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Sean Algaier, campus minister at York University in Nebraska, leads worship during the Equip Conference.
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‘How can we bless these churches?’

At a time of declining numbers, post-pandemic challenges and political polarization, a Nebraska conference touts hope for revival.

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YORK, Neb. — At 8:30 a.m. on a weekday, exuberant voices praising God filled the historic prayer chapel at York University.

About 130 Christians from 13 states and Canada sang hymns such as “There’s Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus,” “It Is Well With My Soul” and “Our God, He Is Alive.”

The little white building with a tall steeple was born as a Lutheran church in the late 1800s. More than a century later, it sat vacant and decaying about seven miles north of the York campus. 

The prayer chapel at York University in Nebraska.

The prayer chapel at York University in Nebraska.

The university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, moved the old structure in 1999 and restored it as a beacon of spiritual life.

This week, the chapel provided a fitting backdrop for the Equip Conference, a two-day event focused on the theme “Hope for Churches.”

“York is in a unique position to be a real resource for churches in this area of the country,” said Garrett Best, Equip’s organizer and chair of the 425-student university’s Department of Bible and Ministry. “There’s a real hunger.”

Ministers and church leaders traveled to this Nebraska farming town to pray, fellowship and brainstorm ideas for revival at a time of declining numbers, post-pandemic challenges and political polarization.

“There are people here that drove from Montana, from North Dakota, from Minnesota, from Wisconsin — they drove hours and hours,” Best said.

Garrett Best, chair of York University's Department of Bible and Ministry, speaks during an Equip Conference dinner at a York, Neb., restaurant.

Garrett Best, chair of York University’s Department of Bible and Ministry, speaks during an Equip Conference dinner at a York, Neb., restaurant.

Churches few and far between 

Growing up in Texas, Equip attendee Rick Janelle took opportunities such as areawide singings for granted.

Not anymore.

“Here, your areawide church is the same church you go to on Sunday,” said Janelle, minister for the Bellevue Church of Christ, one of about 50 congregations in all of Nebraska.

Jared Sanchez works at a Baker Boy factory and preaches for the Dickinson Church of Christ in North Dakota — a 30-member congregation about 620 miles northwest of York.

He made the long drive to hear Carlus Gupton, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., talk about hope for small churches.

“It’s always been challenging,” Sanchez said. “Reaching out to people is just the hardest, especially in North Dakota, because there are only five Churches of Christ. It’s a total mission field.”

Jared Sanchez, left, from Dickinson, N.D., visits with Marvin Bryant from San Antonio during the Equip Conference.

Jared Sanchez, left, from Dickinson, N.D., visits with Marvin Bryant from San Antonio during the Equip Conference.

A national directory published by 21st Century Christian lists seven Churches of Christ in North Dakota, the fewest in any state. However, two of those congregations — Fargo and Mandan — have closed.

The closest sister congregation to Dickinson is 90 miles away, Sanchez said.


Related: From the field house to the house of God


“Our furthest member drives about 80 miles to come to church,” he said.

Equip gave him encouragement, Sanchez said, “that you’re not alone and to keep moving forward.”

Like Sanchez, minister Ethan Bilbrey found the emphasis on hope appealing.

Bilbrey serves the Richfield Church of Christ in Minnesota, about 475 miles northeast of York. 

“We’re like a lot of Churches of Christ,” he said, “who have had better years in the past, who’ve experienced decline over the decades and want to see new life and hope and the Gospel continuing to spread and new disciples being made.”

Ethan Bilbrey, left, from Richfield, Minn.; Scott Laird, center, from Great Falls, Mont.; and Randy Schow from Longmont, Colo., catch up during the Equip Conference.

Ethan Bilbrey, left, from Richfield, Minn.; Scott Laird, center, from Great Falls, Mont.; and Randy Schow from Longmont, Colo., catch up during the Equip Conference.

A resource for small churches

With a population of about 8,000, the town of York sits at the intersection of Interstate 80 and U.S. Highway 81.

Miles and miles of corn and soybean farms surround the agricultural hub, about 50 miles west of Lincoln.


Related: No ‘big city entertainment’ required


The university, started in 1890, has roots in Churches of Christ dating back to the 1950s. It launched the Equip Conference last year as a one-day event, drawing 85 attendees from seven states.

The inaugural interest prompted Equip’s expansion to two days this year.

York, NE, USA

“We try to design this for these churches, and the vast majority of them are small churches,” said Best, who preached for 12 years in Kentucky and Tennessee before coming to York in 2022. “All the topics, all the class sections, everything we do is focused on: How can we bless these churches? They’re on the front lines.”

At one time, York served students primarily from its own faith heritage. But today, athletic scholarships and other nonreligious reasons attract most students, who are exposed to the university’s Christian mission after arriving.

