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TULSA, Okla. — Inside the Connect Church sanctuary, microphoned voices sing a cappella.
Six worship leaders on stage invite the Church of Christ congregation to join in with hands raised.
One of the singers sets the rhythm by beatboxing.
“The style of music is to encourage everyone to sing along,” said Lynn Stringfellow, Connect’s lead minister.
Every aspect of the 4-year-old church’s ministry encourages everyone to get involved, he said — new and old Christians alike.
A majority of the 100 attendees are either college age or started in the congregation as such. Most dress casually — shorts and T-shirts. A few wear dresses or slacks.
“There was a group of us that were wanting to do church a little bit differently,” Stringfellow, 71, a 24-year ministry veteran, explained after worship. “We were wanting to reach the younger generations that we feel are ignored or overlooked. We wanted to design something that reached lost people in that age demographic.”
Reaching young adults in their early 20s — when they’re making pivotal life decisions — is crucial to the church’s future, said Carol Stringfellow, who works closely with her husband to oversee church operations.
“We could actually have an influence on them not having to make all the mistakes and go back and correct them,” she said. “They can actually get off to a good start in adulthood.”
More than 65 percent of college graduates consider themselves Christian, according to a Pew Research Center study. However, 61 percent seldom or never participate in prayer, Scripture study or religious education groups.
That disparity between belief and participation creates an opportunity for outreach.
“I see it as the most strategic and most effective mission field that is available in America. This is the stage and age where young adults are making decisions about what worldview they will take on. They are making decisions that will really shape the rest of their lives.”
“I see it as the most strategic and most effective mission field that is available in America,” said Brent Bilby, Connect’s campus minister. “This is the stage and age where young adults are making decisions about what worldview they will take on. They are making decisions that will really shape the rest of their lives.”
Connect’s goal is not to make a megachurch — but to grow a church strong enough to plant other congregations.
The Tulsa church helps young adults — many of them new believers — develop their faith, Carol Stringfellow said. Eventually, they bring in more “baby Christians.”
“The Christians here now are mature,” she added, “and they become disciples that make disciples that make disciples.”
Before the Stringfellows moved to Oklahoma, they started an organization called Christians in Action in Tampa, Fla., in 1999, which is part of Campus Ministry United.
“It’s an organization that trains campus ministers and helps churches with their campus ministries,” Lynn Stringfellow said. “We train and plant churches with a campus ministry.”
In Florida, a group that began with just six to eight students grew to over 100, including a high school student named Adam Farnsworth.
“I didn’t grow up in the church at all,” said Farnsworth, now Connect’s preaching minister. “I became a Christian in that ministry.”
He also met his wife, Crystal, in the Stringfellows’ ministry.
As a result of budget cuts, the Farnsworths left their jobs in Florida. The family of five moved to Tulsa in 2018, and Farnsworth got a job buying and selling cars.
When Connect planted in its new building, Farnsworth’s Bible degree and connection with the Stringfellows made him an appealing candidate to become the congregation’s preaching minister.
“I did not move here to be a preacher, but that is what ended up happening,” Farnsworth said.
On the outside, the Connect Church looks like another building at the end of a shopping center. Small storefronts line the left side of the building, a few miles southeast of downtown Tulsa.
The congregation moved into the building in October 2019 after beginning earlier that year. Members previously met at Rogers State University in Claremore, about 30 miles northeast of Tulsa, with an occasional Sunday service with The Park Church of Christ.
Students from nearby colleges travel 30 to 45 minutes to worship at Connect. The ultimate goal, church leaders said, is to plant locations near those campuses.
Bilby, the church’s 29-year-old campus minister, first connected with Lynn Stringfellow a decade ago.
Although Bilby grew up in church, he said he never really owned his faith until he got involved with the Stringfellows’ campus ministry.
After a two-year internship with Campus Ministry United, Bilby and his wife, Roxanne, started Ignite Campus Ministry at Rogers State in 2015.
A Sunday worship service on the Claremore campus grew and moved to Connect when it opened in 2019.
“The grand vision was and is that the Connect Church would make and plant churches. We are quietly praying that we can work something out there and that God will do something for us.”
“At the time of the plant, we were incredibly excited about what was happening,” Bilby said. “The grand vision was and is that the Connect Church would make and plant churches. We are quietly praying that we can work something out there and that God will do something for us.”
The couple shuttles students to Connect in a 15-passenger church van.
“Our mission is to have a campus ministry at every college in Oklahoma,” said 24-year-old Sydney Gutierrez, a recent Rogers State graduate.
Like around 15 other Rogers State students, Gutierrez found Connect through the campus ministry and waits in anticipation for Connect to plant in Claremore.
During her years in college as a Christian student, Gutierrez was grateful for the ministry the Bilbys had started.
“There wasn’t really a place for me in my church that I was at,” Gutierrez said. “From my point of view, our main goal is to minister to campus-age young adults. That’s the age group that is being left out of churches, and that was my experience before I came here.”
On days other than Sunday, the congregation splits into groups of 10 to 12.
Through these small groups, Connect ties its church family together.
“We want to be a church where everyone is involved and everyone is committed and wants to do the work,” said Farnsworth, the preaching minister.
Wes and Naomi Franklin, 35 and 31, studied at the University of Tulsa before joining the campus ministry that later became Connect.
The couple met when Naomi Franklin — then Everett — invited Wes Franklin and a few other students to a campus ministry outreach event called The Great American Dodgeball Tournament in 2014.
Wes Franklin got connected with a few men in the group that night, who baptized him later that year.
After both graduating in 2015 and getting married, the couple became leaders in Connect, taking charge of the small group ministries.
Wes Franklin said Connect calls the small groups “cells” because they are the church’s lifeblood.
“If you don’t have that small group support, it’s really hard to do it by yourself,” he said.
Connect has four parts to its ministry: adults, young adults, teens and children.
The Franklins oversee small groups in each area.
“It’s not a checkbox,” Naomi Franklin said. “You are choosing to be a part of each other’s lives, choosing to share each other’s joys, choosing to be a part of each other’s trials — the lowest lows and the highest highs.”
TIANE DAVIS is The Christian Chronicle’s intern. A native of Worthington, Ind., Davis is a senior multimedia journalism major at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Bison. Contact [email protected].
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