think that’s such an important thing, because our young people have so much to offer and so much to say.”
Katie Kopplin, an education and staff ministry student at Martin Luther College (MLC), New Ulm, Minn., got involved with Awake and Alive after meeting Westendorf at a staff ministry conference. She was instrumental in organizing last January’s conference in Mankato, Minn. Even though as an MLC student she is already surrounded by those who share her faith, she found something different at the Awake and Alive conference.
“It was a really big opportunity for me to meet people—my whole world is not going be just called workers,” she says. “It kickstarts who I’m going to be ministering to, who I’m going to be worshiping with in a congregation or school. It helps me realize there are so many different people out there. People worship in different ways, people come from different backgrounds, but we all share the same faith. And then also the vulnerability. It’s an opportunity that young adults can ask questions in a safe space.”
It’s that connection within a Christian community that Awake and Alive is striving to make. “I see a deep longing to be known and to know other people,” says Westendorf. “Those ideas of vulnerability and intimacy—those are two really important things. But it’s really hard to be vulnerable if you don’t know yourself. It’s hard to have intimacy if you don’t know who you are.”
Growing closer to Jesus helps build one’s identity as a believer. Experiencing that growth with other believers while studying God’s Word brings Awake and Alive’s tagline home. “Closer to Jesus, closer together.”
Learn more about the ongoing online Bible studies and this summer’s in-person event on June 11 at awakealive.com.
Volume: 110, Number 04
Issue: April 2023