Sean Algaier, campus minister at York University in Nebraska, leads worship during the Equip Conference.

Sean Algaier, campus minister at York University in Nebraska, leads worship during the Equip Conference.

Still, York maintains a strong commitment to Churches of Christ, said Roni Miller, the university’s former softball coach and now its vice president of enrollment.

Just this month, the university publicized the creation of the Founders Scholarship, which will offer a 50 percent tuition discount to students active in Churches of Christ and the Christian Church. (Oklahoma Christian University announced a similar effort, called the Heritage Scholarship, this past summer.)

“It’s really going to help those students who want to come get that great education,” Miller said of York’s scholarship.

Moderator Garrett Best, left, leads a panel discussion on "Hope for Churches." The panel features Carlus Gupton, second from left, Justin Coppinger, Kendall Fike and Scott Lambert.

Moderator Garrett Best, left, leads a panel discussion on “Hope for Churches.” The panel features Carlus Gupton, second from left, Justin Coppinger, Kendall Fike and Scott Lambert.

Reasons for hope

Equip kicked off with a panel discussion on “Hope for Churches,” featuring two veteran ministry experts: Gupton and Scott Lambert, co-founder of The Conversation Group and a board member for the Heritage 21 Foundation. 

Two younger panelists offered their perspectives as well: Justin Coppinger, worship minister for the Heartlands Church in Lincoln; and Kendall Fike, director of children’s ministry and community outreach for The Springs Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla.

Gupton pointed to a move toward “genuine discipleship and an effort to be followers of Jesus, not just church worship” as a reason for hope.

Coppinger said he sees churches casting a wider net to share the Gospel with a more diverse, wider group of people.

“Piggybacking off of that,” Fike said, “I think the next generation and younger people are excited to have genuine connection with other people.”

Jesus can fill the gap of disconnection and depression that many feel in a digital age, she said.

Equip Conference attendees listen to a panel discussion in the prayer chapel at York University.

Equip Conference attendees listen to a panel discussion in the prayer chapel at York University.

Lambert cited survey findings indicating many unchurched people would welcome an invitation to worship, if only someone would ask.

The probability of acceptance, he said, “is even higher if you went and picked them up and maybe had coffee before.”

“Where there is pain, there is hunger.”

Gupton agreed with his fellow panelists and added, “Where there is pain, there is hunger.”

Cultural stresses such as the 2024 election season — likely to inflame division and hate — present a remarkable challenge for Christians, he said.

“With so much polarization and so much animosity … the church has an opportunity to demonstrate the power of genuine, unconditional love,” Gupton said. 

“One of the things that happens during times of high anxiety, relative to our fellowship and our human fears, is we become hypercritical,” he added. “And the antidote to that is, as Peter says, to love one another deeply from the heart because love covers a multitude of sins.”

Josh Ross, minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., prays during chapel at York University.

Josh Ross, minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., prays during chapel at York University.

Hope and love

Students welcomed Equip attendees to York’s gymnasium for their daily chapel assemblies Monday and Tuesday. 

Guest preachers Josh Ross from the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., and Darrel Sears from the Oakdale Church of Christ in Edmond spoke.

In a time of gloom and doom, Sears said, the church can’t just tell people it loves them.

Darrel Sears, minister for the Oakdale Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla., speaks during chapel at York University.

Darrel Sears, minister for the Oakdale Church of Christ in Edmond, Okla., speaks during chapel at York University.

It must show them, he said, and that includes how Christians treat the wait staff at post-worship Sunday lunch.

“If there is to be hope for the church,” Sears emphasized, “there must be love from the church.”

“Preach!” someone in the crowd responded.

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. He traveled to Nebraska to report this story. Reach him at [email protected].


More photos

Michael Case, longtime Bible professor at York University, displays the Minister's Heart Award. Case was the inaugural recipient of the honor presented at the Equip Conference.

Michael Case, longtime Bible professor at York University, displays the Minister’s Heart Award. Case was the inaugural recipient of the honor presented at the Equip Conference.

Walter Clark hugs a friend during the Equip Conference. Clark, minister for the Bismarck Church of Christ in North Carolina, traveled to Nebraska with his wife, Cindy.

Walter Clark hugs a friend during the Equip Conference. Clark, minister for the Bismarck Church of Christ in North Dakota, traveled to Nebraska with his wife, Cindy.

Old friends and new gather for chapel at York University during the Equip Conference.

Old friends and new gather for chapel at York University during the Equip Conference.

Students and Equip Conference attendees stand to sing during chapel at York University.

Students and Equip Conference attendees stand to sing during chapel at York University.

Filed under: Christian universities church trends declining numbers Equip Conference Minnesota National Nebraska News North Dakota Partners political polarization post-pandemic Small churches Top Stories York University

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