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STABLE, SINGLE, & JOYFULLY SERVING STUDENTS

WRITTEN & PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERNIE DIDOT

Standing on the James Madison University (JMU) “Quad” (the grassy, symbolic center of campus), InterVarsity (IV) Campus Pastor, CJ Goeller, explains why JMU has one of the stronger IV chapters in the nation: “The thing I think that makes us strong is the fact that we have students who are actually leaning into the Lord and are not just running programs. They’re not every year replicating something or using pre-made Bible study books or some kind of evangelism tactic to reach the campus; they’re opening themselves to the Lord—to the Holy Spirit, saying, ‘Lord, what would you have me do? Who would you have me be?’” When asked about the specific size of the chapter, CJ is somewhat reluctant to give a total number, but rather, quantifies the InterVarsity size by the number of small groups, which currently is around 48 with anywhere from 8 to 20 in each group. Large group attendance and participation is not the highest point of emphasis but rather discipleship and the study of Scripture.

“InterVarsity was started in England as a student-led ministry to students and it’s part of our [InterVarsity] heritage. We’ve really leaned into that heavily here at JMU. Developing student leaders who are capable of leading other students, that was my personal experience, and I still believe that the Holy Spirit can work in 18 to 22-year-olds to lead 18 to 22-year-olds and you don’t need a lot of professionals. You don’t need a seminary degree. You need a heart of faith, a willingness to serve, a willingness to suffer and to go through difficulty. If those things are present, God is going to use anyone who’s willing.” 

Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley in the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, JMU (20,070 undergrad students), is sometimes called the Interstate University because Interstate 81 runs north and south cutting through the middle of campus. “We say we are here to make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus. So that’s on the radar of every student leader. That’s why we’re here. We’re not here to run programs; we are not even here to have small group meetings or small group gatherings. We’re here to care for each and every individual who presents him or herself to us.” CJ uses the word “maturity” a lot which he explains might run contrary to the therapeutic language in our culture. “This [maturity] happens through one-on-one disciple—making where we’re teaching things like spiritual disciplines. But just as importantly, how to suffer and struggle and embrace trial and not avoid difficult people, difficult circumstances, or families.”

For many students, a crisp, Fall, Saturday evening at JMU would be prime time for some heavy partying. For InterVarsity students though, they hosted a bonfire event on the property of Church of the Lamb (Diocese of Christ Our Hope). Here, 150-200 students have shown up to sing songs of worship and hang out together. Tiki torches are scattered amidst frisbee throwing and competitive games of spikeball. The bonfire is so intense that some have difficulty approaching it to roast their marshmallows. A worship band, piled into the back of a pickup truck, strikes up the music and the students start singing, following along from a shared file of lyrics on their cell phones. 

JMU students and Computer Information Systems majors, Ian Rischell and Brian Thomas, arrived a little early to help build the bonfire. Ian has been a small group leader for two years with IV; the level of maturity that IV has called him to has helped him grow spiritually. “You are asked to plan the Bible studies by yourself along with the co-leader, and you are called to be an example to the people. CJ gives us a baseline in what to do but you don’t ask CJ what to do next, you have to take the reins and do the best you can.” Ian also reflects, “What attracted me the most to IV was the community. They do a very good job at community. They put on a lot of events to get to know each other and get to know the Lord better.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Brian commented on what drew him to IV: “I was intrigued by the idea of small groups and large group and of meeting up every week in a small group. CJ really makes sure that we don’t structure ourselves as a program but as people. That community aspect is a big thing.”

CJ has certainly matured in age at JMU having ministered through InterVarsity on the campus for over 27 years. He has been courted by other ministries and within InterVarsity to “move up the ladder” but he explains that early on in his ministry, his second year, he was impacted by reading The Rule of St. Benedict. In addition to vows of chastity and poverty, the vow that stuck out to him was of stability. He was challenged to be stable and not just change when things get difficult. CJ observed how college and youth pastors often use their vocation as a steppingstone instead of taking it seriously as a vocation in and of itself to be honored. “Students would ask me, ‘Are you going to be leaving anytime soon? Because I’ve had three youth pastors since middle school.’ I realized, ‘Oh they’re experiencing the hurt of instability.’’’ CJ said that he got to a point in his life at which he thought, “I think I’m fruitful at what I do. It brings me joy and satisfaction in life. I think I still have a lot to learn from this vocation, and so…this is where I am to be. It is not only a call to a vocation, but to a location–to a people.”

Goeller has been attending Anglican churches in Harrisonburg for several years now and occasionally will bring students with him to attend. He explains how students, “are looking for a grand, emotional experience, and I understand that, I was there, but when I bring students and I explain to them everything that is happening in the service and they understand the heart and the meaning behind it, it opens up a whole world to them.” He will often hear them reflect how they were blown away when kneeling and confessing their sins at church; to open their hands like a beggar to receive communion, it means something to them.

CJ is single and from time to time, the local Anglican churches have called upon him to preach and address the topic of singleness. Goeller chuckles about how matchmakers within the church and even married friends have over the years attempted to manipulate dinners and encounters to meet single women. “I take their attempts as a joyful thing; that friends are trying to bring me into what they find joyful. But the thing is, I find singleness joyful, and as joyful as they find their marriage, that’s as joyful as I find singleness. There’s a capacity in singleness that brings tremendous freedom, availability, and capacity to be on call at a moment’s notice in the lives of students.”

“I can’t speak for all singles ‘cause I think there are some singles who are yearning to be married and I think that’s beautiful. But God has certainly used singleness to allow me to commit not just time, but emotional, social, and spiritual attentiveness to the campus and students that I’m ministering to.”

A few years ago, CJ was speaking at a singles retreat and referred to I Corinthians 7 which talks about the goodness of being single. He shares how a single woman confided to him with tears in her eyes saying that after 50 years of her life thinking that being single was defective, or that something was wrong with that she couldn’t get a man, no one had ever told her that being single is good! “I think it’s a liberating, freeing thing for singles to hear that their status in life is honored and valued by God.”

“I think the church knows very well how to help married folks fulfill their covenant vows, and that’s good. But many people are called to singleness. And so how can we as a church help singles know how to live as faithfully to that vocation as we help married folks live faithfully to the vocation of marriage? I would be curious to see what the church could do if they were to take the call to singleness seriously and empower singles to be single and to use their life well.”

Over the years, CJ has developed a reputation in the community for being quite the host—an invitation to his dinner includes a feast of food and drink. He considers that singleness and stability intersect at hospitality. Students who have become his friends and have gone on to graduate will return to Harrisonburg, and CJ can enter right back into meaningful conversations with them as he hosts with a well-prepared meal, mixed drinks, and the heart space to remain open to those relationships over time. “Friends are actually more like family.” 

He finds that students are refreshingly direct–maybe blunt–wondering about his singleness. “I had a Q&A one time in this group and a guy raised his hand asking me, ‘So, what’s it like being a eunuch?’” CJ said that everyone laughed except the student, so he thinks he didn’t know what the word meant. But CJ sees how his singleness allows students to be authentic, to open up honestly, and to enter into great conversations. 

“Yeah, being single…there’s just a beautiful simplicity to singleness.”

CJ Goeller is an active member of Church of the Lamb, Keezletown, Virginia.

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