Starting Over Again

Although there are 28,000 students at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta, only 2,800 of them live on campus. The rest of the students commute to school, making their commitment to any campus organization unlikely.

But Nick Johnson believes that GSU’s urban campus has the potential to be strategic in reaching Atlanta. Nick has faced the challenge of ministering to a transient college community. He has been faithful in following God and has seen God at work among his students who live throughout the Atlanta area.

When Nick was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, he became a Christian through the Greek InterVarsity chapter there. After graduation, he felt God calling him to reach Greek students at Emory; he responded by volunteering with InterVarsity before joining staff in 2004.

Attracted to a needy campus
In 2007, one of Nick’s InterVarsity students gave him the name of a Greek student at GSU who was interested in starting a Bible study. The more Nick met with the GSU student, the more he realized the need for a more cohesive Christian presence at GSU.

Apart from meeting with a student to start a Bible study, other aspects of Nick’s life had also been preparing him for a transition from Emory to GSU. Along with his wife Liz, Nick has a strong conviction to live out the gospel of Jesus.

Motivated by this conviction, he and his wife moved into a poor neighborhood, which happened to be very close to GSU’s campus. Their move, combined with the need for Christian community at GSU, caused Nick to think about whether God was calling him to plant a chapter there.

Planting a new chapter
After much prayer, and with encouragement from his area director, Nick decided to launch a Greek Chapter at GSU. He put up banners to advertise InterVarsity and set up a table and sign-up sheet to gather names of interested students – over 60 students wrote their names on the sheet, the majority of whom were not fraternity and sorority students. Nick became convinced that God was calling him to a more expansive ministry and not only to the Greeks.

When Nick started planting a chapter last fall, he immediately felt the challenge of establishing a Christian ministry on a commuter campus. “The campus often feels dead because it’s so spread out, and so many students don’t live on campus,” Nick said.

Historically there has not been a culture of student involvement at GSU. Even fraternities and sororities, which typically have a close-knit and involved community, have a hard time garnering active participation. But Nick was persistent and sure of the need for a Christian presence.

Casting a city-wide vision
As Nick began gathering students committed to Jesus into a community, he cast a vision for the fledgling chapter to bring spiritual renewal to GSU and Atlanta. “Our vision,” he explained, “is to grow a diverse community of people at GSU who follow Jesus, living in such a way that our lives and the lives of our friends are transformed. We want to see new life on this campus, and the city of Atlanta changed.”

Nick lives his life authentically and encourages his students to do the same. And his incarnational lifestyle crosses into his ministry to students. He encourages his students to live at a higher level. He provides many opportunities for them to grow in their faith. Recently, the InterVarsity chapter has taken steps to bring awareness and action to the campus about the problem of sex-trafficking taking place in Atlanta through events on campus.

Students have also grown in boldness to share their faith, and seven students have decided to follow Jesus. At the close of the school year about 40 students regularly attended InterVarsity events – a great accomplishment for a brand new chapter. And as the InterVarsity chapter grows in number, it also has grown in diversity – about 40% of the students are white, 40% black, 10% Latino, and 10% Asian. Nick is thrilled that the chapter has so successfully embraced ethnic diversity. And he is likewise thrilled that the students are taking to heart the things that God has been teaching them, and doing through them this year.

Nick has a passion and determination for what he does. He said, “I’m praying that our chapter will continue to grow in prayer, justice, witness, and multi-ethnicity.” His hopes are lofty, but he trusts God that they are attainable. Nick laid the foundation for a strong chapter, a chapter that has found the balance between developing a strong community and reaching out to their campus and their community